Author Gerald Posner scores another bestseller, at the expense of historical accuracy
first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) May 20, 1998
BY C.D. STELZER
In the final chapter of Killing the Dream, Gerald Posner takes the reader inside of the mind of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This is no small trick considering the author never interviewed Ray, who died shortly after publication of the book in April.
Nevertheless, reviewers have lauded the tome. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times calls it “a model of investigation, meticulous in its discovery and presentation of evidence, unbiased in its exploration of every claim.” The august newspaper columnist is too kind.
In his acknowledgments, Posner himself confesses to succumbing to deadline pressure, spurred no doubt by the publisher, Random House, which opportunely released the book on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination.
To finish his assignment on time, Posner relied heavily on the works of two other authors who have previously written books on the King assassination: William Bradford Huie and George McMillan. Both writers assumed Ray’s guilt. Posner sews their narratives together, patching tatters and frayed edges with suppositions, taking verbal potshots at the convicted murderer whenever possible, repeatedly condemning him for being an ignorant, genetically inferior racist from “the backwaters of Missouri.”
In between personal attacks, Posner refutes, with seeming aplomb, Ray’s alibi, which revolves around being a patsy for Rauol, a mysterious smuggler. Posner then sets about trashing the credibility of all other conspiracy theories concerning the murder of the civil rights leader. He ends by reiterating his foregone conclusion: “There is no doubt that James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King.”
It is a formula that has proven successful for the author in the past. Case Closed , his 1993 best-seller, sided with the Warren Commission’s questionable conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
But under scrutiny, Posner’s case against Ray is marred by factual errors and omissions. For instance, he refers to the car-bombing death of John Paul Spica as occurring in the “St. Louis suburb of Richmond.” He further states that the “possibility of learning more from Spica ended” with the explosion.
Posner is wrong on both counts. In reality, Spica, a St. Louis Mafioso, was killed outside his Claytonia Terrace apartment in Richmond Heights. His murder has been attributed to feuding underworld factions vying for control of a labor union here. Before his death, however, he testified in executive session before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978. Spica’s testimony remains sealed under the terms of a congressional edict until 2027. Unsealing these transcripts could yet provide information relevant to the case.
In another instance, Posner refers to the Phoenix Program as a “government campaign against the anti-war movement.” In reality, the Phoenix Program was a CIA-sponsored operation that hunted down and killed suspected communist sympathizers in South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. After the war, congressional investigators conservatively estimated that more than 20,000 civilians were murdered as a part of the pogrom, which used a computer database to track its targets. Some conspiracy theorists have postulated that a similar operation could have been employed domestically.
Of course, Posner pooh-poohs the possibility of any military or intelligence involvement in the assassination of King. Instead, he holds to a simpler conspiracy theory advanced by the HSCA in 1978. According to the HSCA’s final report, Ray may have received word of an alleged $50,000 bounty on King’s life offered by two St. Louis supporters of segregationist George Wallace.
The problem with confirming this convenient theory is that both men were dead by 1978. Moreover, Russell G. Byers, the HSCA witness, who claimed he received the murder contract, was a suspect in a notorious St. Louis Art Museum burglary that year. Posner conveniently leaves this last detail out of his book, choosing instead to accept the HSCA findings without qualification.
If there is indeed a connection to be made, the motive behind these shadowy associations may have more to do with drug dealing than racist politics. During the mid-1960s, Byers busied himself chopping stolen cars at the Bluff Acres Motel in the burg of Barnhart in then-rural Jefferson County, Mo. While Byers ran the car theft ring, John R. Kauffmann, the motel owner, engaged in other illegal activities. On April 4, 1967, Kauffmann and six others who frequented the site were arrested for the sale of 725,000 pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines pills. Kauffmann just happened to be one of the two men who Byers’ claimed had asked him to kill King.
Meanwhile, Spica — Byers’ brother-in-law — shared the same cell block with Ray at the Missouri Penitentiary. For a while, they worked in the prison hospital together. Hugh W. Maxey, the prison doctor, even granted Spica weekend furloughs to visit a mutual acquaintance — Kauffmann — in Jefferson County. Spica, a convicted murderer, was released on his own recognizance. More curious is the fact that within a couple of weeks of Kauffmann’s drug bust, Ray managed to escape.
Ray’s escape was engineered with the help of a guard, who was part of another drug smuggling ring at the prison, according to John Ray, the brother of James Earl Ray. In an interview last year, John Ray told me that he had acted as an outside drug courier for inmate Carl Drake, during his brother’s incarceration. After James Earl Ray’s prison break, John Ray says he drove his brother back to St. Louis. When they arrived, the two brothers didn’t meet with any George Wallace supporters. Instead, John Ray says they immediately contacted Joe Burnett, a hitman and heroin addict.
Posner fails to report any of this.