Did James Earl Ray act alone?

A Minneapolis author helps raise new questions about the King assassination

According to Barsten's research, and from what John Ray has told Barsten of those days, the Wallace pamphlets were furnished to the Grapevine by St. Louis police officers who, in exchange for this political kindness, promised to look the other way if Ray kept the bar open an extra couple of hours past closing time.

In the book, John Ray recounts—and dismisses—the story of John Kaufmann, a former St. Louis stockbroker, and a local patent attorney named John Sutherland, both of whom were active in the Wallace campaign. The men were said to have offered Russell Byers, a notorious local art thief, a $50,000 bounty in late 1967 or early 1968 to kill Martin Luther King.

"That was all made up," grouses John Ray. "That committee made it up to justify their $6 million budget."

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

Nonetheless, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in 1979 that while James Earl Ray indisputably fired the shot that killed King, it was quite possible Kauffman and Sutherland may have been "racially inspired" to put a bounty on the civil-rights leader's head.

Ray sold the Grapevine in 1969. A machine shop now occupies the premises, turning out safety glasses for industrial use.

• • • • •

ON THE AFTERNOON of April 2, 1968, the phone rang at the Grapevine. It was James Earl Ray, calling for his brother from the New Rebel Motel on the outskirts of Memphis. James said he was there to meet the next day with a government agent named "Raul," a slim, red-haired man he'd met in Canada years before, back when he ran drugs and guns. Raul, James told John, had instructed him to bring the Remington rifle with him.

"Jimmy told me he wanted me to come see him in Memphis," John Ray recalls.

From Truth At Last:

To say he was in a panic would be too strong, but he felt it was urgent.... He asked me to meet him the next night.

The next day, I put a machine gun in the trunk of my Thunderbird, and stuck a couple of handguns under the front seat on the passenger side of the T-Bird in case they were needed, just in case something was going down. James was involved with serious people.

It was now the evening of April 3, 1968. Down in Memphis, violent storms had moved into the Delta. Raul was attired in a wet trench coat, looking like a true spook when he showed up at James's room, #34 at the New Rebel Motel. Raul told Jimmy, "We're staying for a few days in Memphis. There's a place located near the waterfront where we will rent a room."

Meanwhile, John Ray says, rumors had been circulating among the Memphis police that King wouldn't leave the city alive. King famously finished his speech that night with what some took as a premonition: "And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

While King spoke, John Ray remembers, he was walking into a West Memphis tavern to meet James. "He was drinking a few beers, which I thought was odd, because he didn't like beer—said it gave him headaches," Ray recounts. "He told me he was going to do a job, but he didn't know what it was, only that he was going to be the getaway driver. Then he told me he needed to go, that he had to meet some people back across the river."

Ray pauses. "I don't remember him even mentioning King's name or that he knew that he was in Memphis," says Ray. "And then I saw him leaving, walking out of the bar into the alley. It was like a scene from Casablanca."

• • • • •

ON JANUARY 15, 1999, John Ray mailed a short, typo-specked letter to Coretta Scott King. It reads:

Greetings Ms. King:

I am coming clean on Rev. Martin Luther King, jr. birthday, and making available to you a copy of James Earl Ray's confession. The information I am making herein to you about the Washington shooting and brother James' OSS [U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency] is nothing new to the feds....

If you want to get on the right trail of the shooting of Rev. King, then I suggest you asked your good friend attorney General Janet Reno why is she holding information back of soldier Washington, and James Earl Ray's OSS connection with soldier Washington and Raul.

The letter arrived several months after Attorney General Reno, at the request of President Bill Clinton, reopened a limited investigation of the assassination, which found nothing to disprove that James Earl Ray was the gunman.

Looking worn from the hours spent retracing the road to infamy, John Ray says in barely a whisper, "James got caught up in something he didn't understand. He didn't know what was going down. He just thought he'd be the getaway driver. He was never a racist. Never."

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