A deep dive into the 1978 House Committee on Assassinations’ conspiracy theory on the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
BY C.D. STELZER
(first published in the Riverfront Times April 8, 1992)
In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded there was a St. Louis-based conspiracy to murder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Evidence gathered by the HSCA has been sealed until 2027. James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer of King, claims the congressional investigation itself was a cover-up.
Ray pleaded guilty to the crime in 1969, but immediately recanted. There has never been a trial. He is now a prisoner at River Bend Penitentiary in Nashville, Tenn. In the preface to Ray’s book, “Who Killed Martin Luther King,” published in 1992, the Rev. Jesse Jackson demands a special prosecutor be named and the case reopened.
The following story centers on the HSCA’s St. Louis-based conspiracy theory and is comprised of information gleaned from Ray’s book, congressional testimony and newspaper accounts.
At 7:55 a.m. Nov. 8, 1979, produce man John Paul Spica said goodbye to his girlfriend Dina Bachelier for the last time. He walked out of the two family flat at 1115 Claytonia Terrace in Richmond Heights and stepped into his 1977 black Cadillac. When Spica touched the break pedal, he detonated five to eight sticks of dynamite. The explosion blew both of Spica’s legs off. The driver’s door of the vehicle landed 30 yards away.
Moments later, Wellston police officer Nick Sturghill, saw a bearded white male in a yellow pickup truck speeding away. Spica, who had a speech impediment, mumbled a few unintelligible words to Sturghill before he died.
Spica’s violent death a year after his closed-door testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) has long been attributed to a war between competing organized crime elements. for the control of a St. But Spica served time in Missouri Penitentiary with James Earl Ray, and was also the brother-in-law of Russell G. Byers, the committee’s star witness, who testified that there was a St. Louis-based conspiracy to kill the civil rights leader. The HSCA final report concluded that Byers’ allegations were credible.
The HSCA findings suggest that Ray, the convicted assassin, did not act alone, but its findings raise more questions than answers. The doubt begin with the HSCA’s chief witness and Spica’s brother-in law. That’s because in 1978 Byers was the suspected mastermind of a St. Louis Art Museum burglary. He was arrested but never charged with the crime.
Sometime after his arrest, the FBI in St. Louis provided HSCA investigators with Byers’ name after a misfiled 1974 report surfaced, which stated that, according to a confidential informant, Byers had boasted of receiving an offer to kill King.
In 1978, Byers told the HSCA that the offer came from two prominent deceased St. Louisans: former stockbroker John R. Kauffmann and patent lawyer John H. Sutherland, who founded “whites rights” groups locally.
Spica, Byers’ brother-in-law, was a convicted murder contractor himself. Spica had served 10 years of a life sentence for negotiating the 1962 killing of John T. Myszak, a North St. Louis County realtor. Upon parole, Spica opened the Corner Produce, a vegetable stand at Shaw and Vandevanter, which may have been an organized crime front. Spica was known to have ties to the late Anthony Giordano, leader of the St. Louis mafia.
Police believe Spica’s slaying, and subsequent car bombings during the early 80s, began as a power struggle within then-mob-dominated Laborers’ Union Local 42. In a 1987 federal trial here, Raymond H. Flynn, the local’s business manager, was implicated in Spica’s bombing and found guilty of multiple racketeering and conspiracy charges.
But Spica had other interesting associations besides his brother-in law and the mafia: While in a Missouri prison, Spica shared the same cell block with James Earl Ray.
In 1978, after being subpoenaed and granted immunity by the HSCA, Byers publicly testified that in late 1966 or early 1967 he was approached by Kauffmann, a retired stockbroker and former aircraft company owner active in St. Louis County Democratic politics. Byers had been a friend of the elder Kauffmann’s late brother Gil, an assistant St. Louis County coroner. According to Byers’ account, Kauffmann introduced him to a neighbor, John H. Sutherland, an avowed racist who made the $50,000 contract offer to kill King.
At this time, Kauffmann lived in Jefferson County and operated the Bluff Acres Motel on Highway 67 in Barnhart. Byers claimed the motel was actually a front for illegal activities and told the committee he used the premises for his stolen car operations. When asked by the committee whether he had informed Spica of the contract offer to kill King, Byers said he had not, but said that his brother-in-law, who was in state prison at the time, may have learned of the offer through other sources. Also in the same prison at the same time, was James Earl Ray, who was serving a sentence for the robbery of a Kroger’s supermarket on Ohio Avenue in South St. Louis. Both he and Spica, for a brief period, worked in the prison hospital together. Newspaper accounts cite rumors that Spica and Ray were dealing drugs inside.
Interestingly, the prison doctor, with the keys to the medicine chest, was Hugh W. Maxey — an old friend of Kauffmann’s. One shady business Kauffmann operated out of his motel was Fixaco, Inc., a pharmaceutical company. Seven people connected with Fixaco, including Kauffmann, were arrested on April 4, 1967 for conspiracy to illegally sell 725,000 amphetamines pills. Among those charged were two New Yorkers: Bernard Chubet, a former stockbroker and Anthony K. Chang, a Chinese Nationalist (Taiwanese) exchange student. Also arrested was Sgt. Henry Geerdes, a Jefferson County deputy. Former Jefferson County Sheriff Walter “Buck” Buerger claimed his deputy was acting as an undercover agent when arrested by the U.S. Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. However, the HSCA testimony of one of Byers’ former lawyers, the late Murray Randall, indicates the Jefferson County sheriff — not a deputy — purchased drugs from Kauffmann.
Within weeks of Kauffmann’s speed bust, Ray, with another inmate’s help, smuggled himself out of prison in a bread box. Inexplicably, charges against one of his earlier failed escape efforts were dropped not long before the breakout, allowing Ray back into the main prison population.
Fred Wilkinson, the Missouri director of corrections at the time, was a former federal prison official with ties to the CIA. In 1962, Wilkinson helped exchange a Russian spy for Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union.
Ray wasn’t the only one taking leave of the prison in those days. Maxey, the prison physician, released at least one inmate to work at Kauffmann’s motel as part of a “rehabilitation program.” And in a 1978 interview, Kauffmann’s widow said that in 1966, Spica visited the motel with Byers, while Spica was serving his life sentence. According to prison records, Spica received his first official prison furlough in 1972.
The other St. Louis businessman implicated by Byers, in the alleged assassination plot, was the late John H. Sutherland, a neighbor of Kauffmann’s and a patent attorney who had offices in the Shell Building on Locust Street where The Riverfront Times is now located. The firm of Sutherland Polster and Taylor represented clients such as Monsanto. When he died in 1970, Sutherland left a portfolio of mainly oil and chemical stocks worth more than $300,000, including investments in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
In 1978, another St. Louisan was linked to a local firm — Hydro-Air Engineering, Inc. — which was being investigated for illegal trade with the same white-supremacist nation. The allegations came soon after federal Judge William Webster was confirmed as FBI chief. While the African business may be unrelated, Webster had a closer tie to the case, which is harder to dismiss.
Richard O’Hara, an art restorer, was the FBI informant who purportedly reported Byers’ assassination claims in 1974 to the FBI. O’Hara had been arrested in 1972 for his knowledge of a Maryland Plaza jewel robbery. Two suspects in that case were murdered, another was acquitted here in a federal trial racked with improprieties. Judge Webster presided over the questionable judicial proceedings.
Webster and Sutherland also both belonged to the then-all-white Veiled Prophet society. Sutherland’s membership in the organization was posthumously investigated the HSCA the same year Webster’s VP connection was questioned during his Senate confirmation hearings. The reason the HSCA showed interest in the VP was because of Byers’ testimony that Sutherland represented a “secret Southern society,” with a lot of money. The wealthy Veiled Prophet organization was founded in the post Civil War era by Southern sympathizers.
However, the HSCA gave more credence to the theory that one of three overtly racist political groups may have been involved in the conspiracy. The HSCA theorized that word may have been passed to Ray through his family. In 1968, Ray’s brother, John, operated the Grapevine tavern at 1982 Arsenal Street adjacent to Benton Park. The saloon was the gathering place for American Party workers who had a campaign office nearby. The third-party movement was created to support the George Wallace’s presidential bid. Sutherland was a Wallace supporter. Another possibility mentioned by the HSCA was the St. Louis Metropolitan Area Citizens Council, a “whites’ rights” group. Sutherland had been the group’s first president. But the outfit the HSCA took most seriously was the Nashville-based Southern States Industrial Council to which Sutherland belonged. A position paper published by the council quotes FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that the “Negro movement” was being subverted by communists.