New testimony implicates the CIA. The question no longer seems to be whether government agents were involved, but how high up the conspiracy ran. For more than 21 years numerous official and unofficial investigations have attempted to answer the myriad questions surrounding the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Though a small-time escaped convict named James Earl Ray is serving a 99-year sentence for the killing, federal authorities conceded in 1979 that there probably was some kind of conspiracy. No coconspirator has ever been caught, however, and for ten years after the assassination none was even sought. Ray pleaded guilty to the murder, but almost immediately after began protesting that he was innocent, claiming that he was framed by a mysterious figure named "Raoul" and that renegade federal agents were involved. No satisfactory motive for Ray to have shot King has ever been provided.
Ever since Ray was caught, serious questions have existed regarding the details of the crime and the ability of anyone to have orchestrated the shooting of King and a subsequent flight to Britain without official complicity. But new information implicates former agents of the Central Intelligence Agency in setting up Ray's elaborate string of false identities and transporting him to and from Memphis before and after the shooting.
Jules "Ricco" Kimble, a convicted murderer serving time in a federal prison in Oklahoma, claimed in recent interviews that he was intimately involved in a widespread conspiracy that included agents of the CIA and members of the Memphis police department, as well as Ray and other figures. A shadowy figure with ties to the U.S. intelligence community and organized crime, Kimble corroborates much of Ray's story. He alleges that Ray, though involved in the plot, did not shoot King but was set up to take the fall.
Another new revelation is that federal investigators were deprived of information on the roles of undercover agents in Memphis. The issue no longer seems to be whether government operatives were involved, but how high up the chain of command the conspiracy ran.
In late March 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support a strike by the predominantly black garbage workers. Things began badly. On March 28 King led 6,000 protesters on what was supposed to be a peaceful march. But the march disintegrated into violence between police and demonstrators. A 17-year-old black youth was killed, and stores were looted. King returned to Memphis on April 3, intending to lead the workers on a second march, which he was determined would not turn violent.
On April 4, a few minutes before 6 PM, King walked out on the balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel. He was preparing to attend a dinner at a local minister's house and was bantering with his chauffeur in the parking lot below. At one minute past six, a single shot crashed King onto his back.
Public suspicions about the investigation of King's death surfaced almost immediately. A growing number of people already questioned the official lone-assassin version of the killing of John F. Kennedy. King, too, had been shot with a high-velocity rifle, ostensibly from a window across the street. Moreover, as in Dallas, the assassination had taken place under the noses of authorities in broad daylight.
Less than 24 hours after King was shot came the startling announcement by U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark that there was no evidence of a conspiracy. Clark now says he regrets the remark, which he says was designed to cool emotions and speculation. But it was grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists and even annoyed FBI agents investigating the crime.
The unusual circumstances surrounding the assassination then began to emerge. How had so many police arrived so quickly on the scene--within moments of the shot being fired--yet failed to spot the assassin? Who had broadcast on citizens-band radio a false report of a car chase involving a Ford Mustang less than half an hour after police radio announced the suspect car to be a white Mustang? If, as the police quickly said, the shot came from the bathroom of a rooming house across the street, why had at least three people claimed to have seen a gunman in the bushes across the street?
Suspicions were not allayed when the alleged assassin was caught on June 8, 1968, at London's Heathrow Airport. Ray, an escapee from the Missouri state penitentiary, had allegedly been on his way to Belgium and was traveling on a false passport. He was quickly extradited to the U.S. to stand trial. No other culprits were sought.
Ray was alleged to have checked into a rooming house across from the Lorraine Motel, established a sniper's post in the bathroom, shot King, grabbed his belongings, panicked and dropped them, and then escaped Memphis in a white Mustang.
Ray admits he was in Memphis and that he bought and handled the gun said to have killed King. But he says he had been led to believe the gun was to have been part of an arms deal involving an associate he'd met months before in Montreal called Raoul. He also says that at 6 PM he was several blocks away from the crime scene in the Mustang. Yet officials continued to maintain Ray was a lone assassin.
Public expectations of major revelations at the forthcoming trial were extremely high. But then Ray pleaded guilty, and the public was left ignorant of the many anomalies encountered and sometimes ignored by investigators.
Perhaps the most obvious of these was the contradictory and inconsistent testimony of the man who would have been the state's chief witness had there been a full trial, Charlie Stephens, who was supposed to have seen Ray emerging from the bathroom after King was shot. But when Stephens was handed a photo of Ray during a CBS interview, he said the picture was not of the man he'd seen. Two other witnesses who saw Stephens on April 4 allege that he was drunk.
Ray replaced his first lawyer with the colorful Texas attorney Percy Foreman, a move he says today was a grave error. He says Foreman pressured him into pleading guilty and that he did so because he thought he would be able to dismiss his lawyer and receive a new trial. When he pleaded guilty in March 1969 in his official two-and-a-half-hour trial, Ray deviated slightly from the script and subtly indicated that there had been a conspiracy. He was sentenced by the court to 99 years in prison. Within three days he set about petitioning for a new trial, and has been petitioning ever since.
In 1974 Ray managed to wrest from the state an evidentiary hearing to determine whether he could get a new trial on the grounds that Foreman negligently represented him. Harold Weisberg, a writer and veteran of the John F. Kennedy case, was taken on as an investigator by Ray's legal team.
Weisberg, whose interest in the case continues, was vigorous in his investigation. Although he differs with many experts in his conclusions--he believes Ray was a totally innocent fall guy--many of his arguments about the weakness of the official case and the existence of a conspiracy are persuasive.
Weisberg's relentless pursuit of FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act revealed many irregularities in the bureau's investigation. Those documents revealed that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered his field officers to focus their pursuit on chief suspect Eric Galt (Ray's primary alias), excluding several conspiracy leads those officers discovered. The FBI also said the bullet recovered from King's body was too mangled to properly compare against the rifle it was allegedly fired from. But last summer a forensics expert who had testified at the 1974 hearing confirmed that the bullet had been relatively intact and only later degraded in quality.
Weisberg does not assume there were sinister motives behind the inconsistencies he found. He puts them down to incompetence and to an unprofessional and unhealthy concern for the FBI's public image by Hoover, who was under massive pressure to find a culprit.
One of Weisberg's most powerful arguments concerns the crime scene. According to the official version of events, the assassin stood in a bathtub, took a single shot, ran from the bathroom into the bedroom, put his rifle back in its box, grabbed an assortment of personal items bundled in a blanket--leaving his fingerprints on the belongings but apparently not in the bathroom or bedroom--ran the length of the rooming house and down a flight of stairs, dumped the bundle and the rifle in the street, walked calmly to his waiting Mustang, and drove away. How, Weisberg wonders, could all of this have transpired within the one to two minutes it took uniformed police officers to reach the location?
Official records of what took place outside the rooming house in those critical moments are astonishingly chaotic. At the 1974 evidentiary hearings the state argued that the first officer on the scene was Inspector N.E. Zachary. This was retracted when Zachary conceded he was several blocks away at the moment. Then the state contended the first to discover the bundle was Shelby County sheriff's deputy Bud Ghormley. This too was contradicted by Deputy Vernon Dollahite, who in 1975 told a Justice Department inquiry he was the first one there. The Justice Department and the FBI calculated it took Dollahite one minute and 57 seconds to reach the bundle from the time he heard the shot.
Dollahite's testimony is extraordinary. As he raced around the corner, he didn't see a Mustang pulling away and he didn't see any blanket-wrapped bundle. Only after he entered Jim's Grill beneath the rooming house, told everyone to stay put, and came out again did he spot the bundle lying in a doorway a few yards away. He and the FBI agreed that whoever had the bundle probably saw him coming, hid behind the staircase door until Dollahite went into Jim's Grill, then ran out into the street, throwing down the bundle while the deputy was inside.
There's an obvious problem with this scenario. How could Ray run out of the doorway, throw down an incriminating bundle, and then manage to climb into a white Mustang and drive off unnoticed--within the seconds it took Dollahite to emerge from Jim's Grill just a few feet away?
The judge at the evidentiary hearing took more than a year to decide Ray had no grounds for a new trial. Weisberg quoted the judge as saying the defendant's guilt or innocence was immaterial to the issue at hand, which was only whether Ray's lawyer had represented him fairly.
By 1977, after the Church Committee investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies revealed that the CIA had been illegally involved in assassinations overseas and spying at home, public suspicion about the King and Kennedy assassinations had reached such a pitch that Congress was forced to form a committee to investigate.
Beset with political problems and threats to its funding, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) tackled--inconclusively and often inadequately--the majority of the issues and points raised by critics of the official story of King's murder. The committee's final report, dated March 29, 1979, concluded that Ray was guilty of killing King, but that there had been coconspirators after all.
An informant's report in the FBI's Saint Louis office, until then overlooked, had led to the discovery of a $50,000 bounty for the death of King offered by two businessmen, who were already dead by the time of the investigation, in Saint Louis in 1967. Since Ray had family and criminal associates in Saint Louis, the committee attempted to show he'd heard of the offer while in the Missouri state penitentiary. The HSCA alleged that Ray, after breaking out on April 23, 1967, participated in a bank robbery. When the proceeds began to run out, Ray allegedly decided to collect the Saint Louis bounty.
The HSCA report admitted that this theory was based more on circumstantial than hard evidence. Leads and recommendations for further investigation were forwarded to the Justice Department. They were not pursued, and some 80 cubic feet of documentation, tapes, and photographs were sealed in the National Archives for 50 years. The case was quietly closed in 1983.
The HSCA's Saint Louis theory raised more questions. What criminal or political group would have engaged Ray to do the job, given that he was an incompetent petty criminal who had no ability with weapons and no record of prior violence? How could the alleged coconspirators be sure that only Ray--if anyone--was caught, or that he would keep silent in the face of life imprisonment or the death penalty? How would the coconspirators have been able to secure for Ray as elaborate a false identity as that of Canadian Eric Galt in the months preceding the assassination--and devise an effective escape route from North America? Most crucially, how would any group other than the government have assured that Ray was able to march into a predominantly black section of Memphis--which was teeming with police, informants, and undercover agents--shoot King, and then march out again unmolested? And then assure that no one other than Ray would ever be pursued?
The authorities certainly couldn't be accused of a lack of vigilance regarding King's visit to Memphis. But only recently has the true nature of that vigilance begun to come out.
Retired Memphis police officer Sam Evans said in an interview last summer that a member of King's personal entourage and an employee of the Lorraine were both in the pay of the police. Also, it was confirmed during the HSCA investigation that Marrell McCullough, one of the first to reach King's fallen body--the man holding the towel around King's head in the famous photograph taken from a neighboring balcony seconds after the shot was fired--was, though ostensibly a member of the radical black group the Invaders, an undercover agent of the Memphis police department (MPD).
In a fire station located across the street from the Lorraine Motel, two black police officers had set up a surveillance post and were monitoring King's every move. But by the time of the shooting, one of the two--along with the two black fire fighters assigned to the station--had been transferred elsewhere.
The MPD's intelligence unit had planted bugs and agents at all the striking sanitation workers' strategy meetings as well as at Invaders meetings. A senior police officer told a journalist in the 70s that military intelligence and the U.S. Secret Service also had agents throughout Memphis.
FBI documents show that at least one member of King's party who was in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and several local leaders of the NAACP were being paid by the FBI.
All these people--plus at least a dozen members of a police tactical squad who stopped off in the fire station for a rest break just before the shooting--were engaged in the surveillance of King. Yet they provided him no security. And not one of them claims to have seen the assassin arriving, shooting, or escaping.
The MPD had provided extensive security for King on his previous visits to Memphis. They were well aware of the vulnerability of the Lorraine Motel. According to the HSCA report, it seems it was simply bad luck that a contingent of MPD bodyguards assigned to King when he arrived were withdrawn--allegedly at the request of a member of King's party--the day before the shooting.
Perhaps it was also bad luck that King was quartered in the Lorraine. Originally King had been scheduled to stay at the white-owned Rivermont Hotel. After at least one newspaper editorial criticized King for his decision to stay in the larger, safer Rivermont, he and his party were booked into the Lorraine. That editorial, HSCA documents show, was remarkably similar to a press release that originated in the Washington, D.C., office of the FBI, which was known for trying to create situations that would embarrass King.
Perhaps it's also simply unfortunate that the MPD "TACT units," each including three cars, were pulled back for no apparent reason from the vicinity of the motel within two hours of the assassination. Unfortunate too that no all-points bulletin, which might have sealed off the major escape routes from Memphis, was issued after the shooting. And unfortunate that an unidentified CB-radio user distracted the police by describing a high-speed chase of a Mustang on the opposite side of the city from where Ray was supposed to have been. A police officer relayed what he heard over one of the police channels, tying it up for eight or nine minutes.
Almost all of these circumstances were explained by the police as a series of coincidences, errors, and oversights. Others were not explained at all. The HSCA's final report exonerated all local, state, and federal agencies, though it lambasted the MPD for incompetence and latent racism.
The HSCA's conclusions might have been different had they obtained undoctored intelligence reports from the MPD. In his book The Murkin Conspiracy, Professor Philip Melanson reveals that one such report fell into his hands while he was doing research in Memphis in 1985. When he compared it to the pages of the report published by the HSCA, he found that all the footnotes and most of the references to undercover agent Marrell McCullough had apparently been taken out before the report was given to the HSCA. In addition, numerous paragraphs were missing and certain sentences were rewritten to play up the violent nature of Memphis civil rights activists and strikers. Why didn't the HSCA get the originals?
What was the role of the FBI? In a recent interview Arthur Murtagh, a former FBI agent who was based in Atlanta, King's hometown, repeated the statement he made to the HSCA about the prevailing mood at the bureau. "Me and a colleague were checking out for the day when the news came over the radio that Dr. King had been shot. My colleague leapt up, clapped his hands, and said, 'Goddamn, we got him! We finally got him.'" Murtagh is adamant that his colleague said "we," not "they."
FBI director Hoover's massive program of disruption, defamation, and coercion against the civil rights movement and King--code-named COINTELPRO--has been well documented. For years the FBI had been spying on and sowing discontent among the leaders of the SCLC in an attempt to discredit and--to use the bureau's word--"neutralize" King.
Through the spring of 1968, during what was touted as the greatest, most expensive inquiry in FBI history, all the bureau's resources and manpower were focused on the bundle of evidence conveniently left behind at the crime scene--a bundle that pointed to only one man--Eric Galt, aka John Willard, aka Paul Bridgeman, aka George Sneyd, aka James Earl Ray. White hate groups braced themselves for the expected FBI shakedown. To their astonishment, none came. "It was strange," white supremacist J.B. Stoner said in a recent interview. "Almost as if they knew they didn't have to look this way."
The HSCA also castigated the FBI for its COINTELPRO activities, but the anomalies in the bureau's investigation were either ignored or explained away as the result of a lack of competence. The HSCA, like the Justice Department, found no evidence of an FBI cover-up. The committee did conclude, however, that the bureau contributed to a moral climate conducive to the murder of King.
Yet evidence suggests that elements within the FBI may have played a larger role in the killing. Consider, for instance, the story of Myron Billett, who alleged that federal agents proposed the assassination of King to Mafia dons Carlo Gambino and Sam Giancana. Billett gasped out his story shortly before dying of emphysema last year. HSCA investigators who have heard his story say only that they are unable to corroborate it.
In early 1968, according to the HSCA report, Billett was Giancana's trusted chauffeur. He said Giancana once asked him to drive Gambino and him to a meeting at a motel in upstate New York. Other major Mafia figures from New York were there, Billett said, as well as three representatives from the FBI and CIA. A number of subjects were on the agenda, including Cuba (a topic government agents and organized-crime figures are now known to have discussed). Billett said one of the government agents stated that one million dollars awaited whoever assassinated King. "Hell no," Billett recalled Giancana saying. "Not after you screwed up the Kennedy deal like that." As far as Billett knew, no one took up the offer.
In September 1965, says Clifton Baird, a Louisville, Kentucky, police officer, a fellow officer informed him of a $500,000 offer to kill King. Baird also overheard other police officers and several FBI officers discussing the contract. The next day he surreptitiously tape-recorded the first officer referring to it again. He later turned the tape over to the HSCA, which verified its authenticity. FBI agent William Donaldson, who was a liaison with the Louisville police, admitted to the HSCA that the discussion had taken place and named two other agents who would confirm it, but he also claimed the offer was initiated as a joke by police sergeant William Baker. The other FBI agents denied any knowledge of the conversation, and Baker has since died. The HSCA ran out of leads.
At least three HSCA investigators today admit they were unhappy with the committee's conclusion that the FBI had no role in the murder. After all, one of them argues, if the Saint Louis bounty was a standing offer in the city's underworld at the time, then why didn't the FBI's local field office hear about it through informants? But perhaps someone in the FBI did get wind of the conspiracy and, mindful of Hoover's virulent antipathy toward King, ensured that a blind eye was turned.
The HSCA appears to have paid scant attention to the possibility that other government agencies--or renegade agents--might have been involved in the assassination. When this question was recently put to former HSCA chief counsel Robert Blakey, he called it grossly irresponsible to even suggest such a thing.
Yet the CIA, for instance, is known to have used contract employees and worked in partnership with organized crime, and assassination was not beyond the scope of its covert operations. That the CIA was very interested in King is undisputed. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to Harold Weisberg, King biographer David Garrow, and others reveal an extensive and ongoing scrutiny of the thoughts, actions, and associates of civil rights leaders throughout the 1960s.
King's condemnation of the war in Vietnam and his calls for blacks to avoid enlisting and to fight nonviolently for their rights at home did not endear him to the generals, politicians, and industrialists who supported the war effort. Nor did his advocacy of the Poor People's Campaign, which seemed poised to unite the poor of all races under a common banner for a major march on Washington that spring.
In Memphis there are witnesses who are still afraid to discuss what really happened on the day of King's assassination. Ever since a black Tennessee grocery-store owner named John McFerren told his story within days of the assassination, he has been threatened, burglarized, beat up, and shot at. He is now reluctant to repeat his story. When he told it to the HSCA he said that on the afternoon of the assassination he was shopping at a Memphis produce store and overheard the man he believed was the store's manager say on the phone, "Get him on the balcony. You can pick up the money from my brother in New Orleans." The manager was Frank Liberto. He had a brother in New Orleans named Sal, who, state and federal law-enforcement sources contend, was closely associated with Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello--who John Davis alleges in his recent book Mafia Kingfish was responsible for the assassination of John Kennedy.
These connections, and other indications that the mob was implicated in King's assassination, were discovered by reporter Bill Sartor, who had set out to infiltrate the peripheries of the New Orleans and Memphis Mafia. Sartor died in Texas as he was completing the first draft of a never-published book on the subject. Two autopsies failed to reveal the cause of his death.
Incredibly, in 1968 the FBI did not pursue McFerren's allegation after Liberto, who has since died, denied it. When it emerged that in December 1967 James Earl Ray had stayed at the Provincial Motel in New Orleans, then a reputed mob hangout, FBI agents were sent in but were only able to track down a small proportion of the guests registered there at the time.
Ten years later HSCA investigators ran into a blockade of denials from all those named by Sartor. They then dismissed his and McFerren's allegations.
There are other Memphis locals who are still afraid to talk or who have suddenly changed their original stories. One of them reports being visited from time to time by a man who urges continued silence.
Though James Earl Ray never visited Toronto before April 1968, he used four identities that belonged to real individuals living within a few miles of each other in that city, each of whom bears a rough physical resemblance to Ray. Of these, the most elaborate alias was that of Eric Galt, a name Ray used extensively for most of the time he was on the run before the assassination. Only on April 4 did he begin to use the other three.
How Ray obtained these aliases may be the most intriguing unanswered question in this case. The HSCA concluded it was relatively easy to pick up false documentation in underworld circles in Canada at the time. But the committee glossed over the fact that the Galt alias was not merely a matter of a fraudulently obtained birth certificate. It was a wholesale usurping of the real Galt's history and physical identity.
Somehow Ray traveled in the same U.S. cities as the real Canadian citizen Eric Galt, got access to Galt's signature, and inquired into emigrating to Rhodesia, where Galt had relatives. Moreover, Ray has scars on his forehead and his hand--as does the real Galt--and two months before the assassination underwent plastic surgery on his nose, as Galt had. Galt is also an expert marksman.
How could Ray or his coconspirators have acquired, undetected, such a detailed profile of his alter ego? According to Galt, there is only one place where all the pertinent information is collected together--his highly classified security-clearance file in the Union Carbide factory in Toronto, where he was working on a top-secret U.S. defense project in the mid-1960s.
Fletcher Prouty, chief of special operations in the Pentagon from 1960 to 1963, responsible for providing military support for CIA covert operations abroad in the early 1960s, finds these revelations highly significant. "The Royal Canadian Mounted Police would have compiled this file, and besides them and Union Carbide, the only people with access to it would have been U.S. intelligence," he said last summer.
The question of how Ray acquired these identities provided the original link to Jules "Ricco" Kimble, the man who recently claimed to have helped Ray. Ray's statements in 1968 regarding the mysterious Raoul sent Toronto Star reporter Andre Salwyn on a search of the Montreal neighborhood where Ray had allegedly been seen drinking with an American. Salwyn discovered there had been a man he thought sounded similar to the man Ray described as Raoul living there the previous year--Kimble, whose girlfriend told Salwyn he had a car with rifles in the trunk and a radio tuned to the police band. A check of phone records revealed that Kimble regularly contacted numbers in New Orleans.
The phone numbers were somehow lost, and Salwyn says he was never allowed to publish the story. The HSCA independently ran across Kimble ten years later. When they investigated, they found an FBI file on him. And a CIA file. And a Royal Canadian Mounted Police file.
When Mark Speiser and Peter Beeson, the lawyers who investigated Kimble for the HSCA, were approached recently, neither could remember anything about Kimble. When reminded that, according to prison records, they visited Kimble in an Atlanta prison on April 12, 1978, both said they must have done so but still couldn't recall any details. According to the HSCA's final report, Kimble had "apparently" not been in Canada in July 1967, "was generally uncooperative during his interview," and "denied meeting Ray."
But other HSCA materials relating to Kimble that have not been sealed for 50 years--including a corroborated 1967 affidavit--reveal that he told officials he was a low-level CIA courier and pilot. Now Kimble also alleges that government officials were involved in the assassination. Although one ought to be skeptical about the word of a convicted murderer, enough is known about the whereabouts and associations of Kimble prior to the assassination to make his claims more credible than they might otherwise be. Kimble says he never previously made his allegations public because no one except the authorities had ever asked him about the assassination.
During an interview at the El Reno, Oklahoma, federal penitentiary in June 1989 and in subsequent phone conversations, Kimble said he had worked for the CIA as well as organized crime. He also made the following allegations:
- That in July 1967, on orders from a Louisiana FBI agent, he flew Ray from Atlanta to Montreal, where Ray was given an identities package by a CIA specialist. An ex-CIA agent with knowledge of Canada in the 1960s recently confirmed in an off-the-record interview that there was an agency "asset" specializing in false identities based in Montreal in 1967. He was known as Raoul.
- That he accompanied Ray to a CIA training camp in Three Rivers, Canada, where Ray was taught to shoot.
- That he and others knew that King and his party would be staying at the Lorraine before King himself knew.
- That an assassination team was assembled in Memphis the week before the assassination, and that Ray and his white Ford Mustang were merely to serve as decoys.
- That elements of the Memphis police department cooperated in the assassination and provided three police uniforms for the coconspirators.
- That despite the depth of James Earl Ray's involvement, he did not actually kill Martin Luther King.
- That two days before the assassination, he flew two snipers into a West Memphis airfield. That the crime itself was committed by one of these two snipers, who wore the provided police uniforms and were hidden in the bushes across from the motel.
- That the CB-radio jamming was orchestrated by a fake police communications van stationed near the scene of the crime.
- That Ray was evacuated in a Memphis police car.
- That the actual operation was coordinated by a high-ranking intelligence official based in Atlanta, where Kimble flew Ray after the assassination.
- That Memphis police could have proved the shots were not fired from the window of the rooming-house bathroom had they checked for gunpowder residue around the window, which they apparently did not.
- That the HSCA knew all about his role in the assassination of King--more than he could remember--and that they produced documents, photographs, and files that proved his association with James Earl Ray, an association he then admitted to them.
Ray refuses to acknowledge any connection with Kimble.