Frank Olson

Operation Tooth

When the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information touted its $10,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the public didn’t know the foundation was a CIA front.

first published at firstsecretcity.com

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.

Margaret Mead

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 TimesJacob 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.

U.S. Rep. Wright Patman (Texas-D)

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.

Harold Abramson

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.

This false cover story, which appeared in the Post-Dispatch on June 23, 1953, hid real purpose of the Army’s aerosol testing in St. Louis.

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.

Frank Olson never made it home for Thanksgiving.

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.

Altered Reality

Did the CIA’s MK-Ultra program influence the behavior of James Earl Ray?

Dr. Donald Ewan Cameron headed the MK-Ultra behavior modification program for the CIA at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s. In his 2008 book, John Larry Ray, the brother of the convicted assassin, questioned whether James Earl Ray may have been the subject of a CIA mind control operation while serving in the Army in post-war Germany.

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 [2007] 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 [2008] 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.”