NPR logo

'Hellhound': Following Martin Luther King's Killer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126230568/126241871" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Hellhound': Following Martin Luther King's Killer

Author Interviews

'Hellhound': Following Martin Luther King's Killer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126230568/126241871" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

WEEKEND EDITION: How can a dim-witted fiend bring down a genuine hero? In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most revered people in the world, despite a growing list of personal problems and disappointments. He was eloquent, beloved and brave. James Earl Ray was sullen, inarticulate and eminently unnoticeable. Each traveled the country - one to inspire, the other fueled by purposeless rage.

L, Host:

The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." Hampton Sides, whose previous bestsellers include "Blood and Thunder", "Ghost Soldiers," joins us from Stepford Studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Hampton, thanks for being with us.

HAMPTON SIDES: Thanks for having me on the show.

: Can you say even now - and your book certainly convinces me that James Early Ray was in large part motivated by racial hatred - but can you say even now when and how he got fixed on assassinating Martin Luther King?

SIDES: When he was in prison, he was certainly a racist. He talked about killing King. At one point he talked about it being his retirement plan. He liked to study the JFK assassination to see where Oswald had gone wrong. He kind of fancied himself as an aficionado of assassinations.

But it really wasn't until he went to Los Angeles about a month before the assassination that it becomes clear that he's gathering focus and energy and concentration on this idea.

Martin Luther King came to Los Angeles to give a series of speeches in mid-March - March 17th and 18th.

: And we should explain: James Earl Ray then is living in a cheap motel - hotel. He's an escaped con.

SIDES: He's an escaped con sort of staying under the radar. He's doing all kinds of weird things, like reading self-help books and taking dancing lessons. Also, he got a nose job. He's really into bartending. He just graduated from a bartending class. He's - hypnosis is another thing he's gotten into. He seems to be struggling almost desperately to find something that will stick, you know, something that he can do. So, you know, this is kind of the background.

Martin Luther King comes to Los Angeles, gives a series of speeches in which he's talking about this poor people's campaign that he's going to lead in Washington. And something clearly set Ray off, because the very next day he puts in a change of address form for Atlanta, Georgia.

Ray has absolutely no connection to Atlanta. He's never been there before, as far as we know. But he's moving to King's hometown. And he gets into his 1966 Mustang and heads east for Atlanta.

: You have to ask for the umpteenth time when you read the jarring section in your book - James Earl Ray is firing through the window of the bathroom and hits Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel - how was an escaped con able to stalk one of the best known people on the planet without resources and without detection?

SIDES: You have to kind of break it down. In terms of the marksmanship question, how did he do this? I've been on the balcony and I've been in the flop house, which is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, and you see the shot, it was about 200 feet, with a 7- power scope, which is what he had. He had been in the Army. He'd trained with that exact caliber of weapon.

But in terms of stalking King, you know, he had gone to Atlanta, he had mapped out King's world. And there were maps found in his flop house that showed that he'd been, you know, he'd circled King's house and circled King's church and place of work.

But see, King had been traveling almost nonstop, had almost never been in Atlanta. So Ray had to go elsewhere. He actually - he followed him to Selma at one point. But then it was reported in the newspapers that King was going to be coming back to Memphis to lead a march. That gave him some time to react.

King came to Memphis. Ray followed him. And it was reported in the newspaper that King's group was staying at the Lorraine Motel.

: How did it happen that the FBI, which had done so much to hound and harass and even threaten Dr. King's life, mount what turned out to be the largest operation in its history and, in your account, acquitted itself very well indeed?

SIDES: You know, I think I went into this project with a bias against the FBI, assuming that they must've dragged their feet. They must've not really wanted to find the killer. But as you get into the MURKIN files and you start reading the - all these FD302 reports and, you know, just all - hundreds and even thousands of false leads that were pursued, and you get into the police work that was going on with, you know, fibers and fingerprints and tiny laundry tags - and you know, people were saying, oh, Hoover doesn't know what he's doing. And you know, as the days became weeks and the weeks became months, people were assuming that the FBI was just a bunch of fools.

And - but very patiently and very quietly they were assembling this case. And I was very impressed with the level of just sheer police work that was going on.

: And in the end, James Earl Ray was betrayed by his underwear.

SIDES: Just after the assassination, when Ray left the flophouse, he spotted some cops out on the street and had to throw down this bundle of belongings. In that bundle was everything needed to solve the crime.

But one of the items in the bundle was some shorts. And these shorts had a little laundry tag in them with a tiny number that the FBI was able to trace to a manufacturer in Syracuse, New York who said, yes, we made this thing, it's called a thermo-seal tape and it most likely was stamped by a machine that was sold to a laundry out in Los Angeles.

This led the FBI to Los Angeles. They finally found the laundry where James Earl Ray had been taking his laundry every week. And in a sense that's what solved the case, because they got an address, the address led to a photograph and so on and so on. But his fastidious laundering is in a way what sank him.

: Had he just washed his boxer shorts in a sink and hung them out to dry, history might have been different.

SIDES: Exactly.

: Your book also makes it plain that the FBI couldn't have cracked the case without the Mounties and Scotland Yard.

SIDES: Well, yeah. I mean it's very much an international case. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were able to, by going through every passport application that had come through Ottawa in the months after the assassination, they were able to find someone named Ramon George Snade, who looked an awful lot like James Earl Ray, and in fact it was Ray. That was a lynchpin in solving the case.

But it was ultimately Scotland Yard that found Ray as he was boarding a plane for Brussels at Heathrow Airport. He was trying to ultimately get to Rhodesia or somewhere in southern Africa, where he believed that he could play a role as a mercenary soldier and where he would not be extradited back to the United States.

: And then at Heathrow he had, or history had, the good fortune of him falling into the clutches of, I guess, a legendary Scotland Yard superintendent, Thomas Butler.

SIDES: Tommy Butler had solved a number of high-profile cases, including one called the Great Train Robbery. You know, he was just this master interrogator. Ray had a gun on him at the time. He had a revolver, a loaded revolver, in his pocket when they frisked him at the airport. Tommy Butler began to ask him, well, why are you carrying this gun? He said, well, I'm going to Rhodesia, you know, there's lots of trouble down there.

And he said, What would you do down in Rhodesia? And the conversation just circled very slowly to Tommy Butler finally saying, You know, I don't believe you're Ramon Snade. I believe your name is James Earl Ray and you're wanted for serious crimes in which a firearm was discharged in the United States. And this interrogation ultimately happened at Scotland Yard headquarters right by Big Ben, you know, right by the Thames. You know, in the heart of the British empire this interrogation is taking place, and they finally break him down.

: There are a lot of people who will never accept that James Earl Ray acted alone.

SIDES: Of course.

: And part of the curiosity is, they wonder how could an escaped convict move around not just his country but also Canada, Portugal and the United Kingdom without help.

SIDES: Yes, I do think Ray did it, but I do leave in the book a lot of doors ajar about what sort of level of help he might have had. Help in terms of gathering those aliases. He had all these different aliases who were actual people, most of them living in a suburb of Toronto - Eric Gault, Paul Bridgeman, Ramon George Snade. He must have had some help getting these names.

The question of money is the biggest central question that has never been fully answered. But he himself said that the whole time he was on the lam, he was involved in smuggling schemes, fencing schemes, robberies. He did rob a bank in London and he did rob a jewelry store in London. He wouldn't have done those things if he wasn't desperate for money.

So if he had some help in terms of a conspiracy financing him, they clearly hadn't given him very much money. He lived dirt cheap in most, in all these flop houses. He mostly ate in his room with, like, powdered soups and - you know, he wasn't living high on the hog.

Every step along the way there's lots of questions that will never be answered truly because Ray never told the truth. He said this guy named Raul was the guy who actually pulled the trigger. You know, he went to his grave with all these secrets that unfortunately we'll probably never have the answers to.

: Hampton Sides - his new book, "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." Thanks so much, Hampton.

SIDES: Thank you, Scott.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.