Riding the mean streets of St. Louis with the Rev. Cornelius Osby, investigator for the circuit attorney’s office
first published in the Riverfront Times, March 2, 1994
by C.D. Stelzer
“Yeah, this one happened back in August,” says Cornelius Osby. “So it was warm. In your mind’s eye, can you imagine folks sittin’ out on a porch up here, mindin’ their own business, for the most part, and all of a sudden shots started going off?”
When the shooting stopped, one man was dead and another critically wounded. The case would be summarized in the crime roundup of the next morning’s newspaper and forgotten. But Osby still remembers.
Remembering is what he does.
For the past 16 years, Osby, 41, has been pounding the pavement as an investigator for the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office.
As part of his job, he wears a badge and a .38-caliber revolver under his suit coat. There is, however, a less temporal aspect of his identity that the investigator prefers not to conceal. He packs it every day. The Rev. Osby is the youth minister and associate pastor at the St. Luke Memorial Missionary Baptist Church on Finney Avenue.
“I’m serious about what I do on the job, and being a minister helps me a lot times because it gives me that sense of not becoming burned out and jaded,” he says. “It’s easy on this job to get anesthetized. You see dead bodies on a regular basis. You see degrading circumstances.
“I can quit the circuit’s attorney’s job as an investigator, but the ministry — I’m in it for life,” says Osby. “If I want to really have piece of mind, I have to stay in it and do everything that I’m called to do.”
Osby estimates he has investigated between 20 and 30 murders during his career. Since last year at this time, when he began working in a newly formed homicide unit established by Circuit Attorney Dee Joyce-Hayes, Osby has been involved in three more cases. “You do a whole of paperwork,” he says. It begins when the circuit attorney’s office or a grand jury issues an indictment. “You wind up getting medical records, autopsy reports, gun reports, evidence technician unit’s reports, photos — and that’s just the beginning.”
“You have to maintain contact with the witnesses for up to a year. You can send a subpoena, but that doesn’t mean much without a follow-up call,” says Osby. Then there are pretrial interviews that must be arranged, which is Osby’s task for the day. What I’m trying to do is get an established line on where these folks hang out at, how they live. So when the time comes, I have a better grasp on how to stay in touch with them, as opposed to them disappearing on me.
“You know every time a witness testifies, to a certain degree, they have apprehension. They’re apprehensive because of the neighborhood and the environment,” says Osby. A recent example of this skittishness surfaced last month, when Circuit Attorney Joyce-Hayes to plead cooperation in solving the shooting death of 29-year-old Linda Mattlock. Mattlock died from a bullet that came through the window of her apartment. Witnesses have refused to cooperate in the investigation, Joyce-Hayes said. As of last week, no one had come forward. “We’re still looking for witnesses,” says Osby. “At this point, we still don’t have anybody yet who is willing to come forward.”
Last year, the circuit attorney had the insight to develop the homicide unit in advance of the record-breaking 267 murders that the city experienced. Osby and the 20 other investigators assigned to the unit have been saddled with helping prepare each of these cases.
A report recently released by the Department of Health shows firearms were the second leading cause of inury-related deaths nationwide last year. At the current rate, the study predicts guns will kill more Americans than car wrecks in the not-too-distant future. In 1993, there were more than 38,000 shooting deaths in the United States compared with 43,500 auto fatalities, according to the study.
Locally, the unprecedented city homicide rate may not provide the best indication of just how common gunplay has become. A better measure perhaps is to compare aggravated assaults over the last decade. In 1993, there were 8,189 such crimes in St. Louis. More than half the number — 52.7 — were committed with the aid of a firearm. In 1983, guns were used in only 20.7 percent of the aggravated assaults, according the St. Louis Police Department. “I guess what it’s saying is that in 1993 the thing that is handy is a firearm,” a policed-department spokesman told the RFT.”
Osby have never had reason to fire his own revolver in the line of duty and considers it a blessing. But he doesn’t rely strictly on prayer to get him through the day. He knows his .38 is not match for the automatic weapons available to teenage gang members. “You just make sure you carry extra bullets and you learn how to load real quick,” he says.
Osby is driving through familar territory. From behind the steering wheel of his city-owned car, he alternately plays the role preacher, investigator and tour guide to the stranger riding shotgun.
His turf — the North Side and West End of the city — is more tundra on this day. Bundled in a camel’s hair overcoat, with a fedora pulled low across his forehead, Osby gingerly turns the Chevy onto Cates Avenue. The rubbish galosh on his right foot, which covers an expensive dress shoe, softly rides the brake pedal. There is a grace to these measured motions, which in some ways cloaks the diminutive stature of a middle-aged man who still seems to possess the reflexes and physique of a high-school halfback.
The car stops in front of a two-and-half story brick house with a deep front yard. If there is trash in the vacant lots across the street, it is hidden under snow. In the waning light of the truncated winter afternoon, clouds drape the sky at the scene of last summer’s violence, as street now shrouded with ice.
So this is where went down. It is hard to imagine, for the evidence of the crime is not here but in the memories of transient and sometimes-uncooperative prosecution witnesses. Osby is tracking one this day, repeatedly shuttling between addresses of people who never seem to stay in one place very long. Next to him, on the front seat of the blue sedan, is an orange file folder, which contains the police and medical reports on the case.
It happened just after midnight on Aug. 20, with the temperature hovering at around 80 degrees. The bullets hit 20-year-old Gregory Taylor while he sat in a brown Pontiac at the curb in the 5700 block of Cates Avenue. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Barnes Hospital. The other victim, Dwayne McGuire, who was standing on the sidewalk received wounds in the stomach and left buttock. The police found an empty 40-ounce bottle of Old English Ale on the floorboard of the car. A back window had been shattered and glass was strewn about the rear interior. There was a ricochet mark on the front passenger side.
The defendant, Marcus Moore, 18, remains in custody and is awaiting trial.
“I’ll show you where I grew up at,” says Osby. He is driving west on Martin Luther King Boulevard. I hung oput up here. I ran up here coming up. I’m a life-long resident of St. Louis.” Osby slows as he passes a storefront in the 4400 block, which displays a sign for the J&C Resale Furniture Shop.
“It hurts in a way to come back,” he says.
Mattie’s Dinette is still open, but the barbershop is gone. The remaining businesses along this one thriving commercial strip are mainly package-liquor stores, auto-parts outlets and taverns. “The used to be a clothing store,” says Osby. “The drugstore there, it’s so bad he can[‘t open the door. He has to serve through the window. That’s how bad it is.
“When we moved in, streetcars ran up and down here,” recalls Osby. Back then this portion of Martin Luther King was still called Easton Avenue. The name change came in 1972, but living conditions haven’t improved. Quite the contrary, says Osby, who is wearing a lapel button honoring the slain civil-rights leader. “I look back and I try to see the embryonic stages of this thing starting. To be honest with you, the family unit — the black family unit, in particular, began to degenerate shortly after King was assassinated. A lot of people might not agree, because they’ll say there (already) slums, but there was a sense of neighborhood pride prior to that.
“I’ll show the building where I got my basic upbringing in the church,” says Osby. He points out a location in the 5700 block of Martin Luther KIng. “My uncle, he’s passed away now, but he had a church right here, a storefront church.” Osby’s uncle, though influential, wasn’t the family’s only male role model.
“I came from a broken home,” says Osby. My stepfather was a man who showed love, the right kind of love. He was not as much of a disciplinarian physically as he was verbally. He could talk to you. He wouldn’t even have to use an ounce of profanity. But it was what he said that instilled in you a certain degree of respectful fear. I have the utmost respect for him.”
In Osby’s opinion, parental guidance and discipline are what young people need most. “A whole lot of it is peer pressure, because the parents have not nurtured them and given them that tough love. It doesn’t take much for a weed to grow. Unfortunately, that’s how children have come up without any care, without any loving attention,” says, Osby. “Gangs are nothing more than surrogate families. That’s all they are. There is a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something that has some order — though it’s really mostly chaotic.”
It takes three times before Osby finally connects with the witness he is scheduled to bring downtown. In the meantime, he continues to meander down glazed side streets, passing a burned-out church and a liquor store, where men huddle outside in the cold. Along the way, he reminisces about the well-kept and once-coveted residences on Academy Avenue, where the lives of homeowners are now dictated by fear of violence. On Arlington, he recounts a drive-by shooting in which a young man died in a hail of automatic weapons fire.
Everywhere he drives there are signs, including the middle-class neighborhoods of the Ville and Penrose Park. At the corner of Euclid and Farlin avenues, the exterior of Mr. J.’s Clothing Store is covered with graffiti. Osby translates the cryptic messages. “Those are the Rolling 20s. A guy named K-9 is dead. That RIP means rest in peace, K-9. If you ride and read the walls, you can find out what’s going on in a neighborhood. The walls tell it all.
This kind of spray-painted epitaph is only one of the deadly customs in a city that becoming a cemetery — a necropolis — for many young black men. “You got some of the kids out here who make their own funeral arrangements,” says Osby. “(They) got money to do it, and will go to one of the funeral homes and give them down to the letter what they want on their tombstone. Tell them what color casket they want. Tell them what kind of flowers they want. Go get the suit. Take it to the funeral home.”
Osby has a theory about how gang members acquire the tools of death. “Oh, man, guns are coming from guys who got federal gun licenses and they are businessmen. Not every one, but a good portion are businessmen.” He compares these arms dealers to owners of fast-food franchises. “The guy who is coming in from the county or from the sticks or the boonies, he’s going to (command) a sense of respect or fear. The kid that is doing his distribution is not goin’ to snitch on him. The kid will take 10 years to keep from being killed by this guy he thinks has the juice,” says Osby. (It’s) not too far-fetched. Ain’t a black person out here got a building with a gun shop in it in St. Louis. The gunsmith around the corner on King Drive, I’m sure it’s white-owned.”
When asked the inevitable question whether the mayhem is drug-related, Osby replies guardedly. “It may be drug-related. It’s really hard to say. The last thing they’ll admit to a lot of times is, ‘He owed me drug money — that’s why I killed him,’ because that’s premeditation. These guys have lawyers. You can’t kill a man because he owes you. That’s murder one, anywhere. Not manslaughter. Not murder two. That’s murder one without a doubt.”
“Does smoke bother you?” asks Osby. He cracks a window and lights his first cigarette, after driving around for a few hours. “These are my one vice,” says Osby. “These and coffee.” He laughs ” I think they’re going to stick me in a caffeine-nicotine rehab center.
Osby is on his third swing by the apartment of the boyfriend of a woman who witnessed the Cates Avenue slaying. The hospitality tour is over. “This is the part that drives you up the wall. Lookin’ day in and day out for ’em, then these people become a project for me. If this was actually a trial (date), my prosecuting attorney would be turning back flips by now.
“She’s nervous,” says Osby of the witness. “I think these guys guys have been back buggin’ her.” Osby find the woman at one of the addresses. Osby begins thinking out loud, contemplating informing the police of the situation. “She’s young,” he says. “She has children, and knowing these guys, they would hurt her. They could care less.”
On his third attempt, Osby finds the woman at one of the addresses. As he drives back across town one more time, she talks about the gang problem. The witness is 21. She holds the youngest of her three children in her arms. Next to her in the backseat is her eldest child, a 4-year-old daughter. “I got kids. I’ve been catchin’ more hell than before. It just don’t make no sense. Half of them don’t have the education of a fifth-grader, but they want to kill,” she says. Somehow the guns need to be removed from the streets, but she expresses no hope for the future. “It’s a waste of time to talk about it. Half the things these boys carry, the police can’t match it.”
Before the witness goes downtown, Osby drops her children at her great-grandmother’s house. He carries one of the kids inside himself. She is wearing a pink snowsuit.
During his earlier rounds, Osby drove by a vacant lot at the corner of Aldine and Prairie avenues. The area is near the location of the now-defunct Laclede Packing Co. As a boy, Osby recalls sometimes watching cattle being slaughtered on Sunday afternoon here.
On Dec. 10, the body of 10-year-old Cassidy Senter was found in the vicinity. A remnant of yellow plastic police tape, which was used to cordon off the crime scene, still lies on the ground. Nearby there is a frozen rose tied to a telephone pole.
Osby is silent for a moment. It is the first time he stops talking all afternoon.
Richard Kieninger founded the burg of Stelle, Illinois on the belief that Armageddon would occur in the year 2000.
A version of this story appeared in the Riverfront Times and FOCUS/Midwest.
It has been nearly 10 years since the Battle of Armageddon was supposed to have occurred, according to the predictions of the late Richard Kieninger. Life in Stelle, Illinois, goes on.
Kieninger founded Stelle, the German word for “place,” in 1973. The original residents of the planned community believed in the prophecies set forth in Kieninger’s 1963 book The Ultimate Frontier, which forecast that Armageddon would commence in November 1999. Writing under the pen name Eklal Kueshana, Kieninger further warned that survivors of the final war would be put out of their misery soon thereafter by a series of catastrophic events.
Among other things, Kieninger claimed he was the reincarnation of King David and Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. In The Ultimate Frontier, a mysterious character named Dr. White contacts a boy named Richard, who is then recruited into a multi-tiered secret society of perfect human beings, called the Brotherhoods, which allegedly originated 25,000 years ago.
“On May 5 of the year 2000 A.D.,” wrote Kieninger, “the planets of the solar system will be arrayed in practically a straight line across space, and our planet will be subjected to enough gravitational distortion to tip the delicate balance. Although one cannot normally expect mere planetary configurations to have such a spectacular effect on us, many factors within our earth are conjoining to produce great surface instability around the turn of the century.”
Kieninger described in detail the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes that would occur after the conjunction, citing the biblical book of Revelation as a corroborative reference. He further forecast that the tumult would cause existing landmasses to sink into the ocean. He and his followers, however, planned to escape the havoc in high-tech dirigibles of their own design. Kieninger envisioned that the residents of Stelle would ultimately colonize the Kingdom of God on the lost continent of Mu, which would resurface from the Pacific Ocean near Easter Island.
Originally, Stelle residents, who hailed mainly from the Chicago area, were required to donate their assets to the cause. But by the late 1970s, some believers had begun to waver and filed lawsuits to regain their lost savings. In 1980, the remaining Stelle residents ousted the autocratic Kieninger, who moved to Texas and founded the community of Adelphi, Texas, which was also based on his apocalyptic visions.
In 1998, a federal jury convicted Kieninger, by then 70 years old, for his role in a secessionist movement that passed millions of dollars in fake checks backed by the nonexistent Republic of Texas. The failed scheme was apparently part of Kieninger’s vision as well. In The Ultimate Frontier, Dr. White tells young Richard that he will create a city and, later, a nation.
Today, 44 households comprise Stelle, according to the town’s website. The Stelle Group, the community’s original governing body, was disbanded in 2006, replaced by a more traditional community association. Nowadays, the curved drive and suburban-style homes give no hint of the town’s unusual history. But there are signs that residents continue to believe in self-reliance and sustainable energy. For instance, the village still provides its own telephone and Internet service, which is solar-powered.
Although many Stellites accept reincarnation as a precept, it seems that most of the people there loathe reliving the past. There is a stigma attached to the early days of the community from which they would prefer to disassociate themselves. But the work of another failed prognosticator has helped keep Kieninger’s ideas alive.
Kieninger wrote the preface to Richard W. Noone’s bestseller 5/5/2000 Ice: The Ultimate Disaster, first published in 1982 and reissued by Random House in 1997. In the book, Noone theorizes that the 2000 planetary alignment would trigger a solar flare, which could induce a polar shift, causing the reversal of the earth’s magnetic field. If this would have happened, it could have dislodged trillions of tons of ice from the South Pole, according to Noone, and consequently unleashed geologic disasters across the face of the earth. Neither Kieninger or Noone foresaw the melting of the polar caps due to global warming.
In 1998, a federal jury convicted Kieninger, by then 70 years old, for his role in a secessionist movement that passed millions of dollars in fake checks backed by the nonexistent Republic of Texas. The failed scheme was apparently part of Kieninger’s vision as well. In The Ultimate Frontier, Dr. White tells young Richard that he will create a city and, later, a nation.
Kieninger, who served approximately 18 months in federal prison for his involvement in the Republic of Texas secessionist movement, lived beyond his prophesied end of the world. He died in Adelphi, Texas, in 2002
The announcement came at the second-annual meeting of the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Safety at the Heman Park Community Center in University City, Mo. on May 8, 1960. More than 500 attendees heard the good news. Their organization had received a $10,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund to pursue its laudable work. It was cause for celebration. But they were unaware of one string attached to the generous gift, a nettlesome detail that may have dampened their enthusiasm that long ago spring evening: the Kaplan Fund was a CIA front.
Then as now there were ramped up concerns over an ongoing public health crisis. In 1960, the problem was the wind-driven dispersal of nuclear fallout. St. Louisans were worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and the potential health effects that atmospheric testing was having on their children. To address the issue, they enlisted leaders of the scientific community to study the effects of radiation. There was no reason for them to suspect that their local organization’s goals had been subverted. That possibility wasn’t on anybody’s radar back then.
It’s a question that’s remained unasked until now; a footnote to history that’s been buried in the First Secret City for 60 years.
The citizens’ committee, a coalition of parents, educators, medical professionals and scientists, had formed in 1959 to measure Strontium-90 levels by collecting the baby teeth of elementary school children in the St. Louis area and elsewhere. The radioactive isotope, known to be present in nuclear fallout, concentrated in human bones and teeth, particularly growing children who consumed milk. Kids were encouraged by parents, teachers and dentists to give their teeth to science instead of the tooth fairy. In return, they were rewarded with a membership card and button to the Operation Tooth Club. The program was called The Baby Tooth Survey. The director of the survey was Dr. Louise Reiss, and its scientific advisory board included Washington University biologist Barry Commoner.
The keynote speaker at the 1960 meeting of the committee was internationally renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, according to accounts published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Globe-Democrat. The same news accounts also reported the generous contribution from the J.M. Kaplan Fund of New York, which later would be revealed in congressional hearings to be a covert conduit for funneling CIA cash.
U.S. Rep. Wright Patman, a Texas Democrat, outed the private foundation’s ties to the CIA at a hearing of his House Small Business Sub-committee on Aug. 31, 1964. In addition to the congressional probe, the Kaplan Fund was also under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, which confirmed the foundation’s ties to the CIA, according to a news story in the New York Times. Jacob M. Kaplan, former head of Welch’s Grape Juice company and founder of the non-profit charity, had already garnered IRS attention for using the fund as a tax dodge. Patman’s hearings determined that the Kaplan Fund had been used as a CIA front from 1959 to 1964.
It is uncertain whether the money donated to the St. Louis group was part of the CIA’s clandestine operations, but the agency’s extensive use of private foundations, including the Kaplan Fund, gained further exposure in subsequent investigative reports that appeared in the late 1960s in the Texas Observer,Nation, and Ramparts magazines.
Mead’s presence at the St. Louis meeting, where the the Kaplan Fund’s generosity was announced, is intriguing because of her previous involvement in espionage dating back to World War II, when she and then-husband Gregory Bateson, also an anthropologist, produced propaganda in the South Pacific for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.
In the early 1950s, Bateson tripped on LSD furnished to him by Dr. Harold Abramson, who was part of the agency’s top-secret MK-Ultra project, a program that experimented on the use of hallucinogenic drugs and other means to influence and control human behavior. After scoring more of the CIA’s acid, he turned on his friend Alan Ginsberg, the beat poet. Funding for Abramson’s LSD research was funneled through two other CIA cutouts: the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation.
In late November 1953, Abramson — an allergist — acted as the unlicensed psychiatrist of Frank Olson, shortly before the Army biological warfare scientist fell to his death from a 13th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York City. Olson had received counseling from Abramson for anxiety and depression after being wired up on acid by the CIA. While under the influence of the drug, Olson voiced ethical concerns about his germ warfare research to colleagues, which was considered a national security breach by the agency. Abramson and Olson had previously worked on classified aerosol research at Camp Detrick, the Army’s chemical warfare research facility in Frederick, Maryland. Olson’s unsolved death is the subject of the 2017 Netflix series Wormwood by Errol Morris.
Coincidentally, 1953 is also when the Army began its secret aerosol testing in St. Louis. Parsons Corporation ran that covert military operation out of an office in the 5500 block of Pershing Ave. in St. Louis. The tests involved the spraying of poor, inner-city neighborhoods without residents knowledge. Workers who participated in the study were also kept in the dark. When the testing became known about decades later, the Army said it used zinc cadmium sulfate, which it claimed wasn’t harmful to human health. In the 1990s, former Parsons employees said they believed their cancers were caused by being exposed to the chemicals used in the tests. The EPA announced last year that Parsons Corporation was awarded the main contract for the clean-up of radioactive contamination at the West Lake Landfill site in St. Louis County. The contamination is from uranium processing conducted by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis for the Manhattan Project.
The Baby Tooth survey, which began six years after the aerosol testing, found a correlation between atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and Stontium-90 levels in children’s teeth in the St. Louis area. But its scientific findings were in some ways eclipsed by the survey’s public relations successes. Publicity garnered by the Baby Tooth Survey is credited with spurring the passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Band Treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
An earlier covert collaboration by the Atomic Energy Commission, Air Force and Rand Corporation to measure Strontium-90 in humans received harsh criticism, after it was revealed that researchers obtained scientific data by snatching bodies. Beginning in 1953, Project Sunshine collected bone sample from cadavers, including those of stillborn babies.
Gathering scientific data by collecting the baby teeth of living children was deemed more acceptable and received unquestioning public cooperation.
More than two decades ago, an ATF study of guns confiscated from criminals in St. Louis showed that the merchants of death were often federally licensed firearms dealers from white suburbs. There is no reason to believe that correlation has changed.
A version of this story appeared in the Riverfront Times, March 31, 1999.
[In 2020, 262 people were murdered in the city of St. Louis. Most of the homicides were committed with handguns. Among those who died was retired St. Louis Police Department Captain Dave Dorn.]
by C.D. Stelzer
“Sixth District Officers received a call for a man down in the alley. When they arrived, they observed the victim lying behind the left rear of his vehicle, bleeding from his nose and mouth area. He was unconscious and had suffered a gunshot wound to the left side of the stomach, car key laying near him. The driver’s door was open and there was blood splatter on a magazine, which was in the center of the front seat.”
The staccato lines of a police report, this one attached to the name of Tyrone Polk, who died on the night of May 28, 1998, in an alley in the 8600 block of Partridge Avenue, a neighborhood of well-kept brick bungalows north of Calvary Cemetery. One neighbor reported hearing a shot fired behind her home sometime after 9:30 p.m; another neighbor discovered the body about an hour later. Polk, a 41-year-old black man, lived nearby in the 1500 block of McLaran Avenue.
The homicide remains unsolved. No suspect has been charged. The weapon, which the St. Louis police believe to be a handgun, has not been recovered. The investigation remains open. There is nothing extraordinary about the case — other than perhaps how routine this kind of gun play has become. Last year, 75 of the 80 firearms fatalities in the city of St. Louis were attributed to handguns, according to police records. Guns and the violence they cause are ubiquitous in urban settings such as the one in which Polk died. During the first 11 months of 1998, police registered 200 gun-related assaults in the same area. Polk’s death is just one of the more than 30,000 caused by firearms in the United States each year.
On the night Polk died of a gunshot wound in a North St. Louis alley, gun-industry executives were meeting in a strategy session 260 miles southwest of the city at Big Cedar Lodge, a posh resort on Table Rock Lake. The conference, sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), focused on marketing: Marketing guns to women. Marketing guns to youth. Marketing guns to minorities.
At the same meeting, the gun-industry executives decided to pool millions of dollars of their profits and use the money for public-relations purposes. This joint fund has more recently been expanded to help coordinate legal expenses associated with a growing number of lawsuits filed against gun manufacturers.
If Proposition B passes in the April 6 election, it will permit citizens to lawfully carry concealed weapons, but it will do nothing to stop the illicit trade in firearms that now exists. The vituperative campaign has so far overshadowed Mayor Clarence Harmon’s recent announcement that St. Louis intends to follow the lead of five other cities in suing the gun industry for costs associated with firearms violence. If St. Louis models its lawsuit after those already filed, gun makers, distributors and dealers have serious cause for concern.
“The gun manufacturers have left us no choice but to pursue our legal option,” says Harmon. “After numerous discussions they have proven unwilling to cooperate with mayors on any action that would make guns safer or make it harder for guns to fall into the wrong hands. In addition, gun violence costs the city an enormous amount in taxpayer dollars, not to mention the psychological toll it takes on our citizens and our children.”
Now comes a study that may bolster the city’s case against gun manufacturers. Conducted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and quietly released last month, the study shows just how these lethal weapons are allowed to “fall into the wrong hands,” as the mayor puts it. The ATF’s statistical analysis — of guns confiscated from criminals in St. Louis — strongly suggests that the merchants of death are most often federally licensed firearms dealers from mainly white suburbs. Moreover, the relatively brief time between the purchase of these guns from the dealers and their use in crimes in the black neighborhoods of the inner city suggests that some gun dealers are selling guns directly to criminals — or to “straw men” who turn around and sell them to criminals.
Sold in St. Louis
Although the police have not recovered the handgun used to kill Tyrone Polk, statistics compiled by the ATF in 1997-98 give a good indication of the types of weapons most often used in such crimes, as well as where they originate. The study traced crime guns recovered by metropolitan police departments in 27 cities.
In St. Louis, the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver remains the weapon most frequently used by criminals, according to the ATF findings. Several cheap semiautomatic pistols are also favored, particularly among juveniles and young adults. Four of the local favorites are the Bryco, Lorcin, Raven and Davis. The last brand, which is still in production, retails for as little as $88.
The ATF tracked 1,194 guns confiscated in St. Louis back to the licensed gun dealers who sold them. A little more than 45 percent of the weapons traced back to gun dealers were purchased in Missouri. Another 10.1 percent were tracked to Illinois. Eight percent of the total came from Florida, a state that already permits the carrying of concealed weapons. The Sunshine State scored even higher among St. Louis criminals 18-24 years of age, accounting for 10.3 percent of the traceable guns seized in the city.
The ATF study gauges the period between the purchase of a firearm and its recovery by the police as an indicator of whether illegal trafficking in a particular type of gun is prevalent in a specific area. According to ATF guidelines, a “time to crime” of less than three years suggests that federal firearms licensees are selling guns directly to criminals or that the guns are being acquired indirectly through straw men who purchase weapons and then resell them. For instance, of the 41 traceable Ruger 9 mm pistols confiscated in the city of St. Louis over the course of a one year period, 24 — or 58.5 percent — were used for criminal purposes within three years of their purchase, according to the ATF analysis.
The numbers show a correlation indicating that criminals in the city of St. Louis acquire the plurality of their guns from licensed dealers located in the suburbs. The ATF has determined that nearly half of the firearms used to commit crimes in the city of St. Louis were acquired from licensed dealers in the state of Missouri. Only 26 firearms licensees and four pawnshops in the city sell guns, according to the ATF. By contrast, ATF records show 277 federally licensed gun dealers doing business in St. Louis County.
Take the Marshal Gun Shop in Dellwood, for example. Established in 1951, the shop advertises its weaponry in a Yellow Pages ad that depicts a cartoon sheriff showing off his badge. As a part of its “balanced” coverage of the concealed-weapons debate, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently painted a similarly innocent law-and-order image of the gun shop’s owner, 71-year-old Henry J. Cernicek. Shortly after the laudatory story appeared, on March 17, Edward L. Dowd, U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, announced the indictment of Cernicek and two associates for violating federal firearms laws by selling and delivering approximately 300 firearms that were later seized from crime scenes from 1989-1996. The criminal case against the Cernicek is based on ATF tracking, which shows an average lapse of less than a year from the purchase of the guns at the dealers to their recovery by police — after the commission of a crime.
Dowd is cautious in talking about the Marshal Gun Shop case. He is also reluctant to postulate any all-encompassing theory about how crime guns are acquired. “The fact that a gun is seized from a crime scene doesn’t mean that it is an illegal sale,” says Dowd. “People can own them legally and commit a crime with them.”
Sometimes, though, it’s impossible to determine whether sales of handguns are legal. In other cases, it’s difficult to determine the number of firearms transactions that occur. Take the Fenton Pawn Shop case: In 1984, the ATF cited pawnshop owner Charles T. Sturdy for numerous violations of federal firearms regulations, including failure to maintain accurate and complete records, according to a federal-appeals-court summary of the case. Instead of revoking his license, the agency reprimanded Sturdy and allowed him to continue selling firearms. The ATF admonished the pawnshop owner again in 1989. It was not until 1993, nine years after Sturdy was first cited, that the agency finally revoked his license.
The flow of arms into the city from the suburbs continues. So far, 470 crime guns have been seized this year, according to a tally kept by the St. Louis Police Department.
Dead Men Walking
There is a symmetry in the alley behind Partridge Avenue, an order that belies the violence of 10 months ago: The houses made of bricks from the same kiln. The tiny backyards surveyed to the same dimensions. The white doors of the single-car garages, all in a row. None of it evokes danger — not now, not in the light of day. In a very real sense, though, the killing that occurred here personifies the gun industry’s target market. The bullet may not have had his name on it, but Polk, in many ways, was destined to become human prey. That he survived into middle age is worth noting. From the scant details of the police blotter, it is impossible to determine the motive for his homicide. But the ATF study gives some clues.
Excluding the general category of “firearms offenses,” narcotics cases were most often associated with traceable crime guns, representing nearly 20 percent of guns confiscated in St. Louis. The narcotics category is almost three times larger than the combined categories of assault, threats, burglary, theft and fraud. Among 18-24-year-olds, the correlation between drugs and guns is higher still, with narcotics busts accounting for nearly one-third of the crime guns seized.
In 1998, handguns accounted for 75 of 80 fatal shootings in the city, according to the latest available police statistics. Also according to police statistics, 16 of those murders occurred in the city’s 6th District, where Polk was slain.
The Missouri Department of Health catalogs the mayhem by ZIP code. In the 63147 ZIP code, where Polk died, 33 black males were victims of homicide between 1990 and 1997. In 1997, the latest year available from the Health Department, 121 blacks of both sexes in Polk’s age group (25-44 years of age) were the victims of firearms assaults in the city. By comparison, St. Louis County — with almost three times the population of the city and nearly 10 times the gun dealers — had a total of just 120 firearms assaults in all age categories combined during the same time period.
Between 1990 and 1997, 1,332 blacks, male and female, were murdered with firearms in the city of St. Louis. It is fitting that these figures have been compiled by the Health Department, because they represent an epidemic, an epidemic of violence.
Over the past decades there has been a continuing arms race between criminals and the police. As gun and ammo manufacturers offered a more deadly class of pistols and more powerful bullets, cops and robbers elicited the typical American consumer reaction — they went shopping. Six-shooters were scrapped for semiautomatics with 10-round magazines. The upshot is that crime and its flip side, self-defense and law enforcement, have provided one of the few potential areas of growth for an otherwise stagnant market.
“For whom do you think they are producing and marketing fingerprint-resistant-finished guns, or handguns that are modifiable into automatic machine guns, or handguns that shoot rifle shells?” asks Harmon. “Certainly not for home protection, certainly not for game hunters, certainly not for law-abiding citizens. They are only looking at their own bottom line,” says the mayor, referring to the gun manufacturers.
Because St. Louis has yet to file its suit, the mayor’s office is refusing to divulge the defendants it intends to name in its case against the gun industry. But the situation in St. Louis appears similar in some ways to Chicago, which filed suit in November, naming a long list of gun manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The latter group comprises suburban gun shops and sporting-goods stores, where firearms have allegedly been illegally sold with the knowledge that they would likely be used to commit crimes.
“In the city of Chicago, we have 600 or so people killed a year by handguns. They (the gun industry) can argue that handguns make people safer, but a lot it depends on the environment you are in,” says Matthew Getter, one of the attorneys for the city of Chicago involved in the case. “It is hard to argue that the city of Chicago or any major urban areas are safer as a result of the widespread yet illegal availability of guns.”
The Chicago case is based on the idea of public nuisance, Getter says. A public nuisance exists when there is an unreasonable risk of harm to public health, safety and welfare. The only danger the gun industry risks as a result of the Chicago lawsuit “is not making as much money on illegal sales as they are now,” says Getter.
“We know which dealers are selling guns that are ending up in the city of Chicago,” he adds. “It’s not hard to track how these guns are getting into the city. They are getting into the city because the dealers, who are located on the outskirts of the city, are selling guns to Chicago residents, where they know or should reasonably foresee that these guns are going to be brought back into the city illegally.”
The bottom line, in Getter’s opinion, is accountability. “A manufacturer is presumed to know his market. Any manufacturer who does not know what his market is, is not doing his job right,” he says. “The manufacturers designed these weapons to be attractive to criminals. They design these handguns to sometimes fit in your shirt pocket, to be easily concealed. They design them so as to not have such things as external hammers, because that way they get caught inside your pocket when you try to pull them out. They even advertise these guns as “snag-free,” says Getter. “These are not guns designed for legitimate purposes — they’re designed for killing human beings.”
The New Orleans lawsuit is different from Chicago’s in that it takes a more traditional liability approach against the gun industry, arguing that their products are unsafe.
In both cases, the gun industry continues to deny any responsibility for the carnage: “The vast majority of the American public think these suits are wrong and make no sense,” says Robert Delfay, president of the NSSF, the gun industry’s trade organization. “There is just no doubt in my mind that if we get out there and talk to some of these mayors about what this industry is already doing in the areas of safety and education and show them the National Safety Council statistics that show this as working and offer to work with them in their communities in developing educational programs, we can head off the vast majority of suits that may be anticipated out there.”
Contrary to Delfay’s remark, a bevy of big-city mayors, including Harmon, have already tried to hash out an agreement with gun-industry executives, to no avail.
The meeting took place here in St. Louis in August. Before the negotiating session, the U.S. Conference of Mayors had set up a gun-violence task force to look at the problem. Mayor Edward G. Rendell of Philadelphia chaired the group; Harmon acted as co-chair. After formulating a list of recommendations, the urban leaders requested a dialogue with the gun industry over issues such as the illicit handgun trade and consumer safety.
“The mayors went home with an understanding that they had come to some consensus with the gun manufacturers,” says Julie Stone, policy assistant to Harmon. “None of those things happened to the satisfaction of the mayors. We asked (the gun industry) to come to the table and talk to us first, and (Harmon) was very disappointed with the outcome.”
The list of actions the mayors requested the gun industry to support included limiting the number of guns a buyer could purchase to one a month. That restriction, which is meant to prevent illegal straw purchases, is modeled after state laws in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina. The mayors also advocated the closing of a loophole that allows gun-show participants to evade compliance with the five-day waiting period under the federal Brady Law.
As the gun industry prepares to meet the legal challenge, it has also embarked on a public-relations offensive, hiring Porter/ Novelli, a top New York PR firm, to spruce up its image. “I can’t emphasize strongly enough that the reason that these lawsuits have gone as far as they have is because this industry has done a very poor job of communicating what it stands for and what it does in the area of safety and education,” says Delfay.
The public-relations strategy Delfay espouses began to take shape last year, when the NSSF sponsored its Shooting Sports Summit at Big Cedar Lodge. The opening of the four-day Ozark affair took place in the Grandview Room, where conference participants nibbled on a continental breakfast amid the rustic splendor of a simulated Adirondack hunting lodge, complete with exposed beams, moose antlers and glassy-eyed trophy bucks staring down at them.
Many of the handguns being used for robberies, assaults and murders in American cities are manufactured by the same companies, such as Smith & Wesson, whose representatives attended the summit meeting, and therein lies the contradiction between image and reality. Although the gun industry has traditionally catered to sportsmen and hunters and continues to claim the wholesome virtues of rural America as its own, its markets are becoming increasingly urban.
Overall, the numbers of hunting and fishing licenses issued have declined slightly in Missouri, according to state conservation-commission records. The slide is indicative of a nationwide pattern. By 1996, the number of hunters had declined in the United States to 14 million, from 20.6 million in 1975, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sales of revolvers and pistols have also dipped from the levels of a few years ago, according to the agency, which monitors firearms sales for tax purposes. Trade publications note that even the booming export market has slumped because of the economic crisis in Asia.
Companies such as Smith & Wesson have responded to decreased sales by diversifying. Eighteen percent of the venerable gun maker’s product line is devoted to such items as bicycle frames and safety glasses. Its rival, Sturm, Ruger, has branched out into making golf clubs. With market share down across the industry, gun manufacturers are appealing to conceal-and-carry customers.
“Handgun sales are down, so they’re using these concealed-weapons laws as a marketing ploy,” says Joseph P. Sudbay, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc. “Go into a magazine store and pick up a handgun magazine, and everything is about handguns being more concealable, the pocket rockets, this whole concept. Instead of making a gun that’s less lethal and maybe safer, they’ve gone to something that appeals to this concealed-weapons market.”
At the Ozark summit meeting, gun-industry leaders agreed to unify their efforts and contribute one-half of a percent of their gross profits to support an array of public-relations programs. Shooting Industry magazine estimated the value of the joint fund at $15 million. Since then, an agreement has been reached to double the amount of the contributions and use some of the money to defend the industry against the lawsuits filed by the cities of Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, Bridgeport, Conn., and, soon, St. Louis.
“With the tremendous challenges we have facing us, we need to not be duplicating effort or even having conflicting effort,” says Delfay. “We can head off these extreme lawsuits through education.” By labeling its efforts “educational,” the NSSF could skirt campaign-finance limits by paying for issue-oriented advertising that indirectly supports pro-gun candidates.
Last month, a federal jury in Brooklyn found 15 gun manufacturers negligent and nine of them liable for damages to seven shooting victims. This suit, as well as those filed by the cities, have had another unintentional consequence, forging a closer bond between the gun industry and the National Rifle Association (NRA). “We have been talking to the NRA (about) kinds of strategies, what states we could maybe focus on,” says Jack Adkins of the American Shooting Sports Council (ASSC), the lobbying group that represents the gun manufacturers. The NRA also played a role in recent removal of the Richard Feldman from the leadership of the ASSC, because Feldman was perceived as being too willing to compromise with industry adversaries.
NRA lobbyists in Georgia have already stymied Atlanta’s lawsuit by orchestrating the passage of a state law that makes suing gun manufacturers illegal. Similar efforts are afoot in the Florida Legislature.
Meanwhile, the battle has moved into the U.S. Congress, where Senate Democrats, including Dick Durbin of Illinois, have introduced a bill that would allow cities to recoup federal, as well as local, costs associated with the medical treatment of shooting victims. Examples of federal expenses include Medicaid, disability and unemployment payments to crime victims.
In the House, Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), an NRA director, has countered the Senate bill with one that would squelch lawsuits seeking to hold gun manufacturers liable for crimes committed with their weapons. Barr may be the most outspoken of NRA supporters in Congress, but he is far from alone. The NRA’s influence has been acquired through its control of the third largest political-action committee in the country, which disbursed a total of more than $5.2 million during 1998 election cycle. More than $1.3 million of that money went to GOP congressional candidates; the NRA Political Victory Fund donated a little more than $283,000 to congressional Democrats.
The NRA has already provided the struggling gun industry with a windfall through its lobbying efforts in the 31 state legislatures that have now approved concealed-carry laws. Missouri is the first state to take a popular vote on the issue. Other state concealed-weapons laws have had the effect of creating a new legitimate market for the industry’s lethal weapons. In effect, the legal trade feeds off the illegal trade, forming a symbiotic relationship between legitimate gun toters and the pistol-packing criminals. The chief selling point is fear, with gun-related crimes or the perception of them acting to drive up the sales. It’s the kind of deadly demand gun makers and dealers are more than willing to supply for a price.
The gun industry, however, has chosen not to negotiate a ceasefire with the cities that have been victimized by their products. Although Feldman, the recently removed head of the ASSC, attended the St. Louis meeting — as did Ed Schultz, the CEO of Smith & Wesson — no agreement was reached. Local gun-industry executives who also attended the failed negotiating session included Dick Hammet of Olin Winchester and Gerald W. Bersett of Blount International Inc.
Bersett, an alumnus of the University of Missouri-Rolla, has a long and distinguished career in the gun industry. He has acted as the chairman of the NSSF in the past and served as an executive at Olin Winchester for 30 years before assuming the leadership of Sturm, Ruger, a prominent handgun manufacturer, in 1995. He now heads Blount’s Federal Cartridge Co., an ammunition manufacturer.
In his current position Bersett is paid $325,000 a year, according to Security and Exchange Commission filings. His contract allows for an annual bonus equal to his yearly income if he exceeds performance goals.
The marketing director of Federal Cartridge attended last year’s gun-industry conference at Big Cedar Lodge. In the pastoral setting, the guns-and-ammo crowd ruminated over strategies to increase sales in the hunting and target-shooting categories. Public-opinion researchers solicited their opinions, retailers contributed their 2 cents’ worth and salesmen pitched ideas. They talked about the approaching millennium and Internet sales, and, when they were done talking, some of the them retired to a reception sponsored by Budweiser beer. By no small coincidence, the maker of that beer, Anheuser-Busch Inc., has seen fit to support Prop B.
There is nothing in the itinerary that even hints at another one of the gun industry’s markets — tactical shooting. This is a euphemism for sniper fire, the targeting of two-legged quarry. But Federal Cartridge’s Gold Medal .308 caliber ammunition, loaded with the Sierra 168-grain hollow-point boat-tail bullet, is favored by snipers throughout the world, according to a story that appeared in the Arizona Republic last year.
Because the case is still open, St. Louis homicide detectives are unwilling to provide much information about Tyrone Polk’s murder. The police have refused to reveal the caliber of the weapon used in the crime, the make and model of Polk’s vehicle or, more important, whether Polk had a criminal history. To all but family and friends, he is an invisible man, an example of the anonymity that surrounds the victims of the gun trade.
The day two off-duty cops protecting NRA President Charleston Heston assaulted me.
A version of this story appeared in the Riverfront Times, March 31, 1999.
It all started with an 11-year-old girl in a red jumpsuit. She sang a patriotic anthem, karaoke-style, her blond locks bobbing, sequins sparkling and go-go boots shuffling.
After the tiny diva warbled her last refrain blessing the U.S.A., an invocation was given and the Pledge of Allegiance recited. I had the flu that day, but my editor dispatched me to cover the event despite my protestations. I got sicker observing the NRA-sponsored dog and pony show. So I sat on the floor throughout the jingoistic pep rally, which drew the ire of a phalanx of off-duty city cops guarding the stage.
The audience exploded into applause over a call to arms by Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association executive vice president, who is most noted for referring to federal agents as “jackbooted thugs.” The grand finale came when NRA president Charlton Heston took center stage.
With the TV cameras rolling, the 75-year-old Hollywood film star solemnly mouthed the Missouri state motto: Salus populi suprema lex esto — “The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” He then read a prepared statement advocating that voters approve Proposition B to ensure their right to defend themselves against criminal attackers. [Prop B, the conceal and carry law allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, was defeated by Missouri voters, but later approved by the Missouri General Assembly.]
After his brief speech, Heston and his entourage darted out of the St. Louis Airport Hilton Hotel conference room by a side door without taking any questions from the press.
When I caught up with Heston and tried to do a spot interview, he seemed bewildered, a sign perhaps of his advancing dementia. He looked stunned and pause to reflect on my question. But I never got any answers from the aging matinee idol because his bodyguards immediately intervened. One of them put me in a headlock while the other attempted to pry a tape recorder from my left hand. The incident lasted long enough for Heston and his party to depart. The bodyguards were off-duty members of the St. Louis Police Officers Association that were providing security — gratis — for Heston and the NRA.
While the encounter transpired, “Col.” John Moore, leader of a St. Louis-area militia, stood nearby. In 1995, Moore told the RFT that several local police officers were members of his militia group, the First Missouri Volunteers. In addition, he said, the lawyer for his militia outfit also represented the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the police union.
Moore must have bestowed the honorary title of colonel on himself because his military record show he held the rank of sergeant and was detached to a psychological operations unit. After being discharged from active duty, he continued to serve in a psy-ops Army Reserve outfit headquartered on South Kingshighway behind the St. Mary Magdalene Bowling Alley in South St. Louis.
I reported the assault to the police department’s Internal Affairs division, and identified one of my attackers in a photo lineup. But no charges were ever filed.
Sgt. John Johnson, president of SLPOA, said that about a dozen members of the association attended the NRA rally. “We were asked to be honorary bodyguards for Mr. Heston,” said Johnson. “We were introduced at the presentation as backers of Proposition B.” Johnson denies any knowledge of the local militia organization or any connection to the group, either through himself or through any member of the SLPOA.
Nevertheless, the SLPOA members at the rally were rubbing shoulders with militia leader Moore.
From the vantage point of the armpit of an off-duty cop, it became clear who is behind the reins of the Prop B bandwagon: the NRA, the militia and members of the SLPOA. Another insight occurred as I felt increasing pressure on my vocal cords: It was evident that these particular Prop B proponents value their Second Amendment right to bear arms over others’ First Amendment right of free speech.
Edward L. Dowd, U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri, didn’t agree that the views of Johnson and his comrades in the SLPOA were representative of the majority of the police department. “I deal with St. Louis police officers every day. I’m related to St. Louis police officers. I don’t know any of them that are in favor of Proposition B. The only ones who are in favor of Proposition B are on the executive board. The average police officer on the street is out making arrests and does not want people carrying concealed weapons.”
In an interview before Heston’s appearance, Johnson denied responsibility for a misleading billboard advertising campaign. He blamed Missourians Against Crime (MAC), the NRA-backed organization leading the charge for passage of Prop B, for the false wording on the billboards. MAC paid for the ad displays. In each of the ads, a larger-than-life image of a uniformed police officer is juxtaposed with this message: “1,325 St. Louis police officers say ‘right-to-carry works!'” In fact, only the executive board of the police organization voted to endorse the issue. The rank-and-file were never asked for their opinion.
After decades on the lam, a student anti-war protestor is busted.
A version of this story first appeared in theRiverfront Times, Feb. 16, 2000. Howard Mechanic was granted a pardon in January 2001 by out-going President Bill Clinton.
Penny Overton, a young reporter for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Tribune, found it difficult to believe when Gary Tredway told her he was living under an assumed name. The confession came during her second encounter with the City Council candidate.
During her first interview with Tredway, Overton had told the candidate she would need to verify the information on his résumé and campaign literature. When she informed him of this standard practice, Tredway “started getting really nervous,” Overton says. The reporter tried to put Tredway, a well-known community activist, at ease by asking some softball questions about his family and education, but that only seemed to make the candidate more tense. “He was just sweating buckets the whole time,” she recalls.
After their first meeting, Tredway made repeated attempts to contact her, but Overton says she failed to return the calls because she was busy covering a high-profile murder case. When she finally met with Tredway a second time, on Feb. 3, he first told her that there was a discrepancy in his college transcripts. Overton took this to mean that he had embellished his academic record. But as the interview progressed, Tredway revealed a much darker secret. “Eventually it came out,” says Overton. “He just said, “I’m not Gary Tredway. I’ve been living under an assumed name.’ My response was “You’re bullshitting me,'” says Overton. “This guy is about as square as you can get. He’s a Boy Scout.”
Overton’s story saying that the City Council candidate had a false identity ran in the Tribune on Monday, Feb. 7. Within days, the intricately woven deception had all but unraveled. Tredway was revealed to be Howard Mechanic, a federal fugitive wanted for his involvement in a turbulent demonstration that occurred at Washington University in 1970.
Mechanic, then a 22-year-old student, was convicted on federal charges for throwing a cherry bomb — a powerful firecracker — at firefighters who were attempting to extinguish a fire at the campus Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) building. His life story is now the subject of a podcast titled My Fugitive by George Washington University professor Nina Seavey. Seavey, who grew up in University City, became interested in the case because her father Louis Gilden was Mechanic’s defense attorney.
Originally conceived as a documentary film, Seavey uses Mechanic’s plight to delve into the student-led anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s, placing the onus for the repressive measures used against protestors on the federal government and its intelligence apparatus, specifically the FBI. Her research partner in this project was Jeffrey Light, a Washington D.C.-based civil rights attorney, who is an expert in filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
Seavey stepped down as the founding director of George Washington University’s Documentary Center last year after 30 years. Her documentaries and those of her students have themselves received funding from the federal government through the U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. She started her career as a political appointee to the U.S. Defense Department during the Carter administration.
The torching of the ROTC building on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, which was carried out by anti-Vietnam War protesters, occurred just after midnight on May 5, 1970, and was precipitated by the killing of four student protesters at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen the previous day.
For Mechanic — a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio — the war in Vietnam had come home: Soldiers were killing students on campus in broad daylight. Although thousands of students cheered as the flames consumed the Air Force ROTC building, no one was ever charged with the arson. But Mechanic was one of the few charged for participating in the demonstration. Upon Mechanic’s conviction by a jury, Judge James H. Meredith — known for his tough law-and-order approach — gave him the maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. After he lost his appeal in 1972, Mechanic jumped bail.
Mechanic lived with his secret for the next 28 years, settling in the early 1980s in Scottsdale, where he established an identity as Tredway, an apartment owner, health-food supplier and concerned citizen. While living in Arizona, Mechanic married and divorced under his assumed name and raised a son, who is now a 19-year-old student at a college in New Mexico. Mechanic’s twin brother, Harvey, a lawyer in Los Angeles, has refused to say whether he was contacted by his sibling during his fugitive years. Attempts to reach Mechanic’s father, who still lives in the Cleveland area, were unsuccessful.
Mechanic, who is now in federal custody in Arizona, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. He has hired attorneys in Scottsdale and St. Louis, who have in turn retained a PR consultant to handle calls from the press. In addition, a Phoenix-area support group has been formed to lobby for Mechanic’s exoneration on the basis of the exemplary life he has led. The ranks of his defenders include the Arizona chapter of Common Cause, a citizens-advocacy organization, which lauds Mechanic for working to pass a campaign-finance reform law. .
Mechanic’s political activism spurred him to run for local office under his assumed name.
Mechanic, the idealistic student radical, still inhabited the body of this middle-aged Arizona landlord, and it only took a little coaxing by Overton to flush it all out. When the reporter, who was a toddler in 1970, began questioning the candidate about his past, she may have gained his confidence because of her knowledge of history. “I think he told me because we talked about the whole ’60s thing,” she says. When Mechanic said she wouldn’t understand his plight, Overton told him that she had done a college thesis in American studies on how the media covered the Kent State massacre.
The long-kept secret had been exposed. Wire services and the Arizona Republic picked up on the story and the pieces of a long-forgotten footnote to the Vietnam War era were broadcast nationwide, rekindling a discussion about the anti-war protests and whether Mechanic still deserves to go to prison.
One of those most directly affected by Mechanic’s flight in 1972 was Washington University English professor Carter Revard, who put up his house to secure Mechanic’s $10,000 bail. Although he still faults Mechanic for skipping out, the now-retired academic saves his harshest criticism for “the lying scoundrels and ideologues” — those who used the legal system to help dictate American foreign policy.
“My view is that they wanted to give (Mechanic) five years in jail for throwing a cherry bomb, while they were giving Medals of Honor to people who were dropping cluster bombs and napalm on Vietnamese children,” says Revard. “I thought that it was an outrage then, and I think now that it’s an outrage.”
Despite growing opposition to the Vietnam War, President Richard Milhous Nixon stunned Americans by announcing on April 30, 1970, that U.S. forces had invaded Cambodia. Within minutes, anti-war activists took to the streets, and within days more than 60 colleges had been shut down by student strikes. On May 4, at Kent State University, Ohio National Guardsmen fired more than 60 rounds into a crowd of 200 students, wounding nine and killing four. At Jackson State University in Mississippi, state troopers fired more than 300 bullets into a dormitory, killing two students and wounding 12 others. Students reacted by attacking and damaging ROTC buildings at more than 30 colleges across the country. One of those schools was Washington University. Incensed by the Kent State killings, as many as 3,000 students attended a May 4 strike rally held in the university’s quadrangle. The crowd then marched on the Air Force ROTC building. The military presence on campus had long been the focus of student protests, but nothing matched the fervor exhibited that night.
Around 12:30 a.m., several of the demonstrators entered the ROTC center with torches and set the building on fire. When firefighters arrived, the mob jeered and pelted them with rocks. Although more than 1,000 people were estimated to have taken part in the violence, only seven were charged. But it was no accident that Mechanic was one of the seven.
Long before the police busted him for throwing a cherry bomb, Mechanic had been targeted by the judicial system and police.
His name is listed in a 1970 congressional report as being among those St. Louisans suspected of traveling to Chicago in October 1969 to take part in an anti-war demonstration called the Days of Rage. The protest turned violent and resulted in massive property damage in downtown Chicago. Six protesters were shot by Chicago police, and more than two dozen cops were injured. The FBI’s target in this case was the sponsor of the protest, the Weathermen, a radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The Weathermen took their name from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Other congressional testimony in 1969 shows that the St. Louis Police Department had been monitoring student politics at Washington University long before Mechanic ever enrolled at the university, using informants to spy on left-wing student organizations. Police estimated the ranks of the university’s SDS chapter at no more than 20. Although Mechanic was not linked directly to SDS in the testimony, he was alleged to be a close associate of an SDS member who led a local draft-resistance group.
An earlier fire that gutted the Army ROTC headquarters in the spring semester of 1970, combined with other campus unrest, resulted in a crackdown by the university administration. The university obtained a court order naming Mechanic and six other student demonstrators, including SDS organizer Terry Koch and Devereaux Kennedy, former student-body president. The broad injunction, signed by St. Louis County Circuit Judge George E. Schaaf on March 24, 1970, identified the seven protesters as representatives of a “whole class of defendants” and thereby made them accountable for any future disturbances on campus.
Within hours of the May 4 and 5 rioting, deputized campus police arrested Mechanic. He and other participants in the demonstration had been identified from St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographs surrendered by the newspaper to the FBI. Less than a month later, Schaaf found seven defendants guilty of criminal contempt for violating the restraining order. Mechanic and Koch received the stiffest sentences — six months in jail and $500 fines. But Mechanic’s legal problems were just beginning. The feds were after him for the same crime. In October 1970, Mechanic became the first person convicted by a federal jury of violating the anti-riot law, which had been tacked on as a rider to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Interfering with the duties of firefighters was deemed a federal offense because the Air Force ROTC building was considered federal property. Judge Meredith meted out the maximum sentence — five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Mechanic appealed, unsuccessfully. In upholding the conviction in Dec. 1971, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expressed reservations about Mechanic’s being tried both in state and federal court for different charges stemming from the same offense. But the possibility that Mechanic had been subjected to double jeopardy wasn’t enough to cause the conviction to be set aside, the appeals court ruled.
“They were trying to get anybody who they thought was a student leader — anybody who they thought was fomenting demonstrations. They had Howard down as one of those guys,” says Revard, the English professor who put his house up as collateral for Mechanic’s $10,000 bond. When Mechanic didn’t show up to begin serving his sentence on May 24, 1972, Meredith started forfeiture proceedings. Revard relied on contributions from fellow faculty members to pay off the bond.
Unlike Mechanic, Napoleon Bland didn’t avoid incarceration. Bland, now a Muslim who has changed his name to Napoleon A. Rahim, ended up serving four-and-half years in federal prison for his part in the disturbance. In 1970, Rahim worked at Barnes Hospital and attended Washington University part-time. As a youth, he took an active interest in the civil-rights movement and in Urban League and NAACP-sponsored activities, and, for a brief period, he belonged to the militant Black Liberators group. In the wake of the Kent State massacre, he found himself swept up in the fiery protest that erupted at Washington University.
“I was one of the few African-Americans who was caught up in this melee,” says Rahim. “All I did was go down there and throw rocks and cans at the ROTC building. When they went into the building, I ran up to the building. A fellow came out and handed me a flag,” says Rahim. “The next thing I know, he was torching it. They got a picture of me. They said I burned the flag.”
Rahim says he received ineffectual legal representation and ended up serving his time at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. His prison record has haunted him ever since. “Every time that comes up, (it) seems to hold a shadow over me, as if it’s something recent. I felt that it was a great miscarriage of justice,” says Rahim, but he doesn’t hold a grudge against Mechanic for fleeing. “I’m a Muslim now, and we don’t live in the past.”
Rahim says Mechanic appears to have led an honorable life as Gary Tredway. “I feel it’s a great miscarriage of justice to even think about putting him in jail, due to the fact he’s done so much great community work where he’s been at,” he says.
It’s a view shared by Mechanic’s supporters in Phoenix. They argue that he has suffered enough and more than paid for his crime by committing himself through dedication to the community in which he lives. Others aren’t so willing to forgive and forget. One of them is retired Special Agent J. Wallace LaPrade, who headed the St. Louis FBI office in 1970. “I think he violated the law, and I think he should be held accountable,” says LaPrade, 73, who now lives in Virginia. “The fact that he left, I think, should increase the punishment that was rendered at the time that he fled. Leniency? Absolutely not. This individual committed a crime. He was convicted of a crime. And he should pay for the crime.”
LaPrade, who moved to New York City in 1971 to head the bureau’s largest field office, ironically saw his own career abruptly end, thanks to his activities fighting the anti-war movement. He was sacked as assistant director of the FBI in 1978 for failing to cooperate in the Justice Department’s investigation into the FBI’s illegal activities. The FBI was accused of burglarizing private residences and offices as part of its efforts to apprehend fugitive members of the Weather Underground.
After the burning of the ROTC building in 1970, a declassified FBI memo shows, LaPrade was contacted by an unidentified intermediary who had won union support to “repair all the damages caused by the (Washington University) demonstrators at no cost to the government.” According to the memo, the plan was designed to garner “considerable publicity … (and) Life magazine is among the members of the news media who have expressed an interest in this matter…. ” Asked this week about the memo, LaPrade says, “I never heard of such a thing.”
Washington University, however, elected to move the controversial ROTC program off-campus, and the public-relations effort flopped.
The FBI’s local efforts were not always so benign. In 1975, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed that the St. Louis field office had sent anonymous letters in 1969 and 1970 to two black-militant organizations in an attempt to disrupt those groups’ activities by alleging marital infidelity among members.
The FBI’s efforts to smash the Weathermen took on added purpose in March 1970, when the group’s bomb-making efforts backfired, killing three members of the organization at a safe house in Greenwich Village. Subsequently, the Weather Underground carried out scores of bombing against targets such as Harvard University, the New York City Police headquarters, the offices of Gulf Oil, the U.S. Capitol Building and the Pentagon.
In 1971, a final attempt was made to destroy Washington University’s ROTC offices, which had been moved off-campus. That year, William Danforth was named the university’s chancellor, succeeding the beleaguered Thomas H. Eliot, who had struggled with waves of campus unrest.
Under Danforth, Washington University’s reputation grew nationally, faculty members won Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes, and the university’s endowment grew 11-fold to more than $1.7 billion. Today, about 50 Wash. U. undergraduates are enrolled in ROTC. The turmoil of 1970 became a historical footnote, and Howard Mechanic was forgotten.
Danforth, now 73 and the university’s chairman emeritus, has few recollections of that period and offers no opinion about the fate of the former student who spent a lifetime on the run for throwing fireworks at firemen. During a phone interview Saturday morning, Danforth interrupts his reminiscences to make sure of the safety of his granddaughter, who has wandered into the street in front of his house. “I didn’t like the Vietnam War,” he says. “(But) I was in the Korean War and had a great sense of patriotism.” From his perspective, Danforth says, he could see both sides of the issue.
“Eventually things got worked out,” says Danforth.
Howard Mechanic, however, can’t say the same thing.
After helping James Earl Ray escape prison in 1967, his brother says they reached out to the St. Louis underworld.
A version of this story appeared in Illinois Times, April 2, 2008.
The last time John Larry Ray visited New York City was in 1965. He was between jobs, collecting unemployment benefits. While there, he remembers, Malcolm X was murdered. When he visits the Big Apple this week, he will be discussing the assassination of another black leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who died in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
Ray, a 75-year-old resident of Quincy, is giving media interviews in New York to promote the release of his memoir, Truth at Last, co-authored by Lyndon Barsten.
Ray’s late brother James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to King’s murder in 1969 but quickly recanted his confession. The convicted assassin spent the rest of his life in the Tennessee prison system. He died of kidney failure and complications of liver disease at Nashville Memorial Hospital on April 23, 1998.
John Larry Ray, a convicted bank robber, spent more than a quarter-century behind bars himself. Truth at Last is his intriguing but meandering account, a navigation of the uncharted waters of the two siblings’ lives. “It’s like the Mississippi River,” says John Larry Ray. “You can’t stop one place and jump to another place.”
In the book, John Larry Ray asserts that his brother revealed to him that he had been ordered to shoot and kill a black soldier in postwar Germany while serving in the Army. The revelation was allegedly made in October 1974, when the two brothers shared a cell at the Shelby County (Tenn.) Jail in advance of an evidentiary hearing to determine whether James Earl Ray should be granted a trial. James Earl Ray also supposedly told his brother that the CIA had tapped him to be an intelligence asset. On the basis of this anecdote, co-author Barsten speculates that James Earl Ray was subjected to the CIA’s behavior-modification program known as MK-Ultra.
Much of the author’s personal knowledge of his brother’s exploits is limited to involvement in James Earl Ray’s escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in April 1967, a year before King’s murder. After the breakout, John Larry Ray says, he picked James Earl Ray up and drove him back to St. Louis.
“We stayed all night at the Catman’s in South St. Louis, says Ray, referring to Jack “Catman” Gawron, a criminal associate of the Ray brothers. The next day, he says, they met with Joe Burnett, another criminal, at a Manchester Avenue bar: “The reason we went there was to try and put some money into James’ pocket.” Burnett referred them to safecracker and burglar James “Obie” O’Brien.
“We drove across the river to the Paddock Lounge in [East St. Louis] Illinois and I introduced him to Jimmie O’Brien,” Ray says. O’Brien knew the owner of the Paddock — Frank “Buster” Wortman — the East Side mob boss. O’Brien arranged for the Ray brothers to spend the night at a nearby apartment above an illegal gambling den also operated by Wortman. Meanwhile, O’Brien was supposed to check with Wortman about a proposed diamond heist. Before the details of that caper could be hashed out, however, the Ray brothers got jittery and split for Chicago.
But John Larry Ray believes that his brother maintained contact with O’Brien after their hasty departure. Later that year, James Earl Ray returned to the St. Louis area and met with O’Brien again, John Larry Ray says. He claims that his brother was then fronted an estimated $50,000. He suspects that the payoff was passed through Wortman’s organization by the Chicago mob in advance of a Canadian jewel robbery in which his brother was slated to take part. John Larry
Ray says his brother gave him approximately half the money and requested that he hold $10,000 of it in case he was arrested and needed to post bond. James Earl Ray subsequently fled north of the border, but there is no indication that he participated in such a caper.
After returning to the United States, he occasionally talked to his brother by phone. “He called me one time, asking about a gun,” John Larry Ray says. “I told him, if you’re looking for guns, I can get any gun you want from Ft. Campbell, Ky. I had the connection.”
The last call he received from his brother before the assassination came on March 29, 1968: “He was concerned about what was going down on some type of job. He wanted to meet me.” The two arranged a rendezvous in West Memphis, Ark., on the evening of April 3, 1968, at what Ray calls a “back-alley” bar. He says he drove down from St. Louis in his cream-colored Thunderbird with a machine gun and other weapons in the trunk.
But when his brother arrived, he showed no interest in purchasing guns. Instead, James Earl Ray appeared edgy and expressed apprehension about his future. In his phone call he had asked his brother to pump O’Brien for information. “I tried to contact O’Brien but I couldn’t find him,” says John Larry Ray. “I heard he was in Florida someplace.”
They sipped beer together for a couple of hours, says John Larry Ray. He says he warned his brother about the dangers of dealing with the Mafia: “I told him don’t be the one floating in the Mississippi.”
During the conversation, John Larry Ray says, King’s name came up only in reference to the possibility of traffic congestion resulting from his visit to Memphis the next day. James Earl Ray worried that King’s presence in the city might somehow block his getaway plans, his brother says, and he never provided any clues about what else was making him so uneasy.
They both concluded that their fears were unfounded, says John Larry Ray. When they parted, he watched his brother walk down the back alley alone. He didn’t see what kind of car his brother was driving, but he got the sense that someone was waiting for him.
There is no doubt now that John Larry Ray helped James Earl Ray escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary, but the devil is in the details. Witnesses who might have confirmed John Larry Ray’s expanded version of events are dead. Moreover, Jerry Ray, John Larry Ray’s surviving brother, disputed John Larry’s account in a telephone interview from his home in McMinnville, Tenn., in October.
“John will tell you he brought him [James Earl Ray] to St. Louis,” Jerry Ray says. “He didn’t bring him to St. Louis. He brought him to Chicago. You can check, if they still have the records. A day after he escaped, he was in Chicago that night, and I met him and John a day afterward at the Fairview Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.”
Asked why John Larry Ray would incorporate a stopover in St. Louis into his story, his brother replies: “I guess to dramatize the book. I don’t know.”
Did the CIA’s MK-Ultra program influence the behavior of James Earl Ray?
A version of this story first appeared in Illinois Times Nov. 29, 2007. John Larry Ray died in 2013
by C.D. Stelzer
John Larry Ray has been pitching this story for nearly a decade — but until now  few have been willing to listen.
The brother of the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King, says James Earl Ray told him that in 1948, while serving as a military policeman in postwar Germany, he had intentionally shot a black soldier named Washington at the behest of a U.S. Army officer. The subsequent court martial allegedly ruled that Ray had acted appropriately because the soldier had failed to halt when ordered to do so.
Based on a jailhouse conversation that John Larry Ray says he had with his brother, Lyndon Barsten, the co-author of the book, speculates that while in the Army Ray was inducted into a CIA behavior-modification program known as MK-Ultra. The classified program has gained recent notoriety due to the popularity of Wormwood, a 2017 Netflix documentary series by acclaimed film director Errol Morris. The series examines the agency’s culpability in the 1951 death of Army scientist Frank Olson, who was involved in MK-Ultra’s secret chemical experiments at Fort Detrick, Md.
Barsten points out that James Earl Ray’s personality changed after his military service. The conspiracy researcher also notes that two hypnotists treated James Earl Ray before the assassination, a sign that he was vulnerable to suggestion.
Moreover, Barsten maintains that Ray’s two visits to Montreal in 1959 and 1967 show that he may have been part of the CIA-sponsored MK-Ultra sub-project at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute conducted by Donald Ewan Cameron. Cameron’s CIA-sponsored research involved studying the effects of electroshock treatments and drugs, including LSD, on human behavior.
Finally, Barsten discovered that Army records of other men who supposedly served with James Earl Ray’s unit don’t match up. He asserts that the Army unit was fabricated to hide the CIA’s behavior-modification program. Barsten’s opinion is based on years of research, including scouring military records housed at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.
In the book, John Larry Ray claims that he knew of these allegations since 1974, but his attempts to divulge the information failed.
For example, on March 30, 1998, less than a month before his brother died, Ray says he wrote a letter to Janet Reno. The then-U.S. attorney general gave him no consideration.
He also dropped a hint in a story that appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper in August 1998. That claim also fell on deaf ears, mainly because he demanded that the federal government fork over a six-figure payment before he would divulge what he claimed to know.
The overlooked secret that Ray wanted to cash in on was revealed in the fourth paragraph of the Commercial Appeal’s story: “… John Ray says James not only was involved in King’s assassination but also a second racial murder he would not discuss… .”
Later, Ray says, he spoke quietly with a Justice Department lawyer with no strings attached. His words still went unheeded.
He says he then contacted Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil-rights leader. She didn’t respond.
“I found nobody wanted to hear it,” Ray says.
In January 2001, Ray released his self-described revelation in a video titled The Rub Out of MLK. He sent a dozen copies to news outlets, including the Riverfront Times of St. Louis, CNN, and Court TV. In the video, Ray faces the camera and gives a rambling account of a conversation he allegedly had with the late James Earl Ray in the Shelby County (Tenn.) Jail in 1974. But his telling of the story is difficult to understand because John Larry Ray has a speech impediment.
“Nobody picked up on it,” he says.
The subject of the brothers’ jailhouse chat is now a primary selling point of his bookset for publication by Lyons Press next spring  to capitalize on the 40th anniversary of the assassination. Ironically, now that the 74-year-old Quincy, Ill., resident has finally garnered some media attention, he’s not talking, on the advice of his literary agent and publisher.
“I [am] under orders to keep my mouth shut,” Ray wrote in an e-mail message. “If I say anything about the contents, it would break the contract.” While the gag order is in place, Ray’s literary agent is shopping the film rights around Hollywood.
But the gist of Ray’s startling claim can be gleaned from his 2001 video recitation and in an interview he granted me later that year.
The story begins in October 1974, when Tennessee prison authorities transferred James Earl Ray to the Shelby County Jail in advance of an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he should be granted a trial after pleading guilty in 1969 to the murder of King. A few days after his plea, James Earl Ray recanted and claimed that his confession had been coerced.
John Larry Ray, who was serving a sentence for bank robbery at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., in 1974, was called to testify on his brother’s behalf. He was transferred to the same jail, where the two brothers shared a cell, according to John Larry Ray.
The circumstances made for a less-than-ideal family reunion.
Although the two were fiercely loyal to each another, there had never been any love lost between them. Now they found themselves caged under the most trying of conditions.
“My brother had a track record of selling out his relations,” says Ray. John Larry Ray worried that his court appearance would jeopardize his future parole chances. He harbored a nettlesome memory, too. He recalled how James Earl Ray had used his Social Security number to get a job as a dishwasher in Chicago after he had helped him escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967.
The two brothers argued violently and had to be separated at one point. During less tense moments, however, James Earl Ray supposedly began telling him a cloak-and-dagger tale that strains credulity.
James Earl Ray told his brother that in 1948, while serving as a military policeman in postwar Germany, he was ordered by a superior officer to shoot a black soldier named Washington. A subsequent court martial allegedly ruled that Ray had acted appropriately because the soldier had failed to halt when ordered to do so.
The shooting left Washington paralyzed, and the Army denied him a disability pension, according to John Larry Ray’s account of what his brother revealed to him. After James Earl Ray returned from Germany, John Larry Ray noted a personality change in his brother. Without knowing the exact reason for it, he attributed the anti-social behavior to his brother’s military service.
During the 2001 interview, John Larry Ray wondered why the FBI failed to find his brother’s Army records. He also stated that his brother may have been involved in other shootings while stationed in Germany. If James Earl Ray did kill King, the missing military records of the alleged shooting or shootings could supply a possible motive, his brother says.
The story is impossible to confirm because James Earl Ray’s military records have disappeared. The reason for the disappearance could possibly be attributed to a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center that burned a large portion of the archive.
But there is an added enigma.
While they were stuck in the jail cell together, James Earl Ray allegedly told his brother that the then-nascent CIA had tapped him to be an intelligence asset in the military. Moreover, after he had been discharged from the Army, James Earl Ray said that he continued to work as an intelligence operative in the United States.
“He still thought he was in the CIA in his own mind,” John Larry Ray says.
When John Larry Ray asked his brother why he pleaded guilty, his brother allegedly told him that the earlier shooting incident would have been introduced as evidence against him.
For decades John Larry Ray kept his brother’s secret, not knowing how much of the spy tale to believe. He didn’t tell a soul until around the time of his brother’s death. He even doubted James Earl Ray’s sanity because his brother had consulted mental health professionals, whom John Larry Ray refers to as “bug doctors.”
“That tells you [he’s] got a problem,” John Larry Ray says. “At least he thinks he’s got a problem, or he wouldn’t be going there.”
John Larry Ray thinks that his brother may have been a CIA patsy, but he’s not sure. “I don’t know if Washington existed,” he says. “I’m assuming he [James Earl Ray] would have no reason to lie to me. I didn’t say that it’s necessarily true.”
Those are John Larry Ray’s words from his 2001 interview.
James Lesar, who was one of the lawyers representing James Earl Ray in 1974, doesn’t remember the two Ray brothers sharing a cell at the Shelby County Jail. Says Lesar: “Jimmy was placed in a cell with 325-pound Mafioso type.”
Jim Green, ex-con and government snitch, says he and his buddies from the Bootheel took part in the plot to kill Martin Luther King Jr. Trouble is nobody believed him and now he’s dead.
by C.D. Stelzer
A version of this story was firstpublished in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) May 9, 2001. Jim Green died in 2003.
Wherever James Cooper Green Jr. goes in Caruthersville, his reputation precedes him. They know his name at the courthouse and at City Hall, at the liquor store and the café. In casual conversation, he tends to reminisce about the town’s violent past, when Caruthersville, Mo., was known as “Little Chicago.” He broaches the subject in the same way other people talk about the weather.
At his prompting, a woman at the Tigers Hut Café recalls how a bullet flew through her bedroom window when she was a child. The county prosecutor, its intended target, lived next door. Later, a 73-year-old man who once worked for Green’s father recounts how he shot and killed a fellow with a .38-caliber pistol. The boys at a local package-liquor store brag about smuggling machine guns over the state line.
They’re not lying so much as telling Green what he wants to hear. He revels in the old stories most residents would prefer to forget, tales of bygone days when Caruthersville was the capital of vice in the Missouri Bootheel, times when bootlegging, prostitution and illegal-gambling interests controlled Pemiscot County. It was not so long ago, really. The Climax bar and the Seawall whorehouse have been razed. But other haunts remain: the shady businesses, the former sites of murder and mayhem. Though he left here decades ago, no one knows these places better than Green. When he returns, as he often does, respectable members of the community — the elder lawyer, the current circuit judge, the retired newspaper publisher — shun him. His mere presence stirs apprehension, if not fear. Rumors shadow him: Green is a drug trafficker in Florida. Green is an FBI informant. Green is a Mafia associate.
“They’re scared to death of me in this town,” he says. “They always wonder what I’m up to. They’ll tell you I belong to the mob. They’ll tell you I work for the federal government. They don’t know.” Green is an enigma. Reviled by many and trusted by few, he trades in uncertainty as if his life depends on it.
For more than 20 years now, Green has maintained that he has knowledge of the plot to murder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He testified behind closed doors before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978; the testimony has been sealed by law until 2029. In 1997, he told his story to Dexter King, son of the slain civil-rights leader, in a private meeting.
The next time Green set out to tell this story, he ended up in jail. He was on his way to meet a senior producer for CBS News in Memphis on Feb. 25, 1998, when he and his wife were pulled over in their Dodge pickup by the Shelby County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Department narcotics unit. Green had ostensibly come under suspicion because police were investigating whether a methamphetamine lab was being run at the hotel where he had spent the night. The narcotics squad found no drugs, but Green was held in police custody for three days before he was released. Because of the arrest, Green missed a scheduled interview with Dan Rather for 48 Hours.
The news program, which preceded the 30th anniversary of the assassination, focused renewed attention — based on theories promulgated by the late James Earl Ray’s last attorney, William F. Pepper — on a possible conspiracy to kill King. At the time, Pepper was peddling his own conspiracy theory, based on the claims of Loyd Jowers, former owner of Jim’s Grill, who said he had paid a Memphis police officer to kill King at the behest of a local mob figure. Rather dismissed Green’s involvement in one sentence, telling viewers that Green’s prison record showed him to have been in custody on the day of the assassination.
But Green says that his prison record is wrong and that his 1998 arrest and subsequent discrediting are part of a continuing government disinformation campaign promoting the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s “lone gunman” theory. Claims by Green that he possesses what may have been the murder weapon and one of the getaway vehicles make his assertions seem all the more preposterous. Prosecutors from the Memphis district attorney’s office to the U.S. Justice Department label him a convicted felon and an unreliable source.
Yet there are untold elements that lend some credibility to Green’s far-fetched story. Despite his criminal record, Green has served as a local law-enforcement official and a federal undercover agent for years. Police officers and sheriffs have provided him with reference letters. More telling are Green’s FBI files, which provide a partial chronicle of his life over the last 35 years and corroborate many details of his account.
“I just wanted to tell the story and disappear,” Green says. He is sitting bare-chested at a table in Room 16 at Pic’s Motel on Truman Boulevard in Caruthersville. The motel once served as a location for illicit high-stakes poker games. It no longer holds that cachet. The room smells of mildew and cigarette smoke. Outside, a rusty window-unit air conditioner sits beside the door. Other household debris litters the parking lot.
“I’m serious. I’ve got a place in Colorado,” he says. “They’d never find me. I got several IDs I can use that I’ve had for years that they don’t know about — Social Security cards, voting cards, everything. And they’re legal; they’re not fake. I know how to do it. It’s the oldest trick in the book, how to disappear.”
Green pauses to light a Misty 120 menthol cigarette, takes a drag and then coughs. Of his three tattoos, two are of the jailhouse variety — a dove on one arm, a hawk on the other. The third has “Jim” inscribed above a crudely etched dagger piercing a heart.
A half-empty fifth of Gilbey’s gin sits on one corner of the table, near a bottle of prescription painkillers. Green, 54, continues fantasizing about changing his name, changing his life, starting anew. “The only thing you can’t make disappear is your fingerprints,” he says. “There’s a way, but I wouldn’t go through it. Too much work. Acid and sanding. You have to go to a doctor in South America to get it done. I ain’t going through that. I done lived too long, anyway. That’s the reason I sleep with that.” As he speaks, Green reaches into his black overnight bag and pulls out a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun.
Green’s tale begins in the fall of 1964, when he moved to St. Louis with his first wife and their infant son. Green worked downtown at International Shoe. When he turned 18 in January 1965, he dutifully registered for the draft, listing his home address as 2138 Victor Ave. But with his marriage in trouble, he took off for Caruthersville in March. The next month, he and a friend hit the road in a 1959 Ford Fairlane and ended up in Laredo, Texas. After crossing the border, they bought bus tickets to Mexico City. Once they reached the capital, they got a room at the Bonampak Hotel.
According to the official FBI account, the two young men ran out of money after going on a spree, then asked the U.S. Embassy to pay their fare home. The embassy denied the request and advised them to call their parents. FBI communiqués describe the pair as “smart aleck, hostile, generally uncooperative and uncommunicative.” During an interview with an embassy official, Green’s partner — his name has been blacked out in the FBI records — reportedly displayed a switchblade knife and repeatedly flicked it open. They were considered armed and dangerous. After being spurned at the U.S. Embassy, the two decided to see whether they’d get a better reception at the Soviet Embassy, according to FBI records.
Green remembers it differently. He claims that he met a CIA contact, a Mexican lawyer, at the border. His contact, he says, arranged for the sale of his car and directed him to meet a man at the Monterrey bus station who would provide further instructions and travel money. Once directed to the hotel in Mexico City, Green called a number at the U.S. Embassy. At an appointed hour that evening, an English-speaking cab driver took Green and his friend to a side-street café, where an embassy attaché advised them on how to present themselves when they visited the Soviet Embassy the next day.
One aspect of the saga is undisputed. The FBI memos indicate that Green and his companion visited the Soviet Embassy on two successive days. On their second visit, they formally defected to the Soviet Union. When the pair left the embassy, they were promptly arrested by the Mexican secret police and jailed. On April 21, 1965, Mexican authorities deported the two young men.
The case generated a flurry of secret cables. FBI field offices in St. Louis and San Antonio were alerted after urgent messages were dispatched from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to the FBI director’s office in Washington, D.C. The Memphis and Kansas City FBI offices would later be brought into the investigation. At headquarters, the attempted defection was discussed in internal memos among high-ranking bureau officials. The internal security, domestic-intelligence and espionage sections were all apprised of the situation. Portions of this correspondence have been redacted for national-security reasons. Two of the internal memos are completely blacked out. Ultimately, after an agent interviewed Green in September 1965, the FBI director’s office concluded that Green’s “Mexican escapade [was] obviously a youthful prank” and expressed no further interest in pursuing the case.
By that time, Green had enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood. In November, he got drunk with some of his Army buddies and drove in a stolen car to St. Louis, where he was arrested. He was convicted of car theft in Oregon County, Mo., and sentenced to three years in prison. At the Missouri Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Green says, he crossed paths with James Earl Ray, an inmate who worked in the laundry. Green was transferred to the Algoa Correctional Center, also in Jefferson City, and, later, to a medium-security prison in Moberly. During at least part of his incarceration, Department of Corrections records indicate that Green worked as an undercover operative for a deputy sheriff in Oregon County. But Green doesn’t recall doing that. He was released in late August 1967 and immediately resumed his criminal activities.
At Moberly, Green served time with Moe Mahanna, a Gaslight Square club owner who was doing six years on a manslaughter rap for beating an Indiana tourist to death outside his bar, the Living Room. Being locked up with Mahanna opened doors for Green when he got out, helping him gain acceptance among a cast of St. Louis criminal figures, including East Side boss Frank “Buster” Wortman and labor racketeer Louis D. Shoulders. Just 20 years old, the Caruthersville youth had already put together a sordid résumé. He was an ex-con. He had a network of mob contacts. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Green could be at once arrogant, rebellious and physically intimidating. But his immaturity also made him pliable. St. Louis’ criminal syndicate could use a man like Green.
Within a month of being released from prison, Green says, he and his friend Butch Collier met with Shoulders at Whiskey A-Go-Go, across the street from Mahanna’s club in Gaslight Square. The nightclub had a reputation for being a hangout of felons and other notorious characters. As early as 1958, Shoulders himself had been subpoenaed by the Senate Rackets Committee. He later took over Laborers Local 42, and, by 1967, with the Vietnam War raging, he had gained control over hundreds of jobs at the Gateway Army Ammunition plant, a project plagued by millions of dollars in cost overruns.
When Shoulders walked into Whiskey A-Go-Go, Green recognized the man who accompanied him. The man, known by Green only as “Paul,” had been introduced to him earlier at a downtown pool hall by Collier. Green says Paul was then in his mid- to late 30s, about 5-foot-10, with a dark complexion. He wore a suit with an open-collared shirt and no tie, spoke with a Northeastern accent and had red hair. Paul, Green says, appeared to be acquainted with the management at the go-go club and seemed to be talking business with several people at the bar.
The meeting, Green says, was not a chance encounter. It had been set up by Lee J. “Jaybird” Gatewood, Caruthersville’s crime boss. Jaybird had been contacted by Wortman, who controlled organized crime in East St. Louis, Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri. Green says Paul agreed to pay Green and Collier $4,500 to pick up a truckload of stolen Cadillacs from a railyard in St. Louis and drive to the Town and Country Motel in New Orleans, headquarters of New Orleans Mafia don Carlos Marcello. Green says he didn’t realize who Marcello was until years later. Back then, Green was merely a driver. His entire criminal career to date involved alcohol and fast cars: running whiskey to dry counties in nearby Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi and going on a drunken spree in the Army in a stolen vehicle.
In contrast to his past exploits, Green’s next job seemed almost tame. Wortman’s rackets included providing “insurance protection” to vending-machine operators, including Broadway Music in Caruthersville, then owned by Harold J. “Bo” Young. A portion of the untaxed cash receipts was regularly shipped north to St. Louis. Less than two weeks after he dropped off the hot cars in New Orleans, Green says, he delivered a payment to Wortman in St. Louis and then met Paul at the downtown pool hall, where they had lunch. Paul lauded him for his work and then reached into his jacket pocket and flashed an FBI badge.
“I thought I was going back to jail,” Green says. Paul assured him he was not under arrest, but Green left in a panic and hightailed it back to the Climax bar in Caruthersville. Green found Jaybird in his usual position, perched on top of his safe in the bar. “I said, ‘Jaybird, do you know this motherfucker is a FBI agent?'” Green recalls. Jaybird, he says, laughed and asked him whether he had shit his pants. The older crook then tried to calm him down. “Look, we do things for them. They do things for us,” Green recalls Jaybird saying. “It works the same way it does with the sheriff. All you got to do is trust what he tells you.”
Green says he agreed to cooperate with Paul but continued to feel uneasy about it. Not only was Paul an outsider, he had identified himself as a federal agent and was becoming more involved in calling the shots. Over the next several months, Green recalls, Paul visited Caruthersville three or four times. The meetings, which were always held in the backroom of the Climax, at different times included Jaybird, Young, Collier, Green, Pemiscot County Sheriff Clyde Orton and Buddy Cook, the town’s most prominent bootlegger. At one of these meetings, Green says, Paul instructed him to pick up three rifles from a Caruthersville pawnbroker. After retrieving the weapons, he stowed them in a shed behind his parents’ house, in a duffel bag holding his Army clothes.
Meanwhile, Green’s personal life had taken another unforeseen turn. His second marriage lasted only a week. This time, he moved south to Memphis, where he shared an apartment with Joe R. Tipton Jr., a Caruthersville friend. In late December 1967, Green got drunk on his way back from St. Louis and picked up a hitchhiker, Edward Fatzsinger. Once they reached the Bootheel, they stopped at the Idle Hour tavern in Hayti, where Green’s estranged wife tended bar. After leaving in a fit of anger, Green spied a 1966 Chevy Caprice in the parking lot and decided to steal it. It wasn’t a strictly impulsive decision. He knew of a Memphis stock-car driver who might buy the car for its 350-cubic-inch engine.Two days later, Memphis police knocked on his door and arrested him for interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle, a federal charge.
Under questioning by the FBI, Green offered to give up the names of other criminals, including corrupt law-enforcement officials, if the feds dropped charges. But the agents refused, and Green remained in the Shelby County, Tenn., jail until Feb. 15, 1968, when he was transferred to the Springfield, Mo., medical facility for federal prisoners because he was spitting up blood. Green contends he faked the symptoms by sucking on his gums. After being held for observation for a little over a month, Green says, he was sent back to Memphis.
On his first night back in jail, Green says, the chief jailer escorted him across the street to the federal building to confer with Paul, who informed him that he would be released immediately. Before leaving, Paul warned him not to make any further statements to the police.
It is impossible to verify Green’s version of events through federal-court records, because they were routinely expunged more than a decade ago. Contacted by telephone, a spokesman for the federal hospital says the limited information available shows Green stayed at the Springfield facility until April 9, 1968, five days after King was murdered. Not surprisingly, Green disputes the official record.
By his account, he had returned to Caruthersville by the third week of March and was working for his father at a lumberyard. He began courting his third wife and took her to the Caruthersville High prom. He also attended another meeting in the backroom of the Climax bar. The assemblage included Paul, Jaybird, Young, Orton, Collier and Green. Paul passed around a photograph of James Earl Ray, saying Ray had threatened to snitch on everybody and had to be silenced. Paul ordered Green and Collier to rendezvous with him in Memphis on April 2.
On the afternoon of April 2, 1968, Butch Collier and Jim Green checked into a motel in Southhaven, Miss. That evening, they patronized a nearby massage parlor and then went out drinking. Paul showed up at their room late the next night and dropped a package on the bed containing $5,000. He promised an equal amount once the hit was carried out. Paul told them Ray planned to rob a tavern on South Main Street. Two Memphis police officers had been contracted to kill him as he attempted to make his getaway. If the police missed, Green, who was to be stationed on a nearby rooftop, would shoot Ray instead.
That evening, Collier and Green drove back to Caruthersville to retrieve the weapons. When they returned to Memphis, they took a room at a motel on Lamar Avenue, near the airport. The next night, Paul showed up and explained the plan in detail. Three identical vehicles would be involved in the plot. Ray’s white Ford Mustang and another owned by Tipton, Green’s roommate, would be parked near a rooming house, Bessie’s, where Ray had taken a room. A third white Mustang would be parked down the street, near the Arcade restaurant. In case of a mixup, the third automobile would be used as the getaway car. It would be equipped with a CB radio to monitor police calls, and false identification papers would be stowed in the glove box. Green would be positioned on the roof of a cotton warehouse south of Jim’s Grill, on the opposite side of the street.
After the briefing, Paul, Green and Collier drove to South Main to familiarize themselves with the area. It was cloudy, with a light mist falling, and doubts were beginning to creep into Green’s mind. “I really didn’t know if I could do it,” he says. “So I kept asking Butch what was he supposed to be doing, and he said, ‘All I know is, I’m going with Paul.’ The pair went back to their motel room and talked. As thunder and lightning flashed outside, Collier went off on a long, rambling screed about his segregationist views. The conversation struck Green as odd, given the circumstances, but he tacitly agreed with his friend’s racist rant, not knowing its portent. Green had no idea King had preached his last sermon at the Mason Temple that night. He says he didn’t even know King had returned to Memphis. Moreover, he didn’t care. “King didn’t mean no more to me than anybody else. Back then, a nigger was a nigger,” Green says. “You either talked that way or your own white people would run you out of town. You might not agree with it, but you still had to act like you were prejudiced. And I guess, at that time, I was, to a certain extent.”
The next day, about noon, Collier and Green drove downtown to the King Cotton Hotel. Butch dressed, as usual, in a navy-blue peacoat and plaid shirt. As they were seated at a back table of a restaurant on the ground floor, Ray walked in, sat down at the counter and glanced in their direction before exiting. According to Ray’s own account, he noted two suspicious characters staring at him when he mistakenly wandered into Jim’s Belmont Café at 260 S. Main St. later that afternoon.
About 3 p.m., Collier dropped Green off near the rear of the warehouse. After crossing the railroad tracks, Green scaled a ladder and positioned himself on the roof. From his vantage point, he had a clear view of Jim’s Grill and Bessie’s rooming house. Fifteen minutes later, he saw Collier and Paul pull up in Tipton’s Mustang and park a couple of spaces behind Ray’s identical vehicle. They got out and entered different doorways. At the same time, to the south, he saw the third Mustang draw to the curb in front of the Arcade. The driver was picked up by another well-dressed man in a dark Chevrolet sedan. Ray then exited the rooming house and entered Jim’s Grill, followed by Paul. At 3:30 p.m., Ray left and walked north on Main Street. A few minutes later, Paul came out, looked in Green’s direction and then re-entered the rooming house. Ray returned.
Green remembers the sounds that day: the pigeons cooing and flapping their wings on the roof, the sound of the traffic below, river tows blowing their horns behind him. It was the slack time of year for the cotton industry, but at 4 p.m. some employees milled below him. Fearing he would be seen, Green moved to a more secluded rooftop, four doors south.
“I laid on that fucking building almost two-and-half hours,” Green says. “I heard every bird. I heard every noise. I seen everything I could see. I thought every thought I could think. And the question has always been ‘Would I have done it?’ I don’t know.”
As dusk approached, Green grew edgier. Then, at 5:55 p.m., he saw Ray step from the rooming house and jump into the Mustang. Something had gone amiss. Ray hadn’t robbed the grill. No cops had arrived. Green hesitated. Paul had told Green that Ray would head south on foot. Instead, Ray drove north. Green waited, thinking Ray might circle the block. Five minutes passed, and he thought he heard a backfire. Within moments, Collier appeared at the front of the building across the street, followed by Paul, who dropped a bundle in a nearby doorway. Green heard screams and saw people running from the nearby fire station. Collier and Paul got into Tipton’s Mustang, drove north and then made a U-turn. Collier dropped Paul off at the third Mustang, parked next to the Arcade, and then swung behind the warehouse to pick up Green. By this time, Green could hear sirens, and police were starting to arrive.
With Green riding shotgun, Collier cut over Third Street to Lamar Avenue and headed west. After crossing the Mississippi River, he pulled under the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge and tossed two rifles into the river. The pair headed north on Highway 61. Collier had driven all the way to Osceola, Ark., a distance of about 45 miles, before Green noticed the third rifle, still in the backseat. They decided it was too late to ditch the gun. They would have to wait. The remainder of the trip, Green says, they didn’t talk much, but Collier kept repeating the same phrase to himself: “I killed that nigger, I killed that nigger.” After Collier dropped him off at his parents’ house, Green says, he left the rifle with a friend who lived in the neighborhood. By the time he got home, his father was watching the news. Green went into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk, grabbed a handful of cookies, came back to the living room and sat down. On the screen was the image of the rooming house on South Main in Memphis. The TV news reported that a sniper had fired a shot from a rear window of the building, fatally wounding King as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Green says he almost fell out of his chair. It was the first inkling that his Memphis trip had been tied to something more than knocking off a two-bit hood.
Green borrowed his father’s car and sped to the Climax bar. On his arrival, Jaybird ushered him into the backroom. Green recalls Jaybird telling him that he had “fucked up by not killing Ray, and everybody [was] covering their tracks.” Green says Jaybird instructed him, if asked, to say he had been gambling all day at the Climax. Jaybird told Green to go home and lie low. Two days later, on April 6, Jaybird called Green to a meeting in the backroom. All the major players attended: Paul, Wortman, Shoulders, Young, Orton and Collier. All the persons named by Green, with the possible exception of Paul, are dead. Paul remains unidentified. This leaves no one to corroborate Green’s account of the meeting, which Green could not have attended if he was incarcerated in the prison hospital as his record indicates.
During the alleged meeting, Green recalls, Paul referred indirectly to his superior. Paul said that his boss would go to any length necessary to shield himself from being implicated, Green says. Because Paul had earlier shown him FBI credentials, Green inferred that someone higher up in the bureau was involved. The contract on Ray remained in effect. Green and Collier were each issued a .38-caliber Brazilian-made Rossi pistol and told to stand by.
Green’s account — a subplot within a larger conspiracy that has Ray set up as King’s assassin but then murdered by police or by Green — is incredible by any measure, so fantastic that the U.S. Justice Department has chosen to disregard it altogether. When the department issued its latest findings, last June, it didn’t even refer to Green. The department undertook the investigation to look into recent allegations regarding the assassination, including Jowers’ claims, after being asked by the King family. Essentially, the government has deemed Green an unreliable witness, if not a liar and a fraud. Barry Kowalski, the Justice Department lawyer who headed the investigation, refuses to comment publicly on Green’s allegations. An investigation conducted by the Shelby County District Attorney in 1998 also gave no credence to Green’s story.
The version of events Green told the Riverfront Times has discrepancies as well. The inconsistencies relate mainly to locations and place names, errors that could be explained as lapses of memory on Green’s part. Less explicable are Green’s two mystery men: Collier and Paul. Collier appears to have used more than one name and is likely dead.His participation in the conspiracy cannot be confirmed, except through Green. As for Paul, there is no readily available way to verify whether he ever existed.
Green’s only true believer is Lyndon Barsten, a Minneapolis-based conspiracy researcher. The two have teamed up and hit the conference and lecture circuit together. Barsten spends all his spare time delving into the King case. He considers it his search for the Holy Grail. To his credit, Barsten is responsible for obtaining Green’s FBI records through the Freedom of Information Act. “What Jim is saying makes perfect sense to me,” Barsten says. “There is documentation to back up what he has to say.”
Barsten notes that the bureau’s records show that Eugene Medori, an FBI agent in Memphis, displayed a photo lineup to Ralph Carpenter, a clerk at the York Arms Co., on April 6. Ray had bought binoculars from Carpenter on the afternoon of April 4. At this time, the FBI had yet to identify Ray as a suspect. One of the mug shots was of Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist and a suspect in the 1963 murder of civil-rights leader Medgar Evers. (More than 30 years later, De La Beckwith would be convicted of the murder.) The agent also showed Carpenter a photograph of Green.
“Now, why was I in a lineup with De La Beckwith?” asks Green. “I ain’t no killer. All of them boys are Klansmen. I’m just a car thief. What am I doing there? I’m in the lineup of the FBI, two days after King’s killing. What am I doing in that lineup — if I’m in jail?”
Medori’s name also shows up on the witness list of Fatzsinger, Green’s co-defendant in the car-theft case. Solely on the basis of his Springfield medical record, Green is presumed to have been held without bail from his arrest in December 1967 until his sentencing on July 12, 1968.
On May 15, however, the Memphis FBI office dispatched an urgent cable to its counterpart in St. Louis, requesting that James Cooper Green of Caruthersville be interviewed. The message refers to an earlier communication dated May 1, 1968, which identified Green as the inmate who may have been beaten for not paying for amphetamines purchased from Ray while the two were behind bars in Jeff City. The cable mentions that Green was “currently on bond following indictment … [in] Memphis.”Nevertheless, the date on the cable still does not contradict the Springfield record that shows Green to have been there until April 9.
Other memos in the MURKIN file (“MURKIN” is the bureau’s code name for the King case) show the FBI focusing attention on Caruthersville and the Bootheel — after the bureau had identified Ray as the prime suspect on April 19.
From May 15-20, 1968, for example, the St. Louis field office, in cooperation with local law-enforcement officials, canvassed individuals and businesses in the Bootheel that received phone calls placed from a Sinclair service station in Portageville, calls believed at the time to have a connection to the case. The FBI office in Chicago also searched for J.D. Dailey, a presumed associate of Ray’s who had recently moved from St. Louis to Portageville, Mo.
“Why is the town of Caruthersville mentioned in all these documents?” asks Green. “Not just one FBI office, but four or five.”
Caruthersville crops up in the MURKIN file again, more than a year after the assassination. By this time, Ray had pleaded guilty, then quickly recanted. Despite Ray’s renewed plea of innocence, his biographer, William Bradford Huie, cast him as the lone assassin in a 1968 Look magazine series. In the last article, Huie wrote that Ray stayed at a motel near Corinth, Miss., on April 2, 1968. This prompted FBI headquarters to order its field offices in Birmingham, Jackson and Memphis to investigate Ray’s whereabouts between March 29 and April 3. Motel registrations were scrutinized to determine whether anyone had accompanied or contacted Ray during this period. Headquarters advised the field offices not to divulge that their inquiries were related to Ray’s case. But after the Jackson FBI disseminated the motel-registration names to other branches across the country, headquarters did an about-face and halted the investigation:
“In view of the fact that more than a year has passed since these persons stayed over night at Corinth, and since similar investigation of this type in this case has previously been unproductive, and since Huie has admitted that Ray frequently is untruthful in statements to him, and further since it is not believed that it is of any particular importance to establish whether or not James Earl Ray stayed over night at Corinth on 4/2/68, all offices will disregard the leads set out in Jackson airtel dated 5/7/69 unless specifically advised by the Bureau to cover same.”
The Jackson office’s list included the Southern and Nite Fall motels in Corinth. Three men from Caruthersville stayed at the Nite Fall and one registered at the Southern between March 29 and April 3, according to motel records in the FBI file. Green says all four men were then employed by Buddy Cook, the Caruthersville bootlegger who had attended meetings with Paul at the Climax bar.
To bolster its “lone stalker” theory, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 produced a laundry receipt signed by Ray in Atlanta on April 1. Ray denied it was his signature and sent his brother to search out the motel he said he had stayed at on that date. Jerry Ray later told the subcommittee that he traveled to Corinth and located the Southern Motel using a map his brother had drawn.
In January 1970, Green was released from federal prison in El Reno, Okla., after serving two years for stealing the Caprice and driving it to Memphis. He moved back to Caruthersville and took up residence in a trailer park with his third wife.
On his return, he discovered that things had changed. Wortman, the East St. Louis mobster, had died in August 1968 of complications following surgery. Less than six months later, on Feb. 15, 1969, an unknown assailant gunned down Jaybird outside his house.
“When Jaybird got killed, that spooked a lot of people,” Green says. “I feel like Jaybird’s death and Wortman’s death and a few others was just like cutting off the snake’s head. He was the main link. Jaybird would be the only man who would know everybody, dates, times, places, who’s who. After they killed Jaybird and Wortman is gone, there is no link to Paul except me and Butch. And who is going to believe us when the FBI has done put out a one-man theory? I’m an ex-con. If anything went wrong, I believe, me and Butch were the fall guys.”
To protect themselves, Collier and Green had fabricated a tale to convince Paul and the other criminal co-conspirators that they had stashed incriminating evidence. “We told them we had some tapes and we still had the guns,” Green says. “We didn’t tell them that we had put them in the river.” According to Green, part of the story was true: he hid one rifle at a friend’s house. Green also claims to have kept a diary. “Maybe that’s what got Jaybird killed. I don’t know. The one thing I do know is, they couldn’t prove whether we had it or not.”
After Jaybird’s death, Green theorizes, a purge took place. Collier became a Caruthersville police officer, and Green would soon join the ranks of law enforcement as well.
Shortly after Green got out of prison, then-Missouri Attorney General John C. Danforth initiated a vigorous campaign to oust Clyde Orton. Danforth’s office charged the Pemiscot County sheriff with allowing widespread bootlegging and illegal gambling in his jurisdiction. As a part of the inquiry, Green says, Danforth and others interviewed him at a motel in Miner, Mo. When he entered the motel room, he saw a familiar face — Paul. The investigators asked Green about gambling and whether Orton had knowledge of it.
After Orton’s ouster, Green says, the new sheriff issued him a badge, and he started working undercover with federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents out of Cape Girardeau. As his first assignment, he helped set up and bust the pawnbroker who, according to Green’s account, provided the rifles for the assassination. Green says he nailed the pawnbroker for selling guns without a federal firearms license.
He then began targeting remnants of Jaybird’s and Cook’s operations near Reelfoot Lake, Tenn. Although Green says he was working for ATF, a FBI memo from 1971 indicates that his activities were still being monitored at the highest levels of the bureau. The memo’s contents are totally blacked out.
As he pursued his undercover career, Green’s former criminal associates began to fall in slow progression. Shoulders died in a car bombing near Branson, Mo., in August 1972. A decade later, a jury convicted Cook in the contract slaying of Bo Young, the owner of Broadway Music. Cook died in prison.
In 1975, Green took part in an elaborate undercover project in Memphis called Operation Hot Stuff. Using $66,000 in federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds, the Memphis Police Department and federal law-enforcement officers set up a fake company called Investment Sales. Green played the role of “Jimmy Genovese,” who was supposed to be the grandson of a mob boss. Police furnished Green with an expensive wardrobe, provided a new Cadillac and rented a townhouse for him. He pretended to be an importer/exporter of lamps who actually fenced stolen merchandise. Each day, he would go to work, read the newspaper, talk on the phone and flirt with the secretaries in the adjacent office. Thieves would drop by and sell stolen guns, TVs, appliances, jewelry, stereo equipment, clothing, cars and drugs. Green was perfectly cast for the part, and hidden video cameras recorded it all. In the afternoons, he knocked off early and played golf. At night, he frequented restaurants and bars, bragging about his organized-crime connections. Hot Stuff netted 43 indictments, according to press accounts. Green — still in character, perhaps — claims he racked up 267 felony cases as a part of the operation.
It was during this period that Green says he learned how police procedures were commonly circumvented and the court system manipulated. He noticed how prosecutors refused to indict suspects with political connections. He gained firsthand knowledge of how suspects are entrapped. He became a professional at doing just that. He was, foremost, a product of the criminal-justice system, applying the rules he learned in prison on the outside: How to play dumb. How to talk big. How to lie, when necessary. When to keep his mouth shut and when to talk. And how to apply coercion to get results. He recalls breaking into a druggie’s apartment, shoving a gun into his mouth and threatening to cut his testicles off if he didn’t turn snitch. He says he went on to practice his craft in Tampa, Key West and New Orleans.
For years, he could justify this behavior: Fending for himself, using the few leverages at his disposal, to keep the Man at bay by doing his bidding. Working both sides of the street. Using scraps of information to his best advantage. Relying on his good-old-boy charms to cajole and confound. Selling his talents to the highest bidder. He was good at what he did. He knew it. His employers recognized it. They paid cash and didn’t ask questions, so long as he delivered. He did what he was told. He worked for the government.
But at some undefined moment, Green began to question it all. It’s hard for him to say when, exactly. It was like waking up slowly to a nightmare. Green says he used his access to law-enforcement databases to track down the third Mustang used in the plot. He remembers talking to John Talley, the Memphis police detective he says recruited him for Operation Hot Stuff. They met in early January 1974 at the Holiday Inn on Riverside Drive in Memphis. Green expressed misgivings about working with the department. He thought the local cops were corrupt. Green says the detective, now deceased, leaned back in his chair and looked him in the eye. “Jim,” Green says Talley confided, “I’m the officer who was late in 1968. If you can’t trust me, you can’t trust yourself.”
After taking the job and assuming the name Jimmy Genovese, Green periodically visited the U.S. Attorney’s office in Memphis. When he did, he passed by Kay Black, the chain-smoking court reporter for the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar. In September 1975, Green decided to introduce himself. Their off-the-record conversations danced around the subject of his undercover status. He toyed with her at first, feeding her tidbits on Operation Hot Stuff. But then what had started as a casual flirtation, a game of cat-and-mouse between an inquisitive reporter and coy source, turned into a confession. Green said: “What if I told you I was driving the second Mustang the day King was shot?” Realizing the gravity of his admission, he abruptly left her office. Black, who died in 1997,eventually told investigators for the House Select Committee on Assassinations of the encounter. The subcommittee subpoenaed Green in 1978.
He flew to Washington and stayed in a swank hotel at government expense. Green claims that the night before he testified, Paul, another agent and former assistant FBI director Cartha DeLoach arrived unannounced at his hotel room, where they began to coach him in what he should say in his closed-session testimony the next day. (Efforts to reach DeLoach for comment were unsuccessful.) Green says he was told to limit his account to knowledge of a St. Louis-based conspiracy. Paul’s advice both angered and worried Green. The Bootheel bootlegger had been called before Congress to give sworn testimony, and federal agents were urging him not to tell the whole truth — to risk perjuring himself. He went for a walk near the hotel. It was warm, and he remembers a passerby making fun of his white patent-leather shoes. When he came before the committee, he opened up his diary from 10 years before and began reeling off names. At that point, Green says, Paul and DeLoach entered the chamber and seated themselves at the side of the hearing room, and committee chairman Louis Stokes interrupted Green to ask why he needed to rely on notes. Green says he told the chairman that he had a general recollection of past events but needed the diary for specific details. He continued his testimony: “I told them I was laying on top of this building and I saw James [Earl Ray] walking and that he was not in the area when the shots were fired.” Green says Stokes again addressed him in an accusatory manner, and Green exploded: “Look, I don’t even have to be here!” He says he closed his diary and walked out.
Green returned home to Caruthersville, disillusioned. He sought refuge by joining the Kinfolks Ridge Baptist Church, became an evangelist, preached at revival meetings and served briefly as a missionary to Mexico, where he helped build an orphanage. But God’s calling didn’t pay the rent. Out of money, Green used his law-enforcement contacts from his undercover work to secure a job as a deputy sheriff in Lauderdale County, Tenn.When the incumbent sheriff ran for re-election, Green’s prison record became a campaign issue, and he was forced to resign. In 1982, he moved his family to Tampa, where he had previously done undercover work for a federal anti-crime strike force. For three years, he taught in a high-school vocational program, although he never attended college.
A former police officer who coached at the school introduced him to Emilio “Bobby” Rodriguez, owner of a topless bar. Rodriguez hired Green to manage the Tanga Lounge in downtown Tampa. Green worked security, handled the door and made sure other employees didn’t stick their hands in the till. He also used his knowledge and contacts within law enforcement to further his boss’ interests. Over time, Rodriguez gave him new responsibilities and brought him in as a partner in some ventures. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Green ran LaPleasures in Lakeland, Fla., the Centerfold in St. Petersburg, the Peek-a-Boo in Key West and the Doll House in Jackson, Tenn. Green, who prefers to call topless clubs “go-go bars,” still wears a diamond-studded ring that he says Rodriguez gave him.
“I was living kind of high on the hog, knocking down $5,000 a week tax-free, driving Lincoln Town Cars,” Green says.
Green’s Florida police record shows a 1988 arrest for “keeping a house of ill fame.” He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge the next year and paid a $500 fine. Rodriguez and another partner became involved in a feud. Some of the clubs ended up being torched. To stay out of trouble, Green says, he bailed out of the sex business.
Today, James Green gets by on Social Security disability checks. He weighs between 250 and 300 pounds and has bad knees and a bad heart. He smokes too much and coughs after every few drags he takes off each cigarette. When he comes to Caruthersville, he stays at Pic’s. Other than the gold ring, he displays no accoutrements of wealth. He dresses in sweatshirts and baggy pants. When he comes from Tampa, where he lives in a modest home with wife Linda, he doesn’t fly; he drives his weathered pickup. Green says he’s now developing a subdivision with a partner on land he bought years ago, when he was flush with fast cash. He’s calling the place Green Estates.
But Green tends to speak more about the past than the future. When he does, his memory meanders like the Mississippi River, in whose delta he was born and raised. The river drifts and eddies and changes course, bending back on itself as an oxbow. In his mind, Green inhabits the lowlands, the muddied backwaters of history, where his story has remained hidden among the growing apocrypha surrounding the King assassination. It is only one man’s story, however flawed — not an official version but one told from the viewpoint of a thief. Though Green’s account will never be sanctified as gospel, there are currents within it that run deep, currents that have never been fully explored.
South of Crowley’s Ridge, where the Missouri landscape merges with the South, the cotton fields stretch to the horizon and it seems as if everything is laid out in straight lines and right angles. The swamps have been drained. An outsider can easily misunderstand the true nature of this place. And so it is, too, that Green’s motives can be misconstrued to fit the preconceived notions of people who have never lived in a town laid out on the site of a former plantation.
Green was raised a Baptist, the same religion as King. He came of age in a white racist culture. Over the course of his lifetime, he has experienced dramatic social change. He can do nothing to stop those who are bent on mocking him. He claims only to be seeking redemption for himself and justice for the King family.
“I think the hardest thing for people to understand is the atmosphere you’re raised in,” Green says. “Hell, they’d stuff the ballot boxes. They used to hand out half-pints of whiskey and dollar bills at the polls to the blacks so they’d vote for a certain person. When a person is raised in that atmosphere, you kind of believe everything is right: If the grownups do it, and the politicians are doing it, and the government is doing it — it must be right. I actually believed that. In a way, I thought, working for the government, I was making up for the wrong I did, [but] as you get older, you get wiser. Maybe what you did in your 20s and 30s, that you thought was the right thing to do, becomes something you’re not too proud you done. I guess it’s kind of like a drunk who drinks all his life and then all of a sudden quits drinking and becomes a fanatic against the drinking. “
After hearing a member of the King family plead for justice on television in the early 1990s, Green says he had his epiphany: “I felt the King family had a right to know the truth.”
For Green, at least, the road to Memphis will always run through Caruthersville.
Bank robber John Larry Ray fought the law and the law won.
A version of this story first appeared in Illinois Times (Springfield) Nov. 28, 2007. John Larry Ray died in 2013.
The lone robber entered the Farmers Bank of Liberty at 9:10 a.m. on Friday May 30, 1980. He didn’t bark any demands, and he didn’t hand the teller a note. The gun in his left hand spoke for itself. He placed a crumpled plastic bag on the counter. As the teller stuffed cash from four tills into the bag, the bandit walked directly to the office of the executive vice president, as if he had cased the bank in advance. He motioned for the bank officer to go to the vault. “Two minutes,” he said, aiming the pistol at the officer and another bank employee. Informed that the vault had a time-delayed lock, the bandit grabbed the loot from behind the counter and fled.
The robbery took three minutes and netted $15,122. Eyewitnesses pegged the stickup man as about 50 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, 180 pounds, gray-haired and potbellied. He was dressed in baggy slacks, a tan jacket, and a floppy fisherman’s hat. Though a nylon-stocking mask concealed the robber’s facial features, the traumatized teller noted his “farmer’s tan.”
Three weeks later, John Larry Ray, the brother of the late James Earl Ray, was arrested for the heist. In the town of Liberty, Ill., Ray’s name still strikes terror in the former bank teller, though a jury ultimately acquitted Ray of that crime in a federal trial in Springfield more than a quarter-century ago. These days, the notorious bank robber lives quietly on College Avenue in Quincy in a small brick house with a rickety front porch. Vacant lots dot the neighborhood. Around the corner, on Martin Luther King Memorial Drive, African-American children play on the sidewalk in the autumn dusk.
John Larry Ray moved here from St. Louis three years ago to care for his sister, Melba, who died last November. The 74-year-old brother of the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has survived a heart attack and a stroke in recent years. He is also hobbled by diabetes. Complications from the disease forced the partial amputation of both of his feet more than a decade ago. In the spring, he hopes to erect tombstones at a local cemetery for himself and his kin.
He is counting on royalties from a book due out in March to help pay the bills. The forthcoming biography chronicles his criminal career and life in prison. It also purportedly reveals his late brother’s alleged ties to the CIA [see “His last score,” page 15]. Because of contractual obligations, he is currently not speaking to the press. John Larry Ray’s own story, however, has little to do with international intrigue or espionage. His is a cops-and-robbers tale rooted in western Illinois. Illinois law-enforcement authorities charged John Larry Ray with the May 30, 1980 robbery of the Farmers Bank of Liberty in Liberty, Ill.
He was born in Alton on St. Valentine’s Day 1933, the second son of Lucille and George “Speedy” Ray, a small-time hoodlum. During his youth, the family hightailed it from town to town, his father adopting aliases to stay one step ahead of the law. By 1944, the “Rayns” family had moved north to Knox County, where, Ray says, he applied for his first Social Security number to earn money delivering the Galesburg Register-Mail. James Earl Ray borrowed that number in 1967 to get a job as a dishwasher in Chicago after John Larry Ray helped him escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary.
Those acts would bind the two brothers’ fates. But John Larry Ray had already made more than one wrong turn by then. His first serious scrape with the law came in 1953, when a joyride through the streets of Quincy in a stolen Hudson earned him five to 10. After his release in 1960 from the Menard State Penitentiary, in Chester, Ill., he worked as a bartender and Greyhound bus-depot employee. He dreamed of being a seaman but ended up tending greens at a golf course near Chicago. In 1964 and 1965, he knocked around Florida and the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York, and collected unemployment benefits in New York City.
By October 1966 he had landed in St. Louis, where, he says, he worked as a painter. In January 1968, he opened the Grapevine tavern on Arsenal Street in South St. Louis with one of his sisters. Months later, the FBI showed up at the Grapevine to question John Larry Ray on the whereabouts of his brother, who was by then wanted for the murder of King. He lied, telling the agents that he hadn’t had any contact with his brother for years. The FBI couldn’t prove his participation in the prison break the previous year, but the bureau had John Larry Ray in its crosshairs, and he would remain a target.
In 1970, federal agents nabbed him for serving as the getaway driver in a bank robbery in St. Peters, Mo. That charge resulted in his only bank-robbery conviction and an 18-year sentence.
In 1978, however, a congressional panel investigating King’s murder — the House Select Committee on Assassinations — accused Ray of four other bank heists, including an October 1969 stickup in rural Illinois. In an odd twist, Ray would be busted for robbing the same financial institution — the Farmers Bank of Liberty — in 1980, a year-and-a-half after the conclusion of the congressional hearings.
The crime stunned the town of Liberty, population 524. Rumors that the robber was camped in a pasture at the edge of town hiked fears. Police-band chatter crackled with mounting reports of suspicious characters in the vicinity. The robbery garnered banner headlines in the Quincy Herald-Whig, and the Liberty Bee-Times, the town’s weekly newspaper, devoted its entire front page to the story. Less than a week later, Liberty would be jolted again. At 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 4, 1980, a farmer reported a suspicious vehicle west of town, according to the Bee-Times. When Liberty Police Chief Albert “Ab” Viar responded to the call, he found a blue 1969 Pontiac Tempest abandoned beside a gravel road, its engine compartment still warm. The car didn’t have license plates, but a registration application in the lower right-hand corner of the windshield bore the signature of James R. LaRue. Viar drove back to the house of the farmer. As the farmer and his spouse talked to the chief, the farmer’s wife saw a light come on inside the Tempest, which was parked about a quarter-mile away.
By the time the police chief got back to that location, the car was heading in his direction. Viar flipped on his squad car’s emergency lights to signal the driver to stop. Instead the driver sped away, and Viar pursued him. The chase ended a half-mile later, when the Tempest spun out on a curve and crashed into a ditch. The driver jumped from the car and escaped on foot into a cornfield. As darkness fell, the police chief radioed for backup. After his deputy arrived, they conducted a search. About 300 feet from where the Tempest had first been spotted, Viar found a yellow satchel containing $10,803 from the bank robbery.
At 8 o’clock the next morning, a county deputy and state police officer reported being fired upon near the bank, prompting another manhunt. Heavily armed local and state cops swarmed the fields and woodlands surrounding the town. That afternoon, authorities discovered an abandoned encampment about a mile from the scene of the car chase. At the site, police found a hole under a tree, leading them to believe that the robber had unearthed the loot, only to have his plans thwarted by the vigilant police chief.
Meanwhile, the Adams County Sheriff’s Department issued a warrant for James R. LaRue, and the Illinois State Police arrested a man with that name in Cicero, Ill., on June 9, 1980. They released the suspect within hours, however, after he informed officers that a wallet containing his identification had been stolen a month earlier. The investigation appeared to have reached a dead end.
But a week later the sheriff’s department charged Ray with the bank robbery on the basis of a left thumbprint found on one of the Tempest’s side-view mirrors. Ray, who matched the general description of the suspect, had vanished months earlier after being released on parole. Within days the FBI entered the case and, weirdly enough, so did an investigator for the defunct congressional committee. At 5:45 p.m. on June 23, 1980, Sgt. Conrad “Pete” Baetz of the Madison County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department spotted Ray walking along Illinois Route 140 near Alton.
“As I remember it, he was wearing a dark-blue leisure suit,” says Baetz, who now lives in Two Rivers, Wis. “It was also hotter than hell that day.” Baetz, on a shopping trip with his wife, turned his car around and passed the sweaty pedestrian again to confirm his identity. He then called the sheriff’s department from a nearby roadhouse. An on-duty officer arrived promptly to assist Baetz in the arrest. The two deputies frisked Ray and found nothing. Later, a Madison County jailer discovered a .38-caliber revolver among the personal items that Ray was toting in a shopping bag when he was arrested. The bag reportedly also contained women’s nylon hosiery and coin-roll wrappers from the Farmers Bank of Liberty.
Baetz recognized the suspect so readily because they had crossed paths before. He had interviewed Ray in his capacity as a congressional investigator for the HSCA two years earlier. The Madison County officer had taken a leave of absence from his local law-enforcement duties in 1978 to work for the committee, but the career move turned bad when Baetz came under investigation himself. Former FBI informant Oliver Patterson alleged that the then-congressional investigator had directed him to spy on Jerry Ray, the youngest of the three Ray brothers. The informant also said that he gave false testimony, provided to him by Baetz, to the committee. Patterson revealed his illegal activities at a St. Louis press conference organized by attorney Mark Lane, who then represented James Earl Ray.
Though the committee denied any wrongdoing, the press coverage tarnished the reputations of both the HSCA and Baetz. If Baetz feared that his latest brush with fame would stir up questions about his checkered Capitol Hill tenure, he needn’t have worried. The arrest of John Larry Ray grabbed front-page headlines in newspapers in St. Louis, Alton, and Quincy, but none of the accompanying stories mentioned Baetz’s central role in the HSCA scandal two years earlier.
The Adams County sheriff arrived in Alton the next morning by chartered plane and flew Ray back to Quincy, where FBI agents dispatched from Indianapolis waited to interrogate him about the shooting of National Urban League president Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Ind., on May 29, 1980 — the day before the Farmers Bank of Liberty robbery. Though the agents publicly discounted Ray as a suspect in the civil-rights leader’s shooting, their boss took a different tack. In a front-page story that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, FBI director William H. Webster emphasized the similarities between the Jordan shooting and the murder of King — including the possibility that money from bank robberies financed the plots.
The FBI chief’s accusations may have been sparked by memories of his early days on the bench. Like Baetz, the nation’s top cop had encountered John Larry Ray previously. As a fledgling federal district judge in St. Louis, Webster had sentenced John Larry Ray to prison for being the wheelman in the 1970 robbery of the Bank of St. Peters (Mo.). In 1978, the HSCA used that single federal conviction as the linchpin for its theory that the Ray brothers were an organized gang of bank robbers. The committee further alleged that James Earl Ray and John Larry Ray robbed the Bank of Alton on July 13, 1967, and used proceeds from that heist to finance James Earl Ray’s travels in the year preceding the King assassination.
To buttress its theory, the committee cited other bank robberies that were carried out in a similar fashion, including the 1970 Bank of St. Peters robbery, for which John Larry Ray was convicted, and the 1969 holdup of the Farmers Bank of Liberty, for which he wasn’t even charged.
“They all went down in essentially the same way,” Baetz says. “We put James Earl Ray in the area on the day the Alton robbery occurred.”
By the time HSCA called him to testify, John Larry Ray was slotted for parole for his 1971 bank-robbery conviction. After he refused to admit involvement in any of the bank robberies, the committee charged him with perjury and federal marshals pulled him out of a halfway house in St. Louis. He spent the next two months in solitary confinement at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., while Justice Department officials tried to decide whether to pursue the charge.
In comments to the press, Ray accused the federal prison system, the FBI, and congressional investigators of conspiring to deny his release. Attorney James Lesar, who represented John Larry Ray before the HSCA hearings, objected vehemently to the relevancy of bringing up bank robberies that took place after King was assassinated. The committee repeatedly overruled the objections. “They pretended they were a judicial proceeding despite the fact that it was a totally one-sided presentation of evidence,” says Lesar, a Washington, D.C., lawyer. “They were the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury, all in one ball.”
Internal Justice Department memos obtained later by Lesar through the Freedom of Information Act confirmed the HSCA had overreached its authority. Justice Department officials ruled that the committee had improperly slapped the perjury charge on John Larry Ray to force James Earl Ray to testify. The department refused to prosecute the case. Back at the St. Louis halfway house from which he had been yanked, John Larry Ray told the Associated Press on Aug. 24, 1978, that “he would testify about a ‘link’ in the assassination if authorities would permit a nationwide television report about improper judicial action that resulted in his conviction of aiding the robbery of a St. Peters, Mo., bank.”
His only co-defendant in the 1971 St. Peters bank-robbery trial had his conviction overturned on a technicality as Ray remained locked up. Now the judge who sentenced him had risen to FBI director. Guilt or innocence mattered little under these circumstances. Nothing would ever shake his belief that he had been set up to take a fall because he was James Earl Ray’s brother.
The pawn had made his move, but it was as if he wasn’t even on the chessboard. Nobody paid attention to his offer. This must have convinced him that the game was rigged. But that doesn’t explain why John Larry Ray chose to lie to the HSCA. Despite the expiration on the statute of limitation and a congressional grant of immunity, Ray denied involvement in James Earl Ray’s escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967. He has since admitted picking up his brother after the escape near Jefferson City, Mo. In its final report, the HSCA concluded “that the resistance of the Ray brothers to admitting a criminal association among themselves in these minor crimes is based on a frank realization that such an admission might well lead to their implication in the higher crime of assassination.”
When asked to make a closing statement before the HSCA on Dec. 1, 1978, John Larry Ray cast the blame for King’s assassination on his accusers, appealing to Congress to unlock evidence the government had decided to seal until 2027. “The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI and a federal judge locked up thousands of pages of evidence concerning . . . Martin Luther King, and the Rays and maybe a person who conspired to assassinate him.
“It is my belief that since I have been locked in solitary confinement for 67 days, in three different federal asylums, and [endured] many physical tortures by this government, that they should release this information, and the person who do [sic] not release the information, it seems to me they would be covering up a murder. They would be covering up the murder of Martin Luther King. . . .”
At his arraignment in Adams County on June 25, 1980, Ray displayed no belated signs of contrition. He argued press coverage of “FBI propaganda” made it impossible for him to receive fair treatment in the United States and requested a trial before the United Nations. Six months later, after more contentious court appearances, the state of Illinois washed its hands of John Larry Ray and turned the case over to federal prosecutors. The rest of the courtroom drama would play out in federal district court in Springfield. It would pit an inexperienced public defender against a phalanx of assistant U.S. attorneys.
Ronald Spears, Ray’s court-appointed lawyer, had been in private practice for less than two years when he went to trial in April 1981. He confesses a degree of youthful naïveté then about outside events surrounding the case, but that doesn’t explain his surprise over the unusual developments inside the courtroom. “There were some critical mysteries in the case that I’ve never figured out,” says Spears, who is now a Christian County Circuit Court judge. The most mysterious element of the case, says Spears, involved a flashlight that the prosecution admitted as evidence. Twenty-six years later it remains a subject of debate. Baetz, the arresting officer who testified at the trial, says that FBI agents belatedly discovered a roll of bills inside the flashlight, money that the former congressional investigator contends came from the bank robbery.
But Spears remembers it differently.
With FBI agents present, he and Ray examined the physical evidence, including the flashlight that had been found in the shopping bag at the time of his arrest. Ray opened the flashlight and peered into the battery chamber and then put the cap back on, according to Spears. Later Ray took Spears aside and asked him to call for an investigation. Ray claimed that he had stashed money he had earned working in Chicago before his arrest in the flashlight and that it had disappeared. Spears informed the court of his client’s allegation and demanded an explanation. “So the prosecutor brings the thing into open court and takes it out of the box,” says Spears. “He opens up the end of it, [and] pulls out several thousand dollars in cash. All of this evidence was in the custody of the FBI. They had already examined it. They obviously would have identified if they found the money in there. Either there was some not very good work done by the crime lab, or somebody took it [the money] and was going to keep it and got caught.”
Other evidence may have been flushed down the toilet. Feces collected near the getaway car contained anal hairs, which prompted the state to order Ray to provide samples. He complied. But when Spears later questioned the forensic specialist at the trial, the witness testified that he had thrown away the evidence. “Again, it points to either what could have been a sloppy investigation or worse,” Spears says.
The prosecution relied on the testimony of Charles Reeder, a cellmate of John Larry Ray’s while Ray was jailed in Adams County. He told the jury that Ray had confessed to the crime. Under cross-examination, however, Reeder said that he agreed to testify for the government in exchange for a possible reduction in his 10-year sentence for deviate sexual assault.
The defense countered by calling Oliver Patterson, the former HSCA informant, to the stand, prompting the prosecution to object, so Judge J. Waldo Ackerman cleared the jury from the courtroom to ascertain the relevancy of his testimony. Under oath, Patterson said that when he heard that Baetz had arrested John Larry Ray, he immediately wondered whether the former congressional investigator had tampered with the evidence. Moreover, Patterson told the court, his false testimony before the HSCA — which Baetz allegedly condoned — led to the delay in Ray’s 1978 parole.
In short, Patterson maintained that Baetz had a vendetta against Ray and his family. Not surprisingly, Jerry Ray agreed. The youngest of the Ray brothers testified that the FBI had first tried to pin the Liberty bank heist on him. “When it was shown that I couldn’t have robbed it because I was in Georgia, then they said ‘John Ray robbed it,’ ” says Jerry Ray. “If they can’t get one, then they get the other.”
Ackerman, however, ruled that Patterson’s testimony was irrelevant to the bank-robbery charge. “I’m sure at that point Patterson liked the publicity he was getting,” Baetz says. “I didn’t even know that he was going to testify, but my guess is he would testify to the fact that there was this vast conspiracy against the Ray family.”
The former congressional investigator blames Mark Lane, James Earl Ray’s attorney, for promulgating that idea. “His way of handling things was to throw out as many allegations as you can, as loud as you can, and see if they will stick,” Baetz says. In this case, however, the job of making things stick fell to federal prosecutors, who failed to place John Larry Ray inside the bank that had been robbed. None of the fingerprints at the bank matched Ray’s, plus none of the witnesses, including the teller, could identify Ray.
Instead, prosecutors used circumstantial evidence against Ray, including the thumbprint on the vehicle involved in the car chase — a week after the robbery. In addition, a ballistic expert testified that a .38-caliber bullet removed from a tree at the site where the getaway car was found on the day of the robbery matched the gun discovered in Ray’s shopping bag after his arrest.
After seven hours of deliberations, the jury found Ray guilty. But the judge threw out the conviction. His decision hinged on a handwritten motion submitted by John Larry Ray when he faced state charges in Adams County. Federal prosecutors introduced his motion as evidence so that the jury could compare it with handwriting on the license-plate-application form for the Pontiac Tempest involved in the car chase. But Ray’s motion included detailed information on his prior bank-robbery conviction, which was inadmissible evidence.
In the second trial, which took place in July 1981, Ray was acquitted by the jury after more than 10 hours of deliberations. John Larry Ray, however, returned to federal penitentiary because he had been convicted in March 1981 for contempt of court for not providing handwriting samples to federal prosecutors. Ray apparently balked at the demand after having already given samples to the state after his arrest the previous year. For his lack of cooperation, he received a three-year sentence. He received additional time for the .38-caliber pistol found among his possessions after his arrest. Ray was paroled in 1987 and disappeared for the next five years. U.S. marshals arrested him for parole violation in St. Louis in 1992. The Federal Bureau of Prisons released him for the last time on July 26, 1993. By that time, Ray had spent more than 25 years of his life in prisons in 13 states from coast to coast.
By virtue of his relationship to his late brother, John Larry Ray will always be associated with one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. In many ways he has been cast in a role not entirely of his own creation. His legend is really a collaborative work, a crazy quilt of official sources whose pieces don’t always fit. His side of the story has been largely ignored or discredited. Ray is, after all, a felon, an ex-con with a rap sheet that spans five decades. He is known to have lied to the FBI and Congress. But there is another reason that his version of events has often gone unheeded: Ray has a lifelong speech impediment. Words have failed him. He has literally been misunderstood.
An intent listener can discern his message clearly enough, however, and it hasn’t changed for a very long time. Ray still harbors an unyielding contempt for authority. The world is his prison, and he has made a career of defying those who run the joint.