James Earl Ray
James Earl Ray (March 10th, 1928 - April 23rd, 1998) was an American criminal convicted of the assassination of civil rights and anti-war activist Martin Luther King Jr.
Ray was convicted on March 10th, 1969, after entering a guilty plea to forgo a jury trial. Had he been found guilty by jury trial, he would have been eligible for the death penalty. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He later recanted his confession and tried unsuccessfully to gain a new trial. He died in prison of Hepatitis C.
Ray was born on March 10, 1928 in Alton, Illinois, the son of Lucille (née Maher) and George Ellis Ray. He had Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestry and had a Catholic upbringing.
In February 1935, Ray's father, known by the nickname Speedy, passed a bad check in Alton, Illinois, then moved to Ewing, Missouri, where the family changed their name to Raynes to avoid law enforcement. Ray was the first born of nine children, including John Larry Ray, Franklin Ray, Jerry William Ray, Melba Ray, Carol Ray Pepper, Suzan Ray, and Marjorie Ray. His sister Marjorie died in a fire as a young child. Ray left school at the age of fifteen. He later joined the U.S. Army at the close of World War II and served in Germany, although Ray struggled to adapt to military life and was eventually discharged for ineptness and lack of adaptability in 1948.
Ray's first conviction for criminal activity, a burglary in California, came in 1949. In 1952, he served two years for the armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois. In 1955, Ray was convicted of mail fraud after stealing money orders in Hannibal, Missouri, then forging them to take a trip to Florida. He served four years in Leavenworth. In 1959, Ray was caught stealing $120 in an armed robbery of a St. Louis Kroger store. Ray was sentenced to twenty years in prison for repeated offenses. He escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967 by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery.
Following his escape, Ray stayed on the move throughout the United States and Canada, going first to St. Louis and then onwards to Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, and Birmingham, Alabama, where he stayed long enough to buy a 1966 Ford Mustang and get an Alabama driver's license. He then drove to Mexico, stopping in Acapulco before settling down in Puerto Vallarta on October 19, 1967.
While in Mexico, Ray, using the alias Eric Starvo Galt, attempted to establish himself as a pornographic film director. Using mail-ordered equipment, he filmed and photographed local prostitutes. Frustrated with his results and jilted by the prostitute with whom he had formed a relationship, Ray left Mexico on or around November 16, 1967.
Ray returned to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles on November 19, 1967. While in Los Angeles, Ray attended a local bartending school and took dance lessons. His chief interest, however, was the George Wallace presidential campaign. Ray harbored a strong prejudice against black people and was quickly drawn to Wallace's segregationist platform. He spent much of his time in Los Angeles volunteering at the Wallace campaign headquarters in North Hollywood.
He considered emigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where a predominantly white minority regime had unilaterally assumed independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. The notion of living in Rhodesia continued to appeal to Ray for several years afterwards, and it was his intended destination after King's assassination. The Rhodesian government expressed its disapproval.
On March 5, 1968, Ray underwent a facial reconstruction (rhinoplasty), performed by Dr. Russell Hadley. On March 18, 1968, Ray left Los Angeles and began a cross-country drive to Atlanta, Georgia.
Arriving in Atlanta on March 24, 1968, Ray checked into a rooming house. He bought a map of the city. FBI agents later found this map when they searched the room in which he was staying in Atlanta. On the map, the locations of the church and residence of Martin Luther King Jr. were circled.
Ray was soon on the road again and drove his Mustang to Birmingham, Alabama. There, on March 30, 1968, he bought a Remington Model 760 Gamemaster .30-06-caliber rifle and a box of 20 cartridges from the Aeromarine Supply Company. He also bought a Redfield 2x-7x scope, which he had mounted to the rifle. He told the shopkeepers that he was going on a hunting trip with his brother. Ray had continued using the Galt alias after his stint in Mexico, but when he made this purchase, he gave his name as Harvey Lowmeyer.
After purchasing the rifle and accessories, Ray drove back to Atlanta. An avid newspaper reader, Ray passed his time reading the Atlanta Constitution. The paper reported King's planned return trip to Memphis, Tennessee, which was scheduled for April 1, 1968. On April 2, 1968, Ray packed a bag and drove to Memphis.
On April 4, 1968, Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot fired from his Remington rifle, while King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly after the shot was fired, witnesses saw Ray fleeing from a rooming house across the street from the motel; he had been renting a room in the house at the time. A package was abandoned close to the site that included a rifle and binoculars, both found with Ray's fingerprints.
Ray fled to Atlanta in his white Ford Mustang, driving eleven hours. He picked up his belongings and fled north to Canada, arriving in Toronto three days later, where he hid for over a month and acquired a Canadian passport under the false name of Ramon George Sneyd. He left Toronto in late May on a flight to England. He stayed briefly in Lisbon, Portugal, and returned to London.
On June 8, 1968, two months after King's death, Ray was arrested at London Heathrow Airport attempting to leave the United Kingdom for Brussels on a false Canadian passport. At check-in, the ticket agent noticed the name on his passport, Sneyd, was on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police watchlist.
At the airport, officials noticed that Ray carried another passport under a second name. The UK quickly extradited Ray to Tennessee, where he was charged with King's murder. He confessed to the crime on March 10, 1969, his 41st birthday, and after pleading guilty he was sentenced to 99 years in prison.