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.
A deep dive into the 1978 House Committee on Assassinations’ conspiracy theory on the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
BY C.D. STELZER (first published in the Riverfront Times April 8, 1992)
In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded there was a St. Louis-based conspiracy to murder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Evidence gathered by the HSCA has been sealed until 2027. James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer of King, claims the congressional investigation itself was a cover-up.
Ray pleaded guilty to the crime in 1969, but immediately recanted. There has never been a trial. He is now a prisoner at River Bend Penitentiary in Nashville, Tenn. In the preface to Ray’s book, “Who Killed Martin Luther King,” published in 1992, the Rev. Jesse Jackson demands a special prosecutor be named and the case reopened.
The following story centers on the HSCA’s St. Louis-based conspiracy theory and is comprised of information gleaned from Ray’s book, congressional testimony and newspaper accounts.
At 7:55 a.m. Nov. 8, 1979, produce man John Paul Spica said goodbye to his girlfriend Dina Bachelier for the last time. He walked out of the two family flat at 1115 Claytonia Terrace in Richmond Heights and stepped into his 1977 black Cadillac. When Spica touched the break pedal, he detonated five to eight sticks of dynamite. The explosion blew both of Spica’s legs off. The driver’s door of the vehicle landed 30 yards away.
Moments later, Wellston police officer Nick Sturghill, saw a bearded white male in a yellow pickup truck speeding away. Spica, who had a speech impediment, mumbled a few unintelligible words to Sturghill before he died.
Spica’s violent death a year after his closed-door testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) has long been attributed to a war between competing organized crime elements. for the control of a St. But Spica served time in Missouri Penitentiary with James Earl Ray, and was also the brother-in-law of Russell G. Byers, the committee’s star witness, who testified that there was a St. Louis-based conspiracy to kill the civil rights leader. The HSCA final report concluded that Byers’ allegations were credible.
The HSCA findings suggest that Ray, the convicted assassin, did not act alone, but its findings raise more questions than answers. The doubt begin with the HSCA’s chief witness and Spica’s brother-in law. That’s because in 1978 Byers was the suspected mastermind of a St. Louis Art Museum burglary. He was arrested but never charged with the crime.
Sometime after his arrest, the FBI in St. Louis provided HSCA investigators with Byers’ name after a misfiled 1974 report surfaced, which stated that, according to a confidential informant, Byers had boasted of receiving an offer to kill King.
In 1978, Byers told the HSCA that the offer came from two prominent deceased St. Louisans: former stockbroker John R. Kauffmann and patent lawyer John H. Sutherland, who founded “whites rights” groups locally.
Spica, Byers’ brother-in-law, was a convicted murder contractor himself. Spica had served 10 years of a life sentence for negotiating the 1962 killing of John T. Myszak, a North St. Louis County realtor. Upon parole, Spica opened the Corner Produce, a vegetable stand at Shaw and Vandevanter, which may have been an organized crime front. Spica was known to have ties to the late Anthony Giordano, leader of the St. Louis mafia.
Police believe Spica’s slaying, and subsequent car bombings during the early 80s, began as a power struggle within then-mob-dominated Laborers’ Union Local 42. In a 1987 federal trial here, Raymond H. Flynn, the local’s business manager, was implicated in Spica’s bombing and found guilty of multiple racketeering and conspiracy charges.
But Spica had other interesting associations besides his brother-in law and the mafia: While in a Missouri prison, Spica shared the same cell block with James Earl Ray.
In 1978, after being subpoenaed and granted immunity by the HSCA, Byers publicly testified that in late 1966 or early 1967 he was approached by Kauffmann, a retired stockbroker and former aircraft company owner active in St. Louis County Democratic politics. Byers had been a friend of the elder Kauffmann’s late brother Gil, an assistant St. Louis County coroner. According to Byers’ account, Kauffmann introduced him to a neighbor, John H. Sutherland, an avowed racist who made the $50,000 contract offer to kill King.
At this time, Kauffmann lived in Jefferson County and operated the Bluff Acres Motel on Highway 67 in Barnhart. Byers claimed the motel was actually a front for illegal activities and told the committee he used the premises for his stolen car operations. When asked by the committee whether he had informed Spica of the contract offer to kill King, Byers said he had not, but said that his brother-in-law, who was in state prison at the time, may have learned of the offer through other sources. Also in the same prison at the same time, was James Earl Ray, who was serving a sentence for the robbery of a Kroger’s supermarket on Ohio Avenue in South St. Louis. Both he and Spica, for a brief period, worked in the prison hospital together. Newspaper accounts cite rumors that Spica and Ray were dealing drugs inside.
Interestingly, the prison doctor, with the keys to the medicine chest, was Hugh W. Maxey — an old friend of Kauffmann’s. One shady business Kauffmann operated out of his motel was Fixaco, Inc., a pharmaceutical company. Seven people connected with Fixaco, including Kauffmann, were arrested on April 4, 1967 for conspiracy to illegally sell 725,000 amphetamines pills. Among those charged were two New Yorkers: Bernard Chubet, a former stockbroker and Anthony K. Chang, a Chinese Nationalist (Taiwanese) exchange student. Also arrested was Sgt. Henry Geerdes, a Jefferson County deputy. Former Jefferson County Sheriff Walter “Buck” Buerger claimed his deputy was acting as an undercover agent when arrested by the U.S. Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. However, the HSCA testimony of one of Byers’ former lawyers, the late Murray Randall, indicates the Jefferson County sheriff — not a deputy — purchased drugs from Kauffmann.
Within weeks of Kauffmann’s speed bust, Ray, with another inmate’s help, smuggled himself out of prison in a bread box. Inexplicably, charges against one of his earlier failed escape efforts were dropped not long before the breakout, allowing Ray back into the main prison population.
Fred Wilkinson, the Missouri director of corrections at the time, was a former federal prison official with ties to the CIA. In 1962, Wilkinson helped exchange a Russian spy for Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union.
Ray wasn’t the only one taking leave of the prison in those days. Maxey, the prison physician, released at least one inmate to work at Kauffmann’s motel as part of a “rehabilitation program.” And in a 1978 interview, Kauffmann’s widow said that in 1966, Spica visited the motel with Byers, while Spica was serving his life sentence. According to prison records, Spica received his first official prison furlough in 1972.
The other St. Louis businessman implicated by Byers, in the alleged assassination plot, was the late John H. Sutherland, a neighbor of Kauffmann’s and a patent attorney who had offices in the Shell Building on Locust Street where The Riverfront Times is now located. The firm of Sutherland Polster and Taylor represented clients such as Monsanto. When he died in 1970, Sutherland left a portfolio of mainly oil and chemical stocks worth more than $300,000, including investments in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
In 1978, another St. Louisan was linked to a local firm — Hydro-Air Engineering, Inc. — which was being investigated for illegal trade with the same white-supremacist nation. The allegations came soon after federal Judge William Webster was confirmed as FBI chief. While the African business may be unrelated, Webster had a closer tie to the case, which is harder to dismiss.
Richard O’Hara, an art restorer, was the FBI informant who purportedly reported Byers’ assassination claims in 1974 to the FBI. O’Hara had been arrested in 1972 for his knowledge of a Maryland Plaza jewel robbery. Two suspects in that case were murdered, another was acquitted here in a federal trial racked with improprieties. Judge Webster presided over the questionable judicial proceedings.
Webster and Sutherland also both belonged to the then-all-white Veiled Prophet society. Sutherland’s membership in the organization was posthumously investigated the HSCA the same year Webster’s VP connection was questioned during his Senate confirmation hearings. The reason the HSCA showed interest in the VP was because of Byers’ testimony that Sutherland represented a “secret Southern society,” with a lot of money. The wealthy Veiled Prophet organization was founded in the post Civil War era by Southern sympathizers.
However, the HSCA gave more credence to the theory that one of three overtly racist political groups may have been involved in the conspiracy. The HSCA theorized that word may have been passed to Ray through his family. In 1968, Ray’s brother, John, operated the Grapevine tavern at 1982 Arsenal Street adjacent to Benton Park. The saloon was the gathering place for American Party workers who had a campaign office nearby. The third-party movement was created to support the George Wallace’s presidential bid. Sutherland was a Wallace supporter. Another possibility mentioned by the HSCA was the St. Louis Metropolitan Area Citizens Council, a “whites’ rights” group. Sutherland had been the group’s first president. But the outfit the HSCA took most seriously was the Nashville-based Southern States Industrial Council to which Sutherland belonged. A position paper published by the council quotes FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that the “Negro movement” was being subverted by communists.
Author Gerald Posner scores another bestseller, at the expense of historical accuracy
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) May 20, 1998
BY C.D. STELZER
In the final chapter of Killing the Dream, Gerald Posner takes the reader inside of the mind of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This is no small trick considering the author never interviewed Ray, who died shortly after publication of the book in April.
Nevertheless, reviewers have lauded the tome. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times calls it “a model of investigation, meticulous in its discovery and presentation of evidence, unbiased in its exploration of every claim.” The august newspaper columnist is too kind.
In his acknowledgments, Posner himself confesses to succumbing to deadline pressure, spurred no doubt by the publisher, Random House, which opportunely released the book on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination.
To finish his assignment on time, Posner relied heavily on the works of two other authors who have previously written books on the King assassination: William Bradford Huie and George McMillan. Both writers assumed Ray’s guilt. Posner sews their narratives together, patching tatters and frayed edges with suppositions, taking verbal potshots at the convicted murderer whenever possible, repeatedly condemning him for being an ignorant, genetically inferior racist from “the backwaters of Missouri.”
In between personal attacks, Posner refutes, with seeming aplomb, Ray’s alibi, which revolves around being a patsy for Rauol, a mysterious smuggler. Posner then sets about trashing the credibility of all other conspiracy theories concerning the murder of the civil rights leader. He ends by reiterating his foregone conclusion: “There is no doubt that James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King.”
It is a formula that has proven successful for the author in the past. Case Closed , his 1993 best-seller, sided with the Warren Commission’s questionable conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
But under scrutiny, Posner’s case against Ray is marred by factual errors and omissions. For instance, he refers to the car-bombing death of John Paul Spica as occurring in the “St. Louis suburb of Richmond.” He further states that the “possibility of learning more from Spica ended” with the explosion.
Posner is wrong on both counts. In reality, Spica, a St. Louis Mafioso, was killed outside his Claytonia Terrace apartment in Richmond Heights. His murder has been attributed to feuding underworld factions vying for control of a labor union here. Before his death, however, he testified in executive session before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978. Spica’s testimony remains sealed under the terms of a congressional edict until 2027. Unsealing these transcripts could yet provide information relevant to the case.
In another instance, Posner refers to the Phoenix Program as a “government campaign against the anti-war movement.” In reality, the Phoenix Program was a CIA-sponsored operation that hunted down and killed suspected communist sympathizers in South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. After the war, congressional investigators conservatively estimated that more than 20,000 civilians were murdered as a part of the pogrom, which used a computer database to track its targets. Some conspiracy theorists have postulated that a similar operation could have been employed domestically.
Of course, Posner pooh-poohs the possibility of any military or intelligence involvement in the assassination of King. Instead, he holds to a simpler conspiracy theory advanced by the HSCA in 1978. According to the HSCA’s final report, Ray may have received word of an alleged $50,000 bounty on King’s life offered by two St. Louis supporters of segregationist George Wallace.
The problem with confirming this convenient theory is that both men were dead by 1978. Moreover, Russell G. Byers, the HSCA witness, who claimed he received the murder contract, was a suspect in a notorious St. Louis Art Museum burglary that year. Posner conveniently leaves this last detail out of his book, choosing instead to accept the HSCA findings without qualification.
If there is indeed a connection to be made, the motive behind these shadowy associations may have more to do with drug dealing than racist politics. During the mid-1960s, Byers busied himself chopping stolen cars at the Bluff Acres Motel in the burg of Barnhart in then-rural Jefferson County, Mo. While Byers ran the car theft ring, John R. Kauffmann, the motel owner, engaged in other illegal activities. On April 4, 1967, Kauffmann and six others who frequented the site were arrested for the sale of 725,000 pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines pills. Kauffmann just happened to be one of the two men who Byers’ claimed had asked him to kill King.
Meanwhile, Spica — Byers’ brother-in-law — shared the same cell block with Ray at the Missouri Penitentiary. For a while, they worked in the prison hospital together. Hugh W. Maxey, the prison doctor, even granted Spica weekend furloughs to visit a mutual acquaintance — Kauffmann — in Jefferson County. Spica, a convicted murderer, was released on his own recognizance. More curious is the fact that within a couple of weeks of Kauffmann’s drug bust, Ray managed to escape.
Ray’s escape was engineered with the help of a guard, who was part of another drug smuggling ring at the prison, according to John Ray, the brother of James Earl Ray. In an interview last year, John Ray told me that he had acted as an outside drug courier for inmate Carl Drake, during his brother’s incarceration. After James Earl Ray’s prison break, John Ray says he drove his brother back to St. Louis. When they arrived, the two brothers didn’t meet with any George Wallace supporters. Instead, John Ray says they immediately contacted Joe Burnett, a hitman and heroin addict.
In the wake of James Earl Ray’s death, the media has unleashed a barrage of attacks on the family of the late Martin Luther King Jr.
published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) April 29, 1998
BY C.D. STELZER
With the death of James Earl Ray last week, mainstream news organizations have intimated that the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. somehow took all knowledge of the crime with him to the grave; that nothing further can be learned. At the same time, the white-liberal establishment and certain well-encroached members of the civil rights community have openly condemned the call for a new investigation, arguing against the efficacy of such an endeavor, and casting aspersions on the King family for making such a suggestion.
Meanwhile, the press has been less critical of the opportunistic release of a new book on the subject, which went on sale on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination. In Killing the Dream, best-selling author Gerald Posner presents a hackneyed indictment of Ray based primarily on previously published accounts. Despite its prodigious annotations, the work contains factual mistakes that are surpassed only by errors of omission.
Clearly, rhetoric has overreached reason, and in the ensuing lurch to debunk “conspiracy theories”critical thinking has been sacrificed. In an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Friday, the newspaper rabidly attacked the King family for accepting a “crank theory that Dr. King’s death was ordered by Lyndon Baines Johnson. …” There was no further explanation given. But the disturbing message sounds similar to FBI propaganda, which was leaked into the editorial pages of the now defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the weeks preceding King’s assassination in 1968. Ironically, the Post’s official position, which describes Ray as a “two-bit punk,” is juxtaposed next to the newspaper’s much vaunted platform, a platform that professes to hold to strict intolerance for injustice.
More alarming is the Post-Dispatch editorial’s casual acceptance of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) findings from 1978. In the only official investigation of the assassination, the HSCA concluded that two St. Louis businessmen placed a $50,000 bounty on King’s life. The HSCA speculated that Ray may have heard of this offer either through one of his brothers or through fellow prisoners at the Missouri penitentiary, where he was incarcerated prior to his escape in 1967. Both of the St. Louisans implicated in the offer were dead by 1978 and could not be called as witnesses before the HSCA.
The other problem with this conspiracy theory is that it is promulgated solely on the testimony of a convicted felon, Russell G. Byers, who was compelled to appear before the congressional committee, after becoming a suspect in one of two notorious St. Louis Art Museum burglaries in early 1978. Byers was never charged with the crime, but two other suspects in the case were later found murdered. Byers’ brother-in-law — John Paul Spica — who testified to the HSCA in closed session, died in a car bombing in 1979. Although an informant notified the FBI that Byers’ had boasted in 1973 of receiving an earlier offer to kill King, the FBI never looked into the matter, and the report was allegedly misplaced until the HSCA requested all files pertaining to the assassination. Only then did it resurface. When it did, Byers’ former lawyer, Murray Randall, who by then had become a Missouri circuit court judge, pleaded with the committee not to subpoena him, asserting that unnamed St. Louis underworld figures would retaliate against him. His appeal was not granted. In his subsequent testimony Randall said he found the entire St. Louis-based conspiracy theory incredible. His opinion was echoed by then-FBI director William Webster, who called Byers’ testimony”hearsay three-times removed.” Webster had been a federal judge in St. Louis before becoming FBI director in 1978.
There is another reason to doubt the veracity of the congressional findings, however. In a press conference held in St. Louis in August 1978, the late Oliver Patterson, an informant for the HSCA, admitted that his duties included theft, making false statements to Congress and wire tapping. Patterson, who had previously worked as an FBI informant, also confessed that he had planned, with congressional investigator Conrad “Pete” Baetz,” to leak a story to the New York Times that would have branded James Earl Ray’s attorney, Mark Lane, a homosexual. This was reported on the front page of the Post-Dispatch in 1978, but it appears the newspaper is now suffering from institutional amnesia or senile dementia.
David Patterson, the 25-year-old son of the of the late HSCA informant, is only now beginning to understand what transpired, when he was six years old. He would like to know more. “Why was there underhanded and illegal stuff going on? he asks.”Why did it need to go on? Why was my father being manipulated and why did he feel like he had to come out and reveal this stuff?” These are questions that the King family would like to know as well.
After reading about his father’s covert activities in the Riverfront Times last year, David Patterson realized the significance of the many cassette recordings that are now in his possession. The tape recordings, include phone conversations between his father and Baetz, the congressional investigator.
On one of the tapes, the two discuss how to coordinate the press conference at which the reputation of James Earl Ray’s attorney was to be smeared. Baetz had called to tells Patterson to delay the announcement because of the sudden death of the Pope. In another conversation, Oliver Patterson inquires about the appropriate attire to wear when meeting a New York Times reporter. “Should I wear my mafia outfit or my sports coat,” he asks.
Some of the conversations are much less humorous. In a briefing with assassination researcher Harold Weisberg, Oliver Patterson recalls altering an FBI report on Jerry Ray, the youngest brother of James Earl Ray.
“On page three of an FBI report I wrote dated May 16, 1971, I quote Jerry Ray as saying, `my brother pulled the trigger. …’ The report was originally written differently with other quotes exactly contradicting that one statement,” says Oliver Patterson. “After the report was reviewed by FBI special agent Stanley Jacobson, the page was retyped at his directive deleting all the contradictions to that one remark. That statement out of context distorts the meaning completely out of proportion and gives a totally, completely different intent to what was originally written.”
In another taped phone conversation Patterson inexplicably called the office of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, then the junior senator from Utah. Patterson’s undercover work was under the auspices of the House committee not the Senate.
In the book Orders to Kill , William F. Pepper, Ray’s last lawyer, claimed a Green Beret sniper team was in place in Memphis at the time of the assassination. That claim has been refuted by ABC News. But the allegation of the Army’s intrusion into domestic affairs has never been denied.
The Army is known to have been spying on King since 1947, and, indeed, members of the 111th Military Intelligence Group (MIG) were closely shadowing his movements in Memphis, according to a 1993 story by investigative reporter Stephen G. Tompkins, formerly of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The Army also used civilian, police and FBI sources for additional intelligence support during King’s visit to Memphis. After the shot killed King, Marrell McCollough, a Memphis police undercover agent, reached him first. McCollough had been relaying King’s movements to the police who in turn forwarded the information to the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which would have likely included the 111th MIG. McCollough now works for the CIA, and has refused to be interviewed on the subject even by Posner.
Last year, a ballistics test on the rifle found at the crime scene in Memphis failed to confirm whether it was the weapon used in the murder. In March, the black judge who had allowed the rifle test was removed from the case by the state of Tennessee because his decisions were deemed biased towards Ray’s defense.
The King family has long expressed a belief that Ray was innocent of the crime. In recent years, they led the efforts to gain the convicted assassin a new trial. Ray himself recanted his confession almost immediately after his 1969 conviction, arguing he had been coerced into confessing and had received inadequate legal counsel. He spent the remainder of his life in prison unsuccessfully seeking a trial.
Earlier this month, Corretta King, the widow of the slain civil rights leader, met with Attorney General Janet Reno, asking that the U.S. Department of Justice reopen the investigation into the assassination of her late husband. It is by any measure a reasonable request. If the Clinton administration is serious about improving race relations, this is where the reconciliation should begin.