Did James Earl Ray act alone?

A Minneapolis author helps raise new questions about the King assassination

Barsten, who teaches aspiring hairdressers at the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis, has lectured about the King murder at the Congressional Black Caucus and has delivered, by his own estimate, more than 25 speeches at conferences and universities across the nation.

In researching Truth At Last, Barsten, who completed a year of college at the University of Wisconsin, submitted more than 4,000 Freedom of Information Act requests, scrutinized the records of James Ray's 7892nd Infantry Regiment, and spent hundreds of hours over the past several years with John Larry Ray.

The 211-page book, long on anecdote and virtually devoid of attribution, is the latest "untold story" to stock bookshelves already teeming with assorted conspiratorial tomes on the King assassination. Theories on King's murder run far and wide, pointing the finger at Lyndon Johnson or the FBI or the U.S. military. Some suggest the deed was done by the owner of a Memphis diner, or by the Mob.

James Earl Ray
courtesy of John Larry Ray
James Earl Ray
John Ray claims his brother didn't act alone
Jennifer Silverberg
John Ray claims his brother didn't act alone

The central premise in the Ray-Barsten version of events is that James Earl Ray, while in the army in the late 1940s, was subjected to numerous mind-control experiments. Truth At Last argues that Ray was often administered hallucinogens, including LSD, and that two years before the assassination he was under the influence of several government-connected hypnotists.

"James Earl Ray was almost certainly a programmed obedient patsy," asserts Barsten. "He was brainwashed. If you look into hypnotism, you'll find that 5 to 10 percent of people are very susceptible to it. And James was one of those."

In laying out their argument, Barsten and John Ray claim there's no credible way James Earl Ray could have killed King—that the angle from which the fatal shot was fired proves that the shot could not have come from Ray's flophouse room, and that the slug embedded in King did not match the remaining bullets in Ray's Remington rifle. Like many other King conspiracy theorists, Barsten and Ray also argue that the plot and execution of the crime were far too complicated for an assassin to have acted alone.

But Truth At Last's main thrust originates with the revelation of a single seminal event: A purported shooting in 1948 of a black soldier named Washington, which, Ray and Barsten argue at great length, led James Earl Ray down a ruinous path that decades later would lead him to enter his fateful guilty plea:

While on duty as an MP in Occupied Germany, Jimmy spent much of his time arresting AWOL soldiers. In so doing, James was involved in several shootings, but there was one particular shooting of a soldier that had a major impact on James, haunting him for the rest of his life.

In this incident, James wounded an African-American soldier named Washington, from Tennessee.... James felt horrible about shooting this soldier—horrible in a life-altering way. For the rest of his life, James appeared to be plagued with guilt, and always grasping for a deeper understanding of the shooting. Later, when speaking about the King case, he'd say, 'It all goes back to the shooting of [that] soldier, Washington.'

The shooting, according to John Ray, severed Washington's spinal cord and made him a cripple for the rest of his life. "James tried to find him when he got out the service, but never could," says Ray.

Adds Barsten: "James never wanted to shoot this man. But I believe this was a test to see whether he'd do something against his will. I personally believe this was an early mind-control operation."

Barsten, however, concedes he was unable to find any military records that indicated Ray was involved in a shooting or that he served with a soldier named Washington. "It is all based on John's word," Barsten says.

Back home in Quincy, John Ray zips his black leather jacket against the chill and tries again to understand why his brother pled guilty to killing King.

"I never knew why he did it. It shocked me, because there was no evidence that James had done this," says Ray. "I think it all had to do with that soldier, Washington."

But how? It doesn't make sense.

"I know," he says.

In the book Ray recounts the 1974 visit he made to his brother's cell at the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. Asked to elaborate, Ray says his brother told him, "'I had no choice. Because they were going to bring all this stuff out about the shooting of Washington and they were going to make a race case out of it.'"

Adds Barsten: "I know that this plea bargain does seem hard to make any sense of."

• • • • •

IN THE LATE FALL of 1967, John Larry Ray purchased a building on Arsenal Street in south St. Louis and opened a tavern. To pay for the building, Ray says, he plunked down the better part of $25,000 James had given him—money the elder Ray said he'd received from the Mob. John Ray first thought of calling his new bar Jack's Place, but he ultimately decided on the Grapevine Tavern, an homage to the "prison grapevine."

The tavern opened New Year's Day 1968. Almost immediately, it became a magnet for government informants and two-bit criminals, and a popular watering hole for supporters of segregationist and American Independent Party candidate George Wallace, whose campaign headquarters was on the same block. ("We had his buttons and posters and everything. I voted for Wallace," says Ray. "Now, James—he always liked Nixon.")

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