In the wake of James Earl Ray’s death, the media has unleashed a barrage of attacks on the family of the late Martin Luther King Jr.
published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) April 29, 1998
BY C.D. STELZER
With the death of James Earl Ray last week, mainstream news organizations have intimated that the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. somehow took all knowledge of the crime with him to the grave; that nothing further can be learned. At the same time, the white-liberal establishment and certain well-encroached members of the civil rights community have openly condemned the call for a new investigation, arguing against the efficacy of such an endeavor, and casting aspersions on the King family for making such a suggestion.
Meanwhile, the press has been less critical of the opportunistic release of a new book on the subject, which went on sale on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination. In Killing the Dream, best-selling author Gerald Posner presents a hackneyed indictment of Ray based primarily on previously published accounts. Despite its prodigious annotations, the work contains factual mistakes that are surpassed only by errors of omission.
Clearly, rhetoric has overreached reason, and in the ensuing lurch to debunk “conspiracy theories”critical thinking has been sacrificed. In an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Friday, the newspaper rabidly attacked the King family for accepting a “crank theory that Dr. King’s death was ordered by Lyndon Baines Johnson. …” There was no further explanation given. But the disturbing message sounds similar to FBI propaganda, which was leaked into the editorial pages of the now defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the weeks preceding King’s assassination in 1968. Ironically, the Post’s official position, which describes Ray as a “two-bit punk,” is juxtaposed next to the newspaper’s much vaunted platform, a platform that professes to hold to strict intolerance for injustice.
More alarming is the Post-Dispatch editorial’s casual acceptance of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) findings from 1978. In the only official investigation of the assassination, the HSCA concluded that two St. Louis businessmen placed a $50,000 bounty on King’s life. The HSCA speculated that Ray may have heard of this offer either through one of his brothers or through fellow prisoners at the Missouri penitentiary, where he was incarcerated prior to his escape in 1967. Both of the St. Louisans implicated in the offer were dead by 1978 and could not be called as witnesses before the HSCA.
The other problem with this conspiracy theory is that it is promulgated solely on the testimony of a convicted felon, Russell G. Byers, who was compelled to appear before the congressional committee, after becoming a suspect in one of two notorious St. Louis Art Museum burglaries in early 1978. Byers was never charged with the crime, but two other suspects in the case were later found murdered. Byers’ brother-in-law — John Paul Spica — who testified to the HSCA in closed session, died in a car bombing in 1979. Although an informant notified the FBI that Byers’ had boasted in 1973 of receiving an earlier offer to kill King, the FBI never looked into the matter, and the report was allegedly misplaced until the HSCA requested all files pertaining to the assassination. Only then did it resurface. When it did, Byers’ former lawyer, Murray Randall, who by then had become a Missouri circuit court judge, pleaded with the committee not to subpoena him, asserting that unnamed St. Louis underworld figures would retaliate against him. His appeal was not granted. In his subsequent testimony Randall said he found the entire St. Louis-based conspiracy theory incredible. His opinion was echoed by then-FBI director William Webster, who called Byers’ testimony”hearsay three-times removed.” Webster had been a federal judge in St. Louis before becoming FBI director in 1978.
There is another reason to doubt the veracity of the congressional findings, however. In a press conference held in St. Louis in August 1978, the late Oliver Patterson, an informant for the HSCA, admitted that his duties included theft, making false statements to Congress and wire tapping. Patterson, who had previously worked as an FBI informant, also confessed that he had planned, with congressional investigator Conrad “Pete” Baetz,” to leak a story to the New York Times that would have branded James Earl Ray’s attorney, Mark Lane, a homosexual. This was reported on the front page of the Post-Dispatch in 1978, but it appears the newspaper is now suffering from institutional amnesia or senile dementia.
David Patterson, the 25-year-old son of the of the late HSCA informant, is only now beginning to understand what transpired, when he was six years old. He would like to know more. “Why was there underhanded and illegal stuff going on? he asks.”Why did it need to go on? Why was my father being manipulated and why did he feel like he had to come out and reveal this stuff?” These are questions that the King family would like to know as well.
After reading about his father’s covert activities in the Riverfront Times last year, David Patterson realized the significance of the many cassette recordings that are now in his possession. The tape recordings, include phone conversations between his father and Baetz, the congressional investigator.
On one of the tapes, the two discuss how to coordinate the press conference at which the reputation of James Earl Ray’s attorney was to be smeared. Baetz had called to tells Patterson to delay the announcement because of the sudden death of the Pope. In another conversation, Oliver Patterson inquires about the appropriate attire to wear when meeting a New York Times reporter. “Should I wear my mafia outfit or my sports coat,” he asks.
Some of the conversations are much less humorous. In a briefing with assassination researcher Harold Weisberg, Oliver Patterson recalls altering an FBI report on Jerry Ray, the youngest brother of James Earl Ray.
“On page three of an FBI report I wrote dated May 16, 1971, I quote Jerry Ray as saying, `my brother pulled the trigger. …’ The report was originally written differently with other quotes exactly contradicting that one statement,” says Oliver Patterson. “After the report was reviewed by FBI special agent Stanley Jacobson, the page was retyped at his directive deleting all the contradictions to that one remark. That statement out of context distorts the meaning completely out of proportion and gives a totally, completely different intent to what was originally written.”
In another taped phone conversation Patterson inexplicably called the office of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, then the junior senator from Utah. Patterson’s undercover work was under the auspices of the House committee not the Senate.
In the book Orders to Kill , William F. Pepper, Ray’s last lawyer, claimed a Green Beret sniper team was in place in Memphis at the time of the assassination. That claim has been refuted by ABC News. But the allegation of the Army’s intrusion into domestic affairs has never been denied.
The Army is known to have been spying on King since 1947, and, indeed, members of the 111th Military Intelligence Group (MIG) were closely shadowing his movements in Memphis, according to a 1993 story by investigative reporter Stephen G. Tompkins, formerly of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The Army also used civilian, police and FBI sources for additional intelligence support during King’s visit to Memphis. After the shot killed King, Marrell McCollough, a Memphis police undercover agent, reached him first. McCollough had been relaying King’s movements to the police who in turn forwarded the information to the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which would have likely included the 111th MIG. McCollough now works for the CIA, and has refused to be interviewed on the subject even by Posner.
Last year, a ballistics test on the rifle found at the crime scene in Memphis failed to confirm whether it was the weapon used in the murder. In March, the black judge who had allowed the rifle test was removed from the case by the state of Tennessee because his decisions were deemed biased towards Ray’s defense.
The King family has long expressed a belief that Ray was innocent of the crime. In recent years, they led the efforts to gain the convicted assassin a new trial. Ray himself recanted his confession almost immediately after his 1969 conviction, arguing he had been coerced into confessing and had received inadequate legal counsel. He spent the remainder of his life in prison unsuccessfully seeking a trial.
Earlier this month, Corretta King, the widow of the slain civil rights leader, met with Attorney General Janet Reno, asking that the U.S. Department of Justice reopen the investigation into the assassination of her late husband. It is by any measure a reasonable request. If the Clinton administration is serious about improving race relations, this is where the reconciliation should begin.