Jefferson City

Killer Reporting

J.J. Maloney traded a knife for a pen, swapping a life of crime in journalism

copyright 2021 by C.D. Stelzer

An earlier version of this story appeared in the St. Louis Journalism review in 2008 and Focus/midwest magazine in 2010.

He chain-smoked. The brand varied with the decade: L&Ms or, later, Marlboro Lights. In prison he preferred Camels, when he could afford them. Otherwise, he rolled his own from pouches of Ozark-brand tobacco, manufactured and distributed for free at the Missouri Penitentiary. It’s the smoking that eventually killed him. By then, most of his running buddies from the joint were long dead, victims, for the most part, of their own malevolent ways.

That J.J. Maloney survived is remarkable. But his rise from convicted murderer to award-winning investigative reporter for the Kansas City Star is a feat unparalleled in the annals of American journalism. Maloney joined the newspaper’s staff after being paroled in 1972. At the time of his release, he had served 13 years of a life sentence for killing a South St. Louis confectionery owner during an attempted robbery. Maloney was 19 years old when he committed the crime.

Kevin Horrigan, a cub reporter at the Star in 1973, remembers Maloney as an affable colleague but one who stood apart. “There was just something there, and it didn’t fit in with everybody else,” says Horrigan, now an editorial writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It was like he was from another planet. He was one of those guys who was constantly fidgeting, or his knee was pounding up and down. Given where he’d come from, it’s easy to figure out why.”

Maloney’s prison record listed him as 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds. He was not from another planet, but he was from another time. When he entered prison, Dwight Eisenhower was president; when he came out, the Watergate burglary had been committed.

Maloney owed his freedom to Thorpe Menn, the Star’s literary editor, who had supported his parole and helped him get his job at the newspaper. Maloney had garnered the editor’s attention in 1961 through a poem he had submitted to the Star, which then printed verse on its editorial page each day. Maloney’s formal education had ended in the ninth grade, but Menn recognized raw talent when he saw it. He rejected Maloney’s poem but continued to correspond, providing him with professional advice and personal guidance. Maloney thought of Menn as the father he never had.

The only thing his real father ever gave him was his name. Joseph John Maloney Sr., a shoemaker by trade, walked out of his son’s life in 1943, when he was 3 years old. A year after his parents divorced, a hit-and-run driver killed his brother, Bobby. After his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, the court remanded him to the custody of the St. Joseph’s Catholic home for boys in St. Louis, where he stayed for nearly a year.

By the time Maloney returned home, his mother had remarried. His stepfather, Julius “Dutch” Gruender, an ex-con, became Maloney’s less-than-sterling guardian. Gruender, a housepainter, had a string of arrests and convictions for car theft and burglary dating back to 1926. At the time of his marriage to Maloney’s mother, he had only been out of the Missouri Penitentiary for a year.

While in prison, Gruender met and befriended Elmer “Dutch” Dowling and Isidore Londe, lieutenants of East St. Louis mob boss Frank “Buster” Wortman. Gruender’s association with these gangsters continued long after his parole. The housepainter soon introduced his young stepson to the underworld, taking Maloney with him on occasional visits to the Paddock Lounge, Wortman’s bar in East St. Louis, which was a hangout for organized crime figures. Maloney also tagged along when his stepfather drove to Jefferson City to visit a friend still incarcerated at the penitentiary. Though he avoided further trouble with the law, Gruender acted as a courier for Wortman.

In 1952 the family moved to a farm in New Florence, Mo., a small town 65 miles west of St. Louis. Gruender used carpentry skills acquired in prison to rehab the old farmhouse, and he showered Maloney with gifts, including a motorcycle and a shotgun. Beneath the outward generosity, however, Gruender was an angry and hardened man who drank heavily and sometimes abused his wife and stepson.

The Road to Perdition

On Dec. 19, 1945, at the age of 14, Maloney ran away from home for the first time.
“I was prepared,” Maloney recalled later. “ I had another change of clothes, a pound of fudge, a loaf of bread, 14 silver dollars, and my old man’s .38 was buried in the bottom of the sack.” Despite his preparations, Maloney was quickly apprehended after stealing a car and spent the night in the Montgomery County Jail. The judge put him on probation.

The next year, Maloney ran away again. This time he made it as far as Hannibal before crashing a stolen car. The second incident earned him his first stint in the reformatory at Boonville.

After his fourth escape from Boonville, juvenile authorities transferred him to Algoa, the state’s intermediate reformatory, where his behavior worsened. Over the next year and a half, Maloney was put in solitary confinement dozens of times for attempting to escape, instigating a riot and other infractions. During a short parole in 1957, Maloney was arrested in Kansas City on suspicion of burglary and carrying a concealed weapon.

Despite his abominable record, the state had little choice but to parole him in January 1959, a few months after he turned 18. Maloney then married a former inmate of the girls’ reformatory at Chillicothe, and they moved to Alabama—but the marriage fell apart. After his return to Missouri, his parole officer committed Maloney to State Hospital No. 1 in Fulton for psychiatric observation. While confined at the hospital, Maloney met and fell in love with a fellow patient, 16-year-old Edith Rhodes, who had been transferred from Chillicothe.

“Only in an institution can love hit that hard and that fast,” Maloney wrote. “Edith was a strangely magnetic girl. … She seemed fragile and shy, yet she wasn’t. She was 16 and insisted she would commit suicide before she was 21, because she had a fear of not being beautiful. …”

After six weeks of observation at Fulton, Maloney was allowed by the parole board to enlist in the Army. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps School at Fort Gordon, Ga. His military career lasted just three months: He went AWOL on Nov. 3, 1959.

While absent without leave, Maloney worked briefly for a carnival in Florida before returning to Missouri. On the evening of Dec. 11, he picked up Rhodes in Columbia at an apartment she was sharing with another girl. The two returned to St. Louis early the next morning on a Greyhound bus. They registered at the St. Francis Hotel, at Sixth and Chestnut, under the name Mr. and Mrs. John Ducharme of Jacksonville, Fla. That evening Maloney, armed with a hunting knife, robbed the clerk at another downtown hotel.

The couple then took a cab to the Soulard neighborhood in South St. Louis. Shortly before 8 p.m., Maloney dropped Rhodes off at the apartment of an acquaintance, then walked to a nearby confectionery, located at 1100 Lami Ave. Entering the store, he pulled a hunting knife and demanded money from Joseph F. Thiemann, the 74-year-old store owner.

“When he made the demand for money, he and Thiemann began struggling,” according to the confession Maloney later gave St. Louis police. After Maloney punched Thiemann in the face several times, the old man agreed to hand over the cash. “Thiemann then reached into his back pocket as if to get the money and came out with a revolver and fired one shot, which apparently went over his [Maloney’s] head.” Maloney reacted by stabbing the storeowner in the stomach. In the ensuing fight, the pistol fired a second time, striking Thiemann in the leg. Maloney then wrested the gun from his victim and fled. Thiemann died as a result of the wounds he sustained in the fracas.

Less than two months later, Maloney pleaded guilty to murder and armed robbery, and Circuit Judge James F. Nangle sentenced him to four concurrent life sentences. He would serve the next 13 years at the Missouri Penitentiary, in Jefferson City—arguably the worst prison in the United States at the time.

Inside the Walls

“When I went to the Missouri Penitentiary at Jefferson City, in February 1960, there were 2,500 men inside ‘the walls,’” Maloney later told readers of the Kansas City Star. “The white convicts slept three to a cell (except for several hundred in one-man cells). The blacks slept as many as eight to a cell. “Stabbings and killings, robberies and rapes were common. Dope was easier to get in prison than it was on the streets. There were men in prison who were said to make more money each year from dope and gambling than the warden was paid. There were captains on the guard force who owed their souls to certain convicts.

“You never knew whom you might have trouble with. The reasons for murder and mayhem made little sense to anyone except the convicts. So hundreds of men carried a knife or had one they could get to one in an emergency.

“If you are young and good looking, you can count on being confronted again and again. If you have money, there will be people who want it. If you are helpless, there are people who will try to make a reputation at your expense. Or you may simply say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

“You never know for sure what is going to happen from day to day in prison. …”
A prison psychiatrist who evaluated Maloney shortly after his arrival characterized him as a “socially diffident individual … who seems to take a half-humorous rejection of the whole affair.” If Maloney’s initial demeanor seemed inappropriately aloof given the circumstances, it didn’t take long for his mood to turn into a malevolent rage.

On Aug. 26, 1961, Maloney’s girlfriend, Edith Rhodes, was murdered near Huzzah Creek in rural Crawford County, Mo. She had eloped from the state mental hospital in Fulton and gone on another crime spree, this time with a 22-year-old hoodlum from Flat River. David Moyer, who confessed to the slaying, first told authorities that the girl shot herself and he had fired a second shot to end her pain. A sheriff’s posse pursuing the fugitives heard the shots and found Moyer lying next to the body.

On hearing the bad news, Maloney vowed to kill Moyer and tried to escape. His prison record over the next few years is a litany of major conduct violation:. In addition to the failed escape attempt, the prison administration cited Maloney for stabbing another inmate, manufacturing zip guns, using stimulants and committing sodomy. As a result, he was put in solitary four times and sentenced to the “hole” another 18 or 20 times. Solitary confinement involved long-term segregation, whereas the hole was a short-term punishment, usually a 10-day stint, during which prisoners were deprived of cigarettes, bedding and sometimes clothing.

Freed by Verse

Maloney had reached his nadir. By any measure, he had to be considered beyond salvation, a lost cause. But his mother remained faithful: She never gave up. She corresponded. She visited. She sent money, clothing, food, stamps and other items. She also acted as Maloney’s liaison with the outside world.

Through her encouragement, elderly attorney Mable Hinkley began to correspond with Maloney. Hinkley, a former St. Louis Globe-Democrat Woman of the Year, was an early advocate of prison reform and used her social standing to influence decisions of the Missouri Department of Corrections. Maloney had been in solitary confinement for nearly four months after his escape attempt when Hinkley contacted him.

In her first letter, Hinkley advised Maloney to seek divine guidance, but she also offered him a more down-to-earth deal. “Your mother tells me that if you give your promise to do something, you keep your word,” Hinkley wrote. “Will you make a promise (and keep it) not to try and run away—to obey the rules of the prison and try to do whatever work is assigned to you? If you will make these promises, I will ask the warden to take you out of solitary confinement.”

She kept her end of the bargain. In June 1964, at Hinkley’s urging, Warden E.V. Nash released Maloney from solitary and assigned him to the newly formed prison art class.

Exposure to art ignited Maloney’s innate creative streak. Sam Reese, an older convict who had gained national recognition for his oil paintings and cartoons, served as his role model. Maloney’s own artwork took awards at state and county fairs and was exhibited at a gallery in Paris.

But Maloney became more devoted to writing as he matured.

“Joe, which is what his friends called him, and I shared a cell in C-Hall during 1965-66,” recalls former inmate Frank Driscoll. “We worked on the fifth floor of the prison hospital, which is to say the psych ward. … By the time we were cellies, Joe had straightened up his act and was staying out of trouble, working on his parole. That, of course, was back in the day, when a lifer could still aspire to being released on parole. He was always writing something—stories, critiques, opinion pieces and, yes, poetry.”

Maloney had no way of knowing the significance that his verse would ultimately play in redirecting his life.

“I did what all young poets do, I tried to write a nice little rhyming solution to all the problems of the universe,” he later wrote. “Having written it, my next problem was deciding where to send it. In those days the Kansas City Star printed a poem on the editorial page every day, so I mailed the poem to the Star. A few days later I received a letter from Thorpe Menn, literary editor of the Star, who rejected the poem but said he liked the last four lines. He encouraged me to keep working on the poem, and asked me to stay in touch with him. I was impressed that the literary editor of a famous newspaper would write to me. I was even more impressed that he did not ask why I was in prison, or for how long. He wrote to me as if I were just another person, another young writer.”

It was the beginning of a long-term relationship carried out by correspondence. Menn became his mentor, giving guidance and critiquing his poetry and prose. Maloney worked on his writing for as much as six hours every evening. Menn patiently waited until 1967 before publishing one of Maloney’s poems in the Star. By then, the prison-bound poet and writer had been published in numerous other venues, including Focus/Midwest, a St. Louis–based magazine founded by Charles Klotzer, publisher of the Saint Louis Journalism Review.

Maloney expanded his connections in the literary world, writing to such luminaries as R. Buckminster Fuller, John D. MacDonald, William Buckley and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. At Menn’s suggestion, he started writing book reviews for the Star. He also worked diligently to establish a national writers’ association for prisoners. Meanwhile, Menn had interested Random House in publishing a book of Maloney’s poetry. In late 1967, the parole board indicated the possibility of Maloney’s being released early the next year.

But as quickly as his cell door seemed to have started to creak open, the steel bars slammed shut again. Warden Nash committed suicide. His replacement, Harold R. Swenson, imposed extreme restrictions on all communications with editors and publishers to stop a book from being published by another prisoner, a notorious escapee.

As a result, Maloney’s letters to Menn started coming back undelivered. Moreover, correspondence regarding his book of poetry had to be routed through his mother. The delays in communications eventually killed his deal with Random House. Books sent to him for review were screened by the prison administration and sometimes rejected.
Instead of zip guns or knives, Maloney fought back with the law as his weapon.

He filed suit against the Department of Corrections, arguing that his constitutional rights under the First Amendment had been violated. His defiance dashed his hopes of gaining parole and put him at odds with the prison administration for the remainder of his sentence.

Five more years would elapse before Maloney finally made parole, during which time Menn continued to support and encourage his writing. The literary editor was with Maloney’s mother on Sept. 25, 1972, when Maloney walked out of prison for the last time. They drove to Kansas City together and toured the Star’s editorial offices. The next day, Maloney returned to the newsroom not as a guest but as an employee.

Natural-Born Reporter

In advance of his release, Tom Eblen, then the Star’s city editor, had written a letter to Maloney, offering him a three-month contract at a monthly salary of $550. Despite the low wages, the offer was priceless because it cinched his parole. Star reporter Harry Jones Jr. had hatched the idea of hiring him as a temporary “consultant” for an in-depth series of stories on prison systems in Missouri and Kansas. Menn then sold the proposal to Cruise Palmer, the executive editor.

Maloney’s good fortune was twofold: He had belatedly benefited from the prison-reform movement of the 1960s and also from the unique ownership structure of the Kansas City Star, then employee-owned. On his death, in 1915, the founder of the paper, William Rockhill Nelson, had willed the Star to his employees. That arrangement was still in place in 1972. This meant that senior editorial staffers such as Menn, who had accumulated large stock holdings in the company, could negotiate with management on a more even level.

Jones and Maloney collaborated for months on the prison project, sharing the reporting and writing duties. Their stories ran as a four-part series in April 1973.

“We visited every institution of correction for adults and juveniles in both Missouri and Kansas, plus Leavenworth and Marion in Illinois, which at the time was the Alcatraz of the [federal] system,” says Jones. … “He proved to be an invaluable ally. When we would go in together to interview somebody, a prisoner or the warden or the guards, we’d start off and they would be talking one way and the minute they found out about Joe—and what his background was—it was like administering truth serum. All of a sudden their stories would change. It was uncanny.”

In the first installment of the series, Maloney gave a lengthy first-person account of life inside the Walls in Jefferson City. Before his contract expired, the Star hired him as a full-time general-assignment reporter. The prison series later won the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.

Maloney excelled as a feature writer but eventually became better known as an investigative journalist covering a wide range of issues, including labor racketeering, white-collar crime, drug trafficking and mental health.

In 1975, Maloney and Jones teamed up again to cover the corruption and violence surrounding a power struggle among factions of the Kansas City Mafia. Competing mob interests were in the midst of fighting for control of the River Quay entertainment district.

The two reporters began knocking on doors, talking to area business owners. They also interviewed city and federal law-enforcement authorities and pumped confidential sources for information. By checking liquor-license applications, Maloney determined that mobsters or their relatives secretly owned several restaurants and bars in the River Quay.

Maloney frequented the mob hangouts at night to develop leads. On one occasion Jones accompanied him to the Three Little Pigs, an after-hours café that was a favorite of the Mafia. “All the hoods would congregate there, drinking coffee,” recalls Jones. “We just went in there one night to sit and watch. Talk about stares. I was glad to get out of there.” Before they departed, Jones overheard the bodyguard to Carl “Corky” Civella threaten to rape Maloney. If the remark bothered Maloney, he didn’t show it.

“He was kind of fearless,” says Jones. “I was impressed. He was a gutsy little guy. He had seen his share of bloodshed. It was curious, too, how they seemed to hate Joe more than me, although our names appeared together on stories. But the mob kind of looked at Joe as a turncoat. Having been a convict, they thought he should have respected their trade a little more than he did.”

In a sense, Maloney did respect their trade. He had learned about it from his mobbed-up stepfather. Maloney added to his underworld knowledge in prison, where he befriended fellow inmate John Paul Spica, a St. Louis Mafia soldier. More important, Maloney understood that the roots of the problem ran deep in the Kansas City political establishment and business community and that there was a kind of mass denial regarding corruption.

“In the mid-’70s, some Star editors were even reluctant to print the word ‘Mafia,’” Maloney later wrote. Maloney was also keenly aware that local law-enforcement officials were hesitant to use the M-word.

“This was the town of Tom Pendergast, one of the most powerful Mafia/machine bosses in U.S. history,” Maloney wrote. “Pendergast was long gone, but his machine was anchored in place. The mob continued to influence the police department, city hall, the county courthouse and the state legislature. … The Kansas City Mafia wielded considerable economic clout—controlling several banks [and] owning ten percent or more of the taverns and nightclubs in the city. …” Its far-flung empire stretched all the way to Las Vegas, where the KC mob oversaw the skimming of millions of dollars from casinos.

But back in Kansas City, a rift had developed among three branches of the local mob: the Cammisano, Spero and Bonadonna clans. Maloney sensed that the feud was about to erupt into open warfare.

At the same time, dissension was brewing in the newsroom. Maloney argued that the Star should immediately expose the Mafia’s infiltration of the River Quay. His editors opposed the idea. They preferred a more cautious approach, advising that the coverage be focused more indirectly on corruption inside the city’s liquor-control agency. Jones agreed with them.

“I remember telling him, ‘Joe, let’s just wait until they start killing each other,’” says Jones. “It didn’t take very long for that to happen. People started dying. People [were] shot and blown up.”

In July 1976, David Bonadonna, the father of Fred Bonadonna, owner of Poor Freddie’s restaurant in the River Quay, became the first victim. He was found shot to death and stuffed into the trunk of his car. Three River Quay nightclubs were soon torched or bombed, and the list of gangland hits rapidly grew. Over the next two years, eight more mob-related murders would go down before the violence subsided.

Because of their advance legwork, Maloney, Jones and staff reporters Bill Norton and Joe Henderson uncovered developments in the midst of the mayhem sometimes before federal and local law-enforcement authorities.
At one point Joe Cammisano called Maloney and said: “Mr. Maloney, I realize you have a job to do—but do you have to be so intense?”

After the Star ran a story implicating Cammisano’s brother William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano in the Bonadonna slaying, members of the two families demanded to rebut the allegation, which was based on an FBI affidavit. At a tape-recorded meeting held in the Star’s conference room, Fred Bonadonna refuted any possibility that Willie Cammisano had had anything to do with the death of his father. The Star published a verbatim transcript of his claims in its next edition.

“The next day I called Bonadonna,” Maloney recalled later. “I asked him if he’d read the story, and if it had helped him any. He said, ‘You’ve saved my life, for the time being, anyway.’”

Bonadonna was one of Maloney’s confidential sources. He had publicly refuted the Star’s story simply to keep from being killed. In subsequent tape-recorded telephone interviews with Maloney, Bonadonna said that the Mafia had also targeted him for execution. Bonadonna disappeared in 1978, presumably into the federal witness-protection program. The same year, Maloney’s byline disappeared from the pages of the Star when he quit the paper in a dispute over overtime pay. By then the Star had been bought by Capital Cities, a media chain with a history of poor labor relations. In the wake of the mob violence, the River Quay was all but abandoned, with only six liquor licenses remaining in the district, down from 28 a few years earlier.

Maloney ended up moving to the West Coast. He reported for the Orange County Register in 1980 and 1981. While at the Register, he covered a series of murders attributed to the “Freeway Killer,” a name of his invention. He also published two autobiographical crime novels. The first, I Speak for the Dead, is a fictionalized account of Kansas City’s mob war, drawn straight form his clip file. His second novel, The Chain, is based on his years behind bars, including his incarceration at the Missouri Penitentiary and the old St. Louis City Jail.

Maloney moved back to Kansas City, perhaps drawn by memories of his glory days. In later years he worked as a freelance writer and as an editor for the alternative press. He pitched various book proposals and collaborated on at least three different screenplay adaptations of his first novel, but none of the projects came to fruition. In the late 1990s, shortly before his death, he established a Web site, crimemagazine.com, which is maintained by his friend J. Patrick O’Connor, former owner of the New Times, a now-defunct alternative weekly in Kansas City.

“He had his demons,” says Mike Fancher, an editor who worked closely with Maloney, “but I know that for the time that he worked for the Star he did some absolutely amazing work that I don’t think any other journalist could have possibly done.”

C.D. Stelzer, a St. Louis-based freelance writer, is working on a biography of the late J.J. Maloney.

Mob Action

After helping James Earl Ray escape prison in 1967, his brother says they reached out to the St. Louis underworld.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

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.”

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Maybe in Memphis

  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 first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) May 9, 2001. Jim Green died in 2003.

The late Jim Green, a native of Carthursville, Mo. posing for a snapshot in April 2001. Green claimed that the junked 1965 Ford Mustang in the photo was one of three identical cars used in the plot to kill the Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

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.

The Secret Life of Gunther Russbacher

The convicted felon claims he was a Navy captain, a CIA operative and George Bush’s pilot in the infamous October Surprise Scandal

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), August 5, 1992

by C.D. Stelzer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — North, south, east and west. The lines in Gunther Karl Russbacher’s brow run in all directions. There appears to be a crease for every one of his 50 years. Deep undulating furrows that register emotional changes across a craggy facial landscape.

I’m trying to catch my breath, I’m not quite with it yet,” says Russbacher, after entering the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility here. He is carrying a foot-thick binder of court briefs, depositions, memos, diary entries,bills of lading, letters of credit and loading manifests. And while not gasping for air, the heavy paper load makes it easy to believe this man is under stress.

To reach inmate 184306, a visitor must be escorted through three check points and five clanging sets of iron bars. Gunther Karl Russbacher is a prisoner– and not just any ordinary prisoner. But beyond that, no one is sure who he really is. So far, those interested in finding out have included Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the United States Congress and Geraldo Rivera.

In the past, Russbacher has admittedly used aliases such as Emory Joseph Peden,Robert Andrew Walker and Robert Behler. He has also allegedly been known as “The Raven.” The last pseudonym could be classified a nom de guerre, because Russbacher claims to be a Navy captain — and not just any ordinary Navy captain.

Federal authorities arrested him in July 1990 for impersonating a military officer at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, Calif. The charge led to Russbacher’s probation revocation in St. Charles Co., where he had a 1989 conviction for stealing through deceit. Russbacher pleaded guilty in that case to defrauding clients of the St. Louis-based National Brokerage Companies, which he headed. He received a 21-year sentence. In both of these instances, Russbacher now claims he was carrying out covert duties for the United States government.

By his own account, he is a CIA operative with knowledge of the agency’s involvement in financial fraud, drug trafficking, and illicit arms trading.

Russbacher established National Brokerage and other proprietary companies, including a failed savings and loan in Pennsylvania, at the behest of the CIA, he alleges. He further charges that his military and criminal records — ostensibly altered to infiltrate terrorists and narcotic rings — are now being used against him.

In addition, Russbacher claims his 1990 arrest followed a secret flight to inform Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the pending war with Iraq. This would be fantastic enough, but it’s not all. As an aviator attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Russbacher says he piloted a BAC-111 aircraft — with George Bush on board — to Paris in 1980. Perhaps more importantly, Russbacher claims to have shuttled Bush back to the United States a few hours later in an SR-71 spy plane — and he professes to have proof.

His knowledge of these events is the real reason he is in prison, Russbacher says. Bush’s French rendezvous purportedly finalized earlier negotiations between the Reagan-Bush campaign and Islamic revolutionaries. Those talks supposedly centered on delaying the release of 52 American hostages then being held by Iran until after the November presidential elections. In exchange for prolonging their captivity, the Iranians were allegedly promised arms and spare parts to supply their burgeoning war with Iraq. According to Russbacher, the Reaganites also forked over $40 million up front to seal the deal.

The move was meant to assure a Republican victory over then-President Jimmy Carter and preempt any “October surprise,” or last-minute administration plan to gain the hostages release.

Russbacher is not the first nor most credible person to make these allegations. Reagan administration member Barbara Honegger published the initial October Surprise book in 1989. In 1990, Gary Sick, a National Security Council member in the Carter administration, renewed interest in the subject through a New York Times op-ed article. Sick followed it up last year with a volume of his own.

Although there seems to be substance to these claims, there is uncertainty as to Bush’s presence at the Paris meetings. Citing Secret Service logs and interviews, the House October Surprise Task Force, a congressional inquiry now under way, dismissed the possibility of president’s participation in an interim report issued June 30. In February, a lengthy analysis by writer Frank Snepp of the Village Voice similarly refuted the premise.

Another writer delving into related scandals didn’t get a chance to jump to any conclusions. Journalist Danny Casolaro was found dead in a Martinsburg, W. Va. motel room last August. The local coroner ruled it a suicide. But Casolaro’s investigation into the BCCI banking debacle and Inslaw computer software case has left doubt as to the actual cause of his death. Within this context, and given his alleged association with such shadowy figures as arms merchant Richard Brenneke and self-proclaimed CIA contract agent Michael Riconosciuto, Russbacher’s incredible story teeters on the verge of plausibility.

Inside the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility at Jefferson City,the air conditioning isn’t working in one of the two visiting rooms. The four by four closet-sized space is furnished with two metal folding chairs and divided in the middle by a narrow counter top. Windows and a concave mirror allow prison guards to keep watch. The cubbyhole is thick with humidity as Russbacher, dressed in a sky blue sweat suit, begins to divulge the trump that he believes will set him free, and, ultimately, lead to either President Bush’s impeachment or resignation.

“It’s actually quite a simple thing,” says Russbacher. “Every (SR) 71 flight– be it a training session or actual mission — is documented through a voice cockpit and video cockpit recorder,” he explains. According to Russbacher, the plane’s recording devices “document each and every facial expression, every movement of your hands and every turn of the instruments.” After the video is transmitted in six-second bites to one of three satellites positioned at “keyhole 11, 12 or 13” a signature is superimposed at the bottom of the screen, which includes: the exact time, aircraft of origin and its location.

“It’s beamed back down to the NSA (National Security Agency) station at Fort Meade,Md. There is no way to tamper with it. If you try to make a secondary copy from the original, bar codes jump up,” says Russbacher.”

This tape is in our possession,” he adds. Once the tape is turned over to congressional investigators and authenticated, he has been promised a release from prison and immunity from prosecution, Russbacher claims. His supporters, those who purloined the recording, form a cadre of disgruntled covert operatives, according to Russbacher. The way he explains it, there is a war going on within the intelligence community that involves three groups. “Faction one is the pro-Bush or the loyal faction within the agency,” says Russbacher. “Faction two (is) comprised mainly out of ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) handlers.” These are the good guys, according to Russbacher. “Faction two is loyal, basically, to the Constitution and to the concept of military law and order.” Russbacher indicates the third bunch is in league with the second. “They’re called rouge elephants.They’re stationed overseas, they’re stringers, they’re cutouts, they’re low-level agents.” Be it an act or the bonafide portrayal, Russbacher’s stance hasn’t gone unreviewed.

Back in February — days after announcing an interest in the presidency — Ross Perot sent his top lawyer, David Bryant, and two pilots to interview the Missouri inmate. Perot also contacted Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in regard to Russbacher’s treatment at the Fulton Correctional Facility. Gephardt’s office in turn requested Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin inquire about Russbacher’s condition. Griffin then spoke to George Lombardi, a state prison official. This flurry of concern came after Perot’s delegation was refused the right to interview Russbacher. At the time, Russbacher, who claims a heart condition, was being cloistered at the University Hospital in Columbia, Mo. News accounts have implied Russbacher feigned illness to dodge the investigators. Russbacher denies this, but says he still can’t state what transpired out of fear for himself and his family.

When The RFT asked why he had been admitted, a hospital spokeswoman said the information was confidential. Since being moved to Jefferson City, Russbacher has been placed in protective custody. Because of the delay, Bryant and both pilots departed before speaking to Russbacher. To determine his familiarity with the SR-71, the remaining investigator, Bob Peck, asked a specific question about TEB, a jet fuel additive, according to Russbacher. The question came despite agreeing in advance not to discuss the aircraft, he says. With a prison official monitoring the interview, the self-professed spy plane pilot either couldn’t answer the questioner was unwilling to do so under the circumstances.

Russbacher’s reticence became one more reason for the press to label him a charlatan. Russbacher has no compunction about discussing the SR-71 now, however. “You know what TEB stands for?” he asks. “That’s for tetra ethyl-borane, which is like the stuff you squirt into a car on a cold morning.”

Such details and jargon add credibility to Russbacher’s story. There is also the stubble of beard that contrasts with his bald pate, and a subtle comportment that projects a military air. The combination seems almost enough to transform “Capt.”Russbacher’s prison garb into a flight suit. More startling is his missing fingernails, the result, Russbacher claims, of having been tortured by the enemy after he crashed over Laos during the Vietnam War. Eyeglasses offer the finishing touch to his persona.

If this were a movie, Robert Duvall would be cast in the role. Indeed, Russbacher’s alleged exploits have already piqued an interest within the entertainment industry.He is quick to cite Gorby Leon, of Coumbia Picture’s story department, as one of his contacts. He also granted Geraldo Rivera’s “Now it Can be Told” a five-and-a-half hour interview recently. The segment never ran, and since then the TV show has been cancelled. True to character, Russbacher attributes its demise to forces more nefarious than low ratings. Likewise, members of the House October Surprise Task Force aren’t tuning in the “Gunther Russbacher Show,” or so they would have it seem. Richard Lewis, a spokesman for the task force in Washington, D.C., cannot comment on specifics, but says all individuals who claim participation or knowledge of events surrounding the October Surprise are being interviewed.

However, as mentioned earlier, the task force has already refuted Russbacher’s allegation that Bush attended the 1980 Paris meetings. To explain this premature judgment, Lewis notes that task force chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), “is intent upon not having this seen as a partisan investigation.” Russbacher sees just that. “Hamilton entertained thoughts that he would become Mr. Clinton’s running mate.

You will find that Mr. Hamilton will be more at ease now with the situation, … and I think you will see a retraction quite soon,” he says. “Lee Hamilton doesn’t play little games like that,” responds Lewis. The spokesman concedes Hamilton was”very wary” of accusations against Bush from the beginning. The committee chairman wanted to “show good faith” and give the perception of professionalism by refuting the allegations as soon as possible, Lewis says.

Presidents always seem to garner “good faith” from the pols and the press. Russbacher hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. Mainstream media, if they refer to him at all, they often don’t mention his name. The best reporting on the subject has been by small independent newspapers like the Jefferson City News Tribune and the Napa(Calif.) Sentinel. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, by contrast, calls Russbacher “the great pretender,” but seems more fawning to Bush administration officials. In reporting a visit by U.S. ambassador Donald Gregg on June 8, the newspaper failed to mention that the former CIA official has been implicated in the October Surprise. And only in the photo caption is there word that Gregg conferred with Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft before speaking to the World Affairs Council. Interestingly, this was the first time Ashcroft attended such a seminar, according to a council spokeswoman.

In St. Charles, assistant prosecutor Phillip W. Groenweghe appears no more eager to talk about the Russbacher case. Repeated calls to his office went unreturned last week. Robert Fleming, a court-appointed public defender, provided the following background on his client. Russbacher acquired a record for passing bad checks in the Army as a teenager. Then in the 70s, he was placed on probation after being convicted on federal charges in Louisiana of carrying bearer bonds, while dressed in a Army major’s uniform. Before now, Russbacher “doesn’t seem to have served anytime in any penitentiary,” says Fleming. This dovetails with his contention that he has been “sheepdipped,” Fleming says. The espionage term describes a spy whose identity has been changed.

Fleming is challenging Russbacher’s conviction on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired and that his client previously received inadequate legal counsel. National Brokerage Companies, the alleged CIA proprietary, was registered with the state in January 1986. The names connected to the company are Emory Joseph Peden, Russbacher’s alias, and Peggy Russbacher, his former wife. A Florissant firm now using the title appears to be unrelated, Fleming says. Russbacher and his wife also incorporated other companies, according to Fleming, but investigators have been unable to find records of any National Brokerage spin-offs, which Russbacher asserts were part of the CIA operation. Russbacher says he ran the CIA proprietary at 7711 Bonhomme in Clayton and shared an office with the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company.

There may even be a more secretive organization behind Russbacher’s activities. As the interview concludes, he shows off a the wide gold band he wears on one finger. There are enigmatic symbols inscribed on the ring. “The pyramid is also the symbol for delta,” Russbacher cryptically explains. Other symbols, shaped like asterisks, represent the eight points of the earth, he says. “I’m just telling you very few people wear this ring. My wife has one, I have one. All other married couples wear them. They’re handmade. It signifies the ability to strike as a unit for the sake of humanity,” says Russbacher.

“It’s a very long story.”

The Casino Beat

More than 20 years ago the RFT dragged its feet reporting on the Michael Lazaroff scandal. Some people prefer to forget about it.

Mobbed Up: On Oct. 14, 1992, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Phil Linsalata revealed that Station Casino founder Frank J. Fertitta Jr. helped skim millions from Vegas casinos for the Kansas City Mafia. When a scandal later broke over the casino company’s illegal activities in Missouri in 1999 and 2000, the Riverfront Times failed to report on Fertitta’s ties to organized crime. Then-RFT managing editor Roland Klose is now an editor at the Post-Dispatch. The following story appeared on the Media Mayhem blog, Feb. 8, 2004. C.D. Stelzer is a former RFT staff writer.

If I had all this juicy information on Station Casino’s founder Frank J. Fertitta Jr. why didn’t I write the story? Why pass such rich material to a fellow reporter? Was I altruistic or just lazy? Well, it’s kind of a long story.
At a Riverfront Times staff meeting in late 1999, reporters were asked to submit issues that they were interested in covering. Among those I chose was the casino beat.
I had a good source — anti-casino lobbyist Steve Taylor. When I was still freelancing for the RFT in the  early 1990s, Taylor had provided me with accurate information. During this time, he was an environmental activist opposed to the Times Beach dioxin incinerator. I wrote a few dozen stories on the Times Beach Superfund Cleanup. One caught the DNR, EPA and their contractors cooking the books on the stack emission tests. Exposing this fraud won me top honors for investigative reporting in 1997 from the Missouri Press Association. Taylor leaked me reams of data that pointed to the corrupt practices. I knew I could trust him from experience. In his new job for an outfit called Casino Watch, he was down in Jefferson City during the legislative sessions, keeping tabs on the then nascent gambling industry. This meant he could relay developments in a timely manner.

But hard-hitting, timely casino coverage didn’t appear to be exactly what the RFT was looking for under the New Times ownership. After all, Station Casino, the gambling company that was ultimately kicked out the state and fined $1 million, ran full-page ads in the RFT every week. But at the time, I was still naïve enough to believe advertisers didn’t hold sway over editorial judgments.

A week after we submitted our choices for beat coverage, editor Safir Ahmed announced the selections that he and managing editor Roland Klose had made. I didnt’ get the casino beat. Bruce Rushton got it. (When I later wrote about the proposed Lemay casino, I pitched that idea to my editors as a St. Louis County

Roland Klose, former RFT managing editor.

development issue.)

As a result, when I got a tip in December 1999 from attorney Joe Jacobson that Michael Lazaroff, Station’s lobbyist/lawyer, was about to be busted for illegally meeting with Volvo dealer and state gaming board chairman James Wolfson, I handed it over to my editors. Within days of receiving the tip from Jacobson, Lazaroff attempted suicide. Lazaroff was then a law partner at Thompson Coburn. His office was next to former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton’s.]

This was a huge story and we had a jump on the Post-Dispatch. Being a good soldier and following the chain of command, I alerted my superiors, who assigned Rushton to cover the story.  But I was still curious about the case. So I did some digging on my own. I soon discovered (and it wasn’t very difficult) that Station’s founder had past ties with the Mafia, Because of his mob ties he had been forced to put Station’s Missouri gaming license in his son’s name. Suddenly, a huge story grew much, much larger. Dutifully, I also handed over this information to Rushton, Ahmed and Klose.

What happened? Nothing.

Former RFT staffer Bruce Rushton.

The biggest story I ever uncovered in my career and these three sat on it for a full 11 months. When Rushton’s cover story finally did see the light of day on Nov. 1, 2000, it didn’t even mention Frank J. Fertitta Jr. It barely mentioned his son. Of course, there was no reference to organized crime. Leaving out Fertitta was like writing a story about the Anheuser-Busch brewery and leaving out the name of August Busch III. Even if Feritta’s ties to the Mafia weren’t deemed important, Rushton could have still dropped a short paragraph or a sentence into the body of the story. He didn’t. His story was over 5,000 words long. So the omission wasn’t because he didn’t have enough space. And the omission wasn’t because he was ignorant. So how many reasons for this “oversight” are left other than those two?

Believe it or not, an earlier story by Rushton on Lazaroff didn’t even bother to mention Station Casino at all. Instead, it focused exclusively on illegal campaign contributions made by Lazaroff and his law partners. This story ran on July 12, 2000. Let me make this clear: Rushton — the casino beat reporter — wrote about a crooked casino lobbyist’s illegal activities but failed to even mention anything about Lazaroff’s largest client — Station Casino. By this point, Rushton already had been sitting on the story for eight months.

But it gets worse. After he wrote the less than definitive Lazaroff/Station’s story in the summer of 2000, the RFT sent him to Atlanta to cover a stock car race, as a part of a fluffy sports profile on some amateur driver.

Tipster Joe Jacobson.

I had been connected to the paper for a decade by this point and I never saw anything like that before. The RFT covers local issues mainly and only does limited sports coverage. It was unprecedented to send a reporter half way across the country to cover a minor sporting event. Unlike the Lazaroff/Station’s story, Rushton cranked out the race car story in a couple weeks. (Quantity not quality counts most at the RFT. Bruce had to keep up with his quota.) Then he went on vacation in August for two weeks just as the Lazaroff hearings were set to start.

His cover story wouldn’t run until November.

I remember the day he finally wrapped up the Lazaroff cover story. His spirits were buoyed. It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. I saw him walking down the hall past my office. He was heading for the fire escape for a smoke break, as was his usual custom. But this time he hadn’t waited until he got outside to light up, and Bruce wasn’t smoking tobacco that day.

He bogarted the joint.

After prosecuting the mob trial in Kansas City for the Justice Department, David Helfrey moved across the state and set up shop as a white-collar criminal defense attorney.

Who’s Hiding What?

Don’t get distracted by the shell game, folks. Nobody hid the fact that Station Casino founder Frank J. Fertitta Jr. was an associate of organized crime from Riverfront Times reporter Bruce Rushton. The information was packaged neatly and placed in his hands — by me. I gave the same information to editor Safir Ahmed and managing editor Roland Klose, too.

But in the opus that Rushton wrote about attorney and gambling lobbyist Michael Lazaroff in the late fall of 2000, Rushton failed, for unknown reasons, to mention anything about Fertitta’s sordid past.

Flipper: Federal prosecutor-turned criminal-defense attorney David B.B. Helfrey.

He could have asked David Helfrey, Station’s outside counsel, about Fertitta, of course, because Rushton interviewed him. But apparently he chose not to ask any tough questions of Helfrey, who prior to becoming a criminal defense attorney, was a federal prosecutor in Kansas City. In that capacity, Helfrey was in a position to know about Fertitta’s organized crime background because FBI wiretap transcripts allude to Fertitta being involved in the Las Vegas skimming operation carried out by Carl Thomas, a casino executive who was recorded having conversations with Kansas City Mafia bosses Nick and Carl Civella among others in 1979. During the conversations, Thomas mentions Fertitta repeatedly as being a part of his crew, a crew that bilked the casinos out of millions and deposited the money into the hands of the Mafia families in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago. The case became the basis for Nicholas Pileggi’s 1995 non-fiction bestseller Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, which director Martin Scorcese made into a blockbuster movie, starring Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci.

Fertitta’s tainted background is the reason that he chose to put Station’s Missouri license in his son’s name — Frank J. Fertitta III. Rushton knew this because I gave him a copy of a story by former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Phil Linsalata from 1992, when Station’s was applying for the state license for the St. Charles casino. [In the 1992 story, Linsalata duly reported Fertitta Jr.’s Mafia ties.

Michael Lazaroff

Rushton also knew that Michael Lazaroff feared for his life and was given state police protection during and after the Missouri Gaming Commission hearings that were held in Jefferson City in the summer of 2000. He knew this because he was told as much by Steve Taylor, an anti-casino lobbyist who attended the hearings. I later confirmed Taylor’s recollection through Missouri Assistant Attorney Mike Bradley.

Why would Lazaroff be in fear of his life? Because another witness had died when asked to testify by the gaming board. Carl Thomas — the person who had direct knowledge of Fertitta’s organized crime connections — had been asked in 1993 to provide background information on his former employee to the Missouri Gaming Commission. Thomas traveled to Las Vegas from his home in Oregon to confer with Station’s executives in Las Vegas about the upcoming testimony. But he never made it to Missouri to testify. After his Vegas visit, Thomas returned to Oregon and died in a one-car accident.

Lazaroff’s own testimony refers to “Carl Thomas”, and the “Fremont” casino and “Argent” corporation, all of which were part of the Kansas City Mafia’s skim operation in Las Vegas in the 1970s. Rushton had a transcript of the Missouri Gaming Commission hearings in which Lazaroff made these references. He could have quoted directly from Lazaroff’s testimony. Instead, he chose to portray him as a clown.

At the hearings, retired FBI agent and former Gaming Commissioner William Quinn testified that he had

Frank J. Fertitta Jr., who died in 2006, skimmed casino cash for the Civella crime family of Kansas City.

talked to Helfrey, Station’s lawyer, on three occasions. Quinn already knew Helfrey because they had worked on the Operation Strawman cases together. Strawman was the FBI operation that resulted in the conviction of 19 Mafia members in the Midwest, including the Civella brothers of Kansas City, for skimming from the Hacienda, Fremont, Stardust and Tropicana casinos in Las Vegas.

The transcript of the Gaming Commission hearings, show that Quinn testified that on one occasion Helfrey asked him over the phone to meet with him and a Station’s representative. Quinn’s testimony shows that Helfrey had been retained after the Lazaroff scandal broke. In other words, Helfrey was already representing Station in a legal capacity. In short, Helfrey’s and Lazaroff’s legal services to Station Casino overlapped. They were both working for the same company at the same time. Moreover, if Helfrey and a Station’s representative had met with Quinn, it would have been comparable to Lazaroff’s violations in meeting with Gaming Commission chairman Wolfson. Such a meeting would have been in violation of the Commission’s “ex parte” rule, which was set up in 1994 to make sure that state gaming commissioners did not fall under the influence of the casinos that they were supposed to be regulating.
Quinn said he was concerned about his former colleague’s s suggestion and he refused to meet with Helfrey and the Station’s representative. Again, Rushton had the transcript of Quinn’s testimony. But instead of citing Quinn, he relied heavily on Helfey’s version of events in telling the story.

Nobody hid this information from Bruce Rushton. But he did manage to hide it from the public.

Tony Messenger’s BFF

Pulitzer-Prize Winner Tony Messenger blurred the lines between the editorial page and the newsroom in 2015 and lived. Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich wasn’t so lucky.

On page 13A of the Feb. 27, 2015 edition, Tony Messenger, then the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, began his tribute to the late Tom Schweich by referring to him as his BFF,  an acronym that stands for “best friends forever.” In the next sentence and several that followed, Messenger made clear that he was not really Schweich’s best friend, and that the label was used by his fellow editorial writers to sarcastically allude to his relationship with the state auditor and Republican gubernatorial candidate. As Messenger explained it, the BFF reference was an inside joke.  

Messenger penned his tribute, which began with that disparagement, less than 24 hours after Schweich had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a hand gun. Messenger then went on to explain the reason why Schweich was jokingly referred to as his BFF. It was because Schweich exhibited a naivete unusual in a politician. He truly considered Messenger to be his confidante. Schweich spoke to Messenger openly about his political and personal troubles. Messenger listened. But it’s clear from Messenger’s account that he did not share Schweich’s illusion of friendship. Schweich was more a source than a friend to Messenger. He cultivated the relationship to gain inside information from Schweich beginning in 2010 when he was a reporter for another newspaper in Jefferson City, the Missouri state capital.

Immediately prior to his suicide, Schweich had confided in Messenger, telling him about the problems he was encountering related to his Republican gubernatorial bid.  Rumors were allegedly being circulated against him by John Hancock, the then-chairman of the state Republican Party. The allegations revolved around Schweich’s religious background. According to Messenger’s account, Schweich believed Hancock was falsely telling Republicans that Schweich was Jewish in an effort to undercut his gubernatorial candidacy.

In his homage, Messenger wrote that after Schweich committed suicide Messenger felt compelled to do what he had never done before as a reporter: He revealed the substance of off-the-record conversations with a source. The problem with Messenger’s confession is that he was not a reporter any longer when this breech of ethics occurred. He was the editorial page editor. Editorial writers are not reporters. They adhere to a different set of rules than those followed in the newsroom. They must remain detached and above the fray, otherwise they risk destroying their credibility and independence by miring themselves in conflicts of interests and charges of bias and deceit. In short, an editorial writer should never have been talking off-the-record to a public official, especially one involved in a heated election race.

In this case, the conflict is that Messenger was milking a confidential source for inside political information when he was not a reporter. Moreover, he knew that Schweich was having serious emotional and mental problems, but he continued the relationship despite all of this, feigning friendship. He was in charge of setting the editorial position of the newspaper and shaping public opinion, while continuing to maintain an off-the-record source — as if he were still a reporter. He was not a reporter, however. Nonetheless, Messenger still referred to himself in the aftermath of the Schweich suicide as a “reporter.”

The other problem with Messenger’s confused role in this tragedy is that he apparently communicated some facet of confidential information he had received off-the-record from Schweich to the newsroom staff, from which he was supposed to be separated as an opinion writer. A reporter was subsequently sent to interview Schweich, but Schweich killed himself before the reporter arrived.

Messenger had broken the firewall between the editorial page and the newsroom.

Was  Messenger sacked, suspended or even mildly reprimanded for these violations of journalistic standards? No, he was rewarded and given a column. Last year, he  won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and there was much celebrating in the newsroom to which he had returned. Schweich’s death wasn’t on anybody’s mind during the celebration. The circumstances of Schweich’s death would have been largely forgotten had not Tony Messenger himself duly chronicled his involvement to readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

At 9:41 a.m., Feb. 26, 2015, seven-minutes before police were called to Schweich’s house after he shot himself, Tony Messenger acknowledged receiving a call on his cell phone from a distraught Tom Schweich, but Messenger ignored the call. He didn’t pick it up. Schweich left him a voice mail message. Referring to that final message from his “BFF,” Messenger ended his tribute to Schweich the day after the state auditor’s suicide with this comment: “I think I’ll keep it.”

Did he?