'Hellhound' Trails King Assassin James Earl Ray On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn. For the next two months, the man who shot him, James Earl Ray, was able to evade the FBI during a massive worldwide manhunt. Writer Hampton Sides traces the movements of both King and Ray in his new book, Hellhound on His Trail.

'Hellhound' Trails King Assassin James Earl Ray

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In 1968, writer Hampton Sides was a six-year-old boy in Memphis when Martin Luther King was assassinated there. Sides says he remembers the anger and tension among adults at the time and images of tanks in the streets to quell civil unrest.

Four decades later, Sides has returned to the subject of King's assassination. He's written a gripping account of King's murder and the hunt for his confessed assassin, James Earl Ray.

Sides carefully reconstructs the movements and activities of James Earl Ray in the months before the assassination, intercut with the story of King, the man Ray was stalking.

Hampton Sides is an editor-at-large for Outside magazine and the author of the historical books "Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his book "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin."


Well, Hampton Sides, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

The book opens with James Earl Ray in a prison in Missouri, where he escapes, climbs into a bread truck and makes it out of there. Tell us a little bit about who he was. This was in 1967, I guess about a year before the assassination. Who was this guy?

Mr. HAMPTON SIDES (Author, "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin"): Well, James Earl Ray was a career criminal. He had grown up along the Mississippi River, in a succession of impoverished towns. He came from a very dysfunctional family of mostly felons. His father was quite poor and changed his name, changed the family name repeatedly: Rains(ph), Ryan, and various permutations of the name. So some of the Rays growing up didn't know their last name until they were adults.

And, of course, Ray, as a criminal, spent most of his time coming up with aliases. He had a whole succession of them. As the story progresses, he becomes Eric Galt, Harvey Lowmeyer, John Willard, Ramon Sneyd, Paul Bridgeman, all these different names. So, you know, this was one of his this was his stock in trade, really, coming up with these various identities.

DAVIES: So he manages to slip out of this prison in Jefferson City, Missouri, buried among loaves in a bread truck, gets away and makes his way, eventually, to Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, and then after that goes to California under the alias of Eric Galt.

And it's sort of you know, he fits the description of a drifter, as we see him in this period, but he also seems to have ambition. Tell us about some of the steps he took to acquire vocational skills and other kind of self-improvement schemes.

Mr. SIDES: Well, he's doing some very unusual things out there in Los Angeles. He's decided at one point that he wants to become a porn director and buys a bunch of film equipment. He also gets into bartending. He graduates from a bartending school. He's taking a correspondence course in locksmithing. And he's taking dancing lessons at a dance school to learn the cha-cha and the foxtrot and various other steps.

He's getting deep into various self-help books, including this one in particular called "Psycho-Cybernetics." Hypnosis is one of his things. He gets a nose job just one month before the assassination.

So, you know, what does all this all add up to? I mean, it's a very curious combination of interests, but, you know, the thing that kind of galvanizes him in late 1967 and early 1968 is the George Wallace for president campaign. He becomes a volunteer. He's quite interested in doing whatever he can to help Wallace get on the ballot in California.

And I think that that's what begins to kind of give some coherence to all of these rather desperate and kind of eclectic interests that he has out there in Los Angeles.

DAVIES: Now, Wallace, of course, was an ultra-conservative populist and had a history, of course, of opposing integration. What do we know of James Earl Ray's racial attitudes?

Mr. SIDES: Well, he was a racist. He had talked in prison about how killing King would be a retirement plan for him. He was into the John Birch Society. He was also quite interested in Rhodesia, which was the breakaway state in Southern Africa, now Zimbabwe, that was run by Ian Smith, and he inquired about how he might immigrate there.

DAVIES: And it was essentially an apartheid state, right?

Mr. SIDES: It was. It was a segregationist, rogue state that had no extradition treaty with the U.S.

DAVIES: You said that he might have said in prison that killing Martin Luther King would be his retirement plan? Meaning what?

Mr. SIDES: Meaning that he would connect with bounties that he had heard about. In prison, there was a number of rumors going around of Southern business men's associations and white citizens' councils who were floating bounties on King's head, and he thought, well, this is a possible business scheme for me.

He also considered himself an aficionado of the JFK assassination and kind of studied it and analyzed it and tried to figure out what mistakes Oswald had made and, you know, became, I guess got this idea that he, you know, might have been able to do it better.

DAVIES: Now, in the year that you document Ray's movements leading up to the assassination of King, you know, I don't recall seeing much of anything in the way of real, human relationships or friendships -beyond, you know, I guess some regular contact he had with Mexican prostitutes. Would this the behavior of somebody keeping to himself because he's on the lam from the law, or did he have trouble connecting with people?

Mr. SIDES: He had a lot of trouble connecting with people, and, in fact, a lot of the books that he was reading, these self-help books were books that were basically urging people, you know, giving advice about how you can make friends and how you can find happiness and find meaning and purpose in your life.

And, you know, you get that sense throughout his period in Los Angeles that he is desperately trying to find some sort of purpose and desperately trying to find some happiness: the dancing school business. You know, the people there at the dancing school said he was the kind of person who needed to learn how to dance. He needed to connect.

He needed some sort of human connection. Almost his whole life, he had been a loner and had very few friends and very few people that he trusted. And I think that that's a part of his personality that carries through to the very end of his life.

DAVIES: At what point in James Earl Ray's wanderings does he appear to be stalking Martin Luther King?

Mr. SIDES: It becomes much clearer that he's following King around March 17th, March 18th. He's living in Los Angeles in a cheap hotel when Martin Luther King comes to Los Angeles to give a series of talks about his upcoming and very controversial Poor People's Campaign.

And something he said must have set Ray off because he's only a few miles away in his hotel, and he goes to his hotel and says he's leaving tomorrow morning, puts in an order for a change of address form to Atlanta, Georgia.

DAVIES: So he moves from this is James Earl Ray, moves from California to Atlanta, Georgia. It's a big move, right.

Mr. SIDES: It's a big move, and it's not a city that he has any known connection to or any friends, but here he is moving to King's hometown.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Hampton Sides. His new book about James Earl Ray and Martin Luther King is called "Hellhound on His Trail." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer and historian Hampton Sides. His new book is called "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin."

So James Earl Ray is in California, then moves to the deep South only weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King would occur. Let's talk a little bit about Martin Luther King and where he was. What generally was his frame of mind in these final weeks of his life?

Mr. SIDES: This is a very different Martin Luther King than I think most of us are familiar with. He had been getting death threats for, really, his whole career, but in those last few weeks and months, he was getting more of them, and they were the whole thing was intensifying. He had developed enemies and lost a lot of his allies in Washington because of his criticism of the Vietnam War, and it felt like he was in danger of being outflanked by the black power movement.

He was not sleeping very well. He was smoking. He was eating too much and gaining weight. His marriage with Coretta was unraveling. It was a very dark and very intense and desperate time for him, and he had just hatched this very controversial Poor People's Campaign, which was, essentially, the idea was to build an enormous shantytown on the Mall in Washington, bring the poor people of - all over the country, not just African-Americans, but American Indians and people from Appalachia, from all walks of life to Washington to stage this sort of protest at the feet of Capitol Hill to protest the conditions in the ghettos and systemic multi-generational poverty.

This was a very, very controversial and heavily criticized phase of the movement. King had essentially decided to shift his focus from civil rights to economic justice. And so this is kind of where he was at when he got the phone call to come to Memphis to represent the garbage workers who had gone on strike.

DAVIES: I was going to ask you about that. Explain just a little bit about this sanitation workers' strike and why it brought Martin Luther King to Memphis and what sort of challenges that posed for him and his movement.

Mr. SIDES: Mm-hmm. His advisors thought that coming to Memphis was a real mistake, that it was quite a kind of left turn for him to be making, that he should be focused on this thing in Washington exclusively. But, you know, he couldn't ignore what was happening in Memphis.

These guys were striking for better wages and for better conditions after a horrible accident in which two garbage workers had been ground up in a faulty hydraulic truck mechanism.

And when he came to Memphis, he decided he would lead a march down Biele Street, the historic avenue of the blues, and this was going to be it. He would leave Memphis, and he would go back to Washington and start recruiting for this bigger cause that he was pushing for.

DAVIES: But the march really went very wrong, didn't it?

Mr. SIDES: The march got taken over by black militants and high school students who were just out for a good time, and it turned violent. And there was looting and smashing of windows, and the cops descended on everyone. And it was really a nightmare for Martin Luther King because his whole career, of course, was staked on nonviolence, and here he was appearing to be leading a violent march.

So this set up kind of the third act, which was he realized he had to come back to Memphis yet again to lead another march that would be peaceful, and it was that third appearance in Memphis that got him killed.

DAVIES: Now according to the evidence that the FBI later developed, we know that James Earl Ray had a map with places in Atlanta where Martin Luther King might have been found. So it's clear he had an interest in his movements. Where did he go to finally get the perch from which he would fire the fatal shot?

Mr. SIDES: Ray ended up checking into a flophouse on South Main, which was directly across from the Lorraine Motel. He was shown a room that faced toward Main Street, which would be the other side of the building, and he immediately said no, thank you. I don't want that.

And then he was shown a room on the back side that faced the Lorraine, and he immediately took that and paid a week's rent, which makes me think, makes most of us think that he was thinking he'd be there a while, that he probably wasn't going to be doing an assassination from that room, that he was simply going to use that room as a perch to follow King's movements, thinking the lawyers are going to be working this out for weeks - for at least days, up to a week, until they would actually get to do this march. So I don't think he thought the assassination would take place there.

DAVIES: As it happened, his opportunity came that very day. Now, did he actually have a shot at King from the room that he rented?

Mr. SIDES: He did, but he would have had to have leaned out over the window and expose himself. The angle is less than ideal. The only way he could really get a direct shot was to go down to the communal bathroom, which was this filthy room, you know, down the hall that had a direct shot if he stood in the bathtub.

After the assassination, the police found that the window in the bathroom had been jerked up about five inches. The screen had been jimmied from its groove, and there was a palm print on the wall, and various people in the flophouse had heard a shot coming from that bathroom. So it became pretty clear that's where the shot came from.

DAVIES: So it appears that James Earl Ray took the rifle, which he had purchased recently, from his room down to the bathroom, where he could get a clear look at King, who, as it turned out, was lingering on his balcony. You also note that he realized that he needed some binoculars to really follow his movements. He went out and bought those.

When it came time to get a shot - it's interesting. He loaded only a single round into the weapon.

Mr. SIDES: Right.

DAVIES: How hard or easy a shot was this for a guy who obviously was not a trained marksman?

Mr. SIDES: You know, I've stood on the balcony, and I've stood in the flophouse, which is now a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. It's an easy shot. It's about 200 feet. With a seven-power scope, which is what he had, it would appear to be about 30 feet. King's face would've almost completely filled the optical plane of the scope.

He was not a trained or, you know, professional marksman, but he had been in the Army and had fired that very caliber of weapon. And I don't think, you know, in the end, you know, the shot itself was actually fairly easy.

DAVIES: King was lingering on the balcony with some friends because they were about to go out to dinner, and you write that he was in a jovial and relaxed mood when he was hit by this shot, which caught him on the jaw and did terrible damage.

The police were actually watching from a perch very nearby. Why?

Mr. SIDES: The Memphis police had been following King and his entourage everywhere, and also a local black power group called the Invaders, who were in negotiations with King. So they had two black policemen in this firehouse that happened to face the Lorraine, looking at events through a peephole.

So, you know, there were people watching this from various vantage points. And, you know, when this shot rang out, these policemen all ran outside from the firehouse and ran towards the Lorraine, trying to figure out, you know, which direction did the shot come from.

DAVIES: And the firehouse was literally next door to the boarding house that Ray was perched in?

Mr. SIDES: It's across the street. And again, it's about, like, 200, maybe 250 feet away.

DAVIES: It does seem remarkable that with the police in a firehouse very nearby that James Earl Ray was able to fire this shot, which was heard by lots of people, and then slip away. How close did he come to getting caught then?

Mr. SIDES: Within 30 seconds. He ran down the stairs, and he took a left turn. He was running towards his car, which was a white Mustang that was parked on the street, when he saw some policemen who were gathered around that fire station.

And he had to do a very impulsive thing. On one level, you could say this was a really stupid act. He ditched the weapon. Everything needed to solve that case was in that bundle with the weapon and various other belongings that he had there. But if he hadn't done that, he would have been caught immediately with the weapons in his arms. So, you know, he really, he had to do that.

He jumped in the car and took off, and there were several witnesses there who saw the white Mustang as it took off heading north on Main Street. So, you know, he came probably within 30 seconds of getting caught.

DAVIES: And because there were witnesses, and because someone discovered the weapon stashed, I guess, in the vestibule of a little shop right away, the police were able to get out a report very quickly that they were looking for a man in a white Mustang.

Mr. SIDES: Within two minutes, the report was going out, looking for, you know, a white male, well-dressed - because he was wearing a suit -in a white Mustang heading north on Main Street.

They found that bundle there, and the bundle had, you know, it had the weapon. It had the scope. It had the ammunition. It had the binoculars that he had just bought at York Arms, which was a local sporting goods store. And it had a number of interesting belongings - like, for example, a transistor radio that had Ray's prison number on it. It was a radio that he had bought at the state penitentiary in Missouri. They didn't know what the numbers meant yet, but it turned out to be his prison ID number: 416J.

There was also a number of other articles, the local newspaper, which mentioned in it that King and his entourage were staying at the Lorraine, and a number of toiletry items that turned out to have Ray's fingerprints on them.

DAVIES: Well, for two months, he managed to evade the FBI, which despite Hoover's antipathy for King, was actively investigating this, throwing all of the resources they could into it. He finds his way to Canada. He takes the bus up to Canada because border crossings were easy there, and then he figured out how to get a passport and airline ticket out of the country. And some conspiracy theorists will say there's no way this small-time criminal could have figured this out. Tell us how he did it, and what your assessment is.

Mr. SIDES: Well, he says that he went to the local library, looked back through some old issues of Toronto newspapers and found some birth notices. And on the basis of those names from, you know, from people born about the same year that he was born, he applied for a birth certificate. And the authorities in Ottawa gave him the birth certificate. And then, on the basis of having the birth certificate, he applied for a passport. And they gave him a passport.

The saying in Canada was welcome to Canada. We trust you. It was unbelievably easy to get a passport to leave the country at that time. All you had to do, really, is say you were the person you said you were. That was good enough. There was no the paperwork was just unbelievably easy, and I think Ray himself was surprised at how easy it was.

So getting the passport actually proved it took a few weeks, but it really was very low-tech and very inexpensive and not complicated at all.

DAVIES: And he had a new alias now.

Mr. SIDES: Yeah, during this whole period, he's been changing aliases. You know, he went from being Galt to when he bought the gun, his name was Harvey Lowmeyer. And then when he checked into that flophouse in Memphis, his name was John Willard. He came back to Atlanta, ditched the car, took the bus up to Toronto and became very quickly Paul Bridgeman, and then Ramon George Sneyd. And that's the name, Sneyd, that he traveled on to London and on to Lisbon and then back to London briefly, where he was caught.

GROSS: Hampton Sides will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Sides' new book is called "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's continue the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Hampton Sides, about his new book "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." The book reconstructs James Earl Ray's activities in the months before he assassinated King, intercut with the story of King's effort to hold together and expand the Civil Rights Movement.

When we left off, Sides was talking about James Earl Ray's final days on the lam and his capture in London.

DAVE DAVIES: James Earl Ray, after being captured in London, was extradited to the United States. He confessed and was sentenced to life in prison. He later recanted his confession and spent years talking about all this, wrote two books, gave interviews to Playboy and other media and told stories that there was another guy, probably the gunman, somebody named Raul. And this got some currency with members of the Martin Luther King family. His son Dexter came, took up the cause and believed that James Earl Ray deserved a new trial.

What do you make of what Ray said about this?

Mr. SIDES: It's very difficult to understand his whole story. You know, he plea bargained after the plea bargain, he said, all right, here's the real story. Yeah, it's true, I bought the gun. I bought the scope. I bought the ammunition. I did come to Memphis just before the assassination and checked into that flophouse. That was me. I did go down to York Arms to buy that set of binoculars, one two hours before the assassination. Yeah, that was me. I did come back to the flophouse and I did leave the scene of the crime one minute after the assassination in the getaway car that everyone saw there on South Main. That was all me. And I did go to Atlanta and ditched the car and go on this long getaway to Toronto and London and all that. But there was just, you know, there was just this other guy named Raul who actually pulled the trigger. That was his defense.

And, you know, it's like, well, all right. Who is Raul? Do we have a photograph or do we have an address? Do we have a single witness who ever saw Ray in the same room with this guy? No. We don't have a physical description that's consistent. We don't have any information about this guy.

And so, naturally, a lot of people began to suspect that Raul was just another alias that he made up in a lifelong career of making up aliases. I came to the conclusion that Raul did not exist and that he was a figment of Ray's imagination. Maybe kind of like his imaginary friend who, in fact, maybe did tell him to do these things. But the idea turned on the notion that Raul was dictating his movements for the whole year that he was on the lam.

And, you know, it presupposes that Ray was trusting enough and was that stupid, essentially, to follow orders from a person he didn't even know. Ray had spent his whole career being, you know, very cagey and very cautious. Didn't trust anyone, not even his own brothers really, and yet, supposedly, he trusted this guy Raul with his life.

But nonetheless, I think it is a testament to Ray's craftiness that he was able to convince members of the inner circle, members of the King family that he was innocent, that this guy Raul existed. It was kind of the final act of craftiness on his part that he was able to convince people close to King that he was not only innocent but, you know, this whole fiction of Raul might've been true.

DAVIES: You don't discount the notion that he might've had if not an accomplice, at least some financial support. I mean, there was a St. Louis segregationist named John Sutherland who was said to have offered a $50,000 bounty on the life of Martin Luther King. How do you assess these notions?

Mr. SIDES: Well, I think it's quite possible that he knew about that bounty. It's not clear that he was actually paid because he robbed a bank in London. He tried to rob a jewelry store. I don't think he would've exposed himself like that if he wasn't desperate for money.

But in the end, I guess I am a conspiracist in the sense that I believe that there's ample evidence that he had some help along the way. Not this shadowy, esoteric, super-sophisticated conspiracy but a rather crude one - a handful of individuals, maybe some members of his family, maybe some criminal low lives that he associated with.

But along the path there are plenty of unanswered questions about money and about some of his movements. He spent some time in New Orleans, for example, shortly before the assassination. What was he doing there? It's not clear. How exactly did he gather all those aliases? Was it just the way he said, where he went to the library and got the names out of back issues of the newspaper or was something slightly more complicated? There are a lot of questions like that.

DAVIES: This is a fascinating account of Ray and his movements. And what I'm struck by at the end of the book is in some ways what a small guy he seemed. I mean, I'm reminded of the Hannah Arendt observation of the banality of evil. And I'm just wondering, do you feel like you understand him? Is he like Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," some tortured soul or like Timothy McVeigh, a young man who's ideologically driven? Do you feel like you get him?

Mr. SIDES: I get parts of him. You know, I think that there wasn't a single motivation so much as, you know, kind of an amalgam of sub-motivations that he kind of threw into a blender and stuck it on puree. You know, like, yes, he was a person who thought of himself as a businessman, as a hustler and it's possible that this was, you know, the ultimate business deal. Yes, he was a racist. Yes, he had a history of mental illness accentuated by years of amphetamine use. Throw all those sort of sub-motivations into this blender and I think you begin to get some sense of how he could've done this and why he could've done this.

But in the end, you're right, it's really about the banality of evil. It's about how a very hollow person can bring down a great man. And, unfortunately, we've got a long and sordid history of people like that in this country. You know, from Timothy McVeigh to John Hinckley or people who have tried to bring down great men or people who have tried to express themselves taking aim at history. Unfortunately, we have a long list of guys like that.

DAVIES: Well Hampton Sides, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SIDES: Thanks for having me on the show.

GROSS: Hampton Sides spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. James Earl Ray died in prison in 1998. Sides' new book about Ray is called "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin." You can read a chapter on our website freshair.npr.org.

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