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.
The allegation is revealed in John Larry Ray’s 2008 book, The Truth at Last, The Truth at Last.
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 book set 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.”