Jerry Ray’s new book is much better than his brother’s book on the King case, which was entitled Truth at Last. One reason for that is because Jerry seems to have been closer to his brother James Earl Ray, the alleged assassin of Martin Luther King. Another reason seems to be that, unlike in John’s case, Jerry’s co-writer, Tamara Carter, does not have any far out theories about the case to express. Jerry and Tamara essentially hold to the view of the case that was shown in court to have convinced a jury that James Earl Ray was not liable for the murder of King. (That trial is contained in the book The 13th Juror, which I urge any interested reader to purchase.) Thirdly, although Carter is not a gifted stylist, she writes in clear and serviceable prose, which makes Jerry’s memoir quite easy to read.
The book is valuable for the view of the Rays’ childhood, which helped mold them into small time crooks. And Jerry Ray is quite candid about this aspect. Jerry’s father was a convict, his uncle was a criminal, and his mother was an alcoholic who eventually died from the disease. The family moved several times between the states of Illinois and Missouri and the father changed his last name more than once. (p. 15) Two of Jerry’s siblings died rather young: Margie died due to fire at the age of six, and Frank died in a car accident at age 19. (Ibid) The family was quite poor and the father once held a job with the WPA under Franklin Roosevelt.
At this point, Ray tries to counteract the portrait of the family as delivered by writers like Clay Blair and George McMillan. He says that although his family was poor, they were not of the southern cracker/redneck variety that Blair tried to portray in his very early book on the King case. Jerry says they hardly even knew any African Americans where they lived. He then makes the argument that they could not have been violent racists against people they barely even saw. (p. 17) But there is no doubt that Jerry, John, and James got in trouble with the law early and often. Jerry tries to explain this as coming through the influence of their Uncle Earl, who he describes as a habitual, hardcore criminal. (p. 18) He also blames it on the town of Quincy, Illinois. He describes Quincy s “wide open and rather lawless when I was growing up—gambling, whorehouses, and bootleg joints—every damn thing! It served as the perfect breeding ground for crime….” (p. 18)
James Earl Ray joined the army in 1946. He returned in 1948 but found it hard to find a decent job. He moved to California, and it is there that he first got in trouble with the authorities. Unable to find a job, and finding it hard to buy food, he pulled off a robbery of office equipment. (p. 20) He was later arrested and convicted. He served about four months in prison, from December of 1949 to March of 1950. He also broke into a restaurant and stole some coins, but he was not arrested for that one.
At the time that James Earl Ray was engaging in these small time thefts, Jerry was doing the same thing in Quincy: rolling drunks for small change. (p. 20) Jerry was arrested for one of these at age 15. He got probation, but then repeated the offense and was sent to a reformatory in St. Charles, Illinois. He was out in 1951, but committed another burglary and was sent back to St. Charles. While there, a huge riot took place and Jerry took part in it. For this he was sentenced to 18 months in a much tougher reformatory, from which he was released in January of 1953.
A few months before Jerry was released, James had robbed a Chicago cab driver and was sentenced to a medium security prison in Pontiac, Illinois. Jerry makes a telling point here in the narrative. It is one that will continue throughout the book. Namely how biased authors will distort the facts in order to color the Ray brothers and the family. In Gerald Posner’s book, Killing the Dream, the author wrote that at the time of the cab driver hold up, Jerry was working at a riding stable. He read about it in a paper and sent a clipping of it to their mother. As Jerry points out, this could not have happened. Since he was detained at the time in a reformatory for his role in the St. Charles riots.
When Posner was on tour for his book, Jerry confronted him with this impossibility in public. The audience started siding with Jerry. As Jerry writes: “Posner’s response was to shut down his book signing. He was smart to do it because had he kept it open, I would have exposed his book for what it was –literary Swiss cheese, more holes than substance….” (p. 24)
In 1952, Ray’s father left his mother and later remarried. The family was now in even worse shape financially than before. So the state stepped in and removed four of the children and placed them in foster homes around Quincy. (p. 25) Jerry and John then pulled off another burglary, this time a liquor store heist in Adams, Illinois. They stole a car to do so. John was eventually arrested for this and got a seven-year sentence. (p. 26) Jerry later tried to help him escape, but an informant ratted him out and he was caught.
James Earl Ray returned home in 1954 after being released from Pontiac. Unfortunately, he got mixed up with a con artist and fraudster named Walter Rife. Rife broke into a post office and stole a pack of money orders. He and Ray then began to pass these around. They were eventually caught and Ray now served three years and nine months in Leavenworth. (p. 30)
As I said earlier, one of the highlights of the book is the fact that it details and exposes several myths that cheapjack writers like Posner has written about the Ray brothers. Well, McMillan is another favorite target of Jerry Ray. In his book, The Making of an Assassin, he wrote that he had interviewed an inmate who was allegedly a cellmate of Ray and this man had told him that indeed James Earl Ray was a racist. James told Jerry that this was not so, and he had never been housed with this man who had actually been on Death Row. (p. 36)
McMillan also wrote that while he was housed in Missouri State Prison, Ray used to watch TV and become enraged at the images of King preaching equal rights for black Americans. Jerry Ray interviewed another man who had been there at the time, J. J. Maloney. Maloney said this was not possible since there were no TV’s there at that time. This did not happen until 1970. (Jerry tells us that Maloney is quite credible since he went on to rehabilitate himself and became an award-winning journalist. See p. 48)
Finally, McMillan had tried to insinuate that James Earl Ray had financed his traveling through Canada and the southern part of the USA prior to the King shooting, not by his association with a man named as Raoul, but by his sale of drugs and amphetamines in prison. After talking to McMillan, there was an inquiry made into this accusation. McMillan was unable to divulge any specifics. He just said that this was common knowledge. The investigation concluded “that there is nothing whatsoever to substantiate any conclusion that James Earl Ray either financed his escape or activities after his escape through any means while he was an inmate of the Missouri State Penitentiary.” (p. 46)
By about 1960, Jerry Ray had decided to go straight. He secured a job as an attendant at the Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, Illinois. (p. 50) As detailed in the book, except for one brief stretch afterwards, he did this kind of work for over 30 years, until 1992. And he managed to make a good living at it. In fact, between tips and wages, Jerry was making about four hundred dollars per week in the early sixties. Which, as he notes, is what some lawyers and doctors were making back then. In this entire time period, Jerry missed exactly one day of work due to the flu, a truly amazing record, as he proudly notes. So much for the lazy and shiftless Ray brothers. (p. 53)
At about the time Jerry was going straight, James was released for the money order fraud sentence. But he then got mixed up with a robber named James Owens. They burglarized a Kroger’s in St. Louis. He was served with a 20-year sentence and he entered Missouri State Prison in March of 1960. So if one adds it all up, James Earl Ray was charged and sentence four times. The first was for the business office burglary. The second time was for holding up a taxi driver. The third time was for money order fraud. And the last time was for holding up a Kroger’s store. There was never anyone shot or wounded, let alone killed, in any of these rather small time crimes. And they were all done for monetary gain, not any kind of political agenda. Third, the stories used to paint James Earl Ray as some kind of extreme racist do not hold up under examination.
James Earl Ray escaped from Missouri State Prison in April of 1967. James met with his brothers at the Fairview Hotel in Chicago. James then got a job at the Indian Trails Restaurant in Winnetka. He met with Jerry again and told him he planned on going to Canada, acquiring a false name, and then joining the Merchant Marine and crossing the Atlantic. He eventually wanted to end up in some mercenary force in Africa. (p. 55) He told Jerry that this would guarantee he would not be caught for the escape and it would probably keep him safe from the authorities for life.
Jerry decided to try and help his brother’s plan to get to Canada as a first step. Jerry knew of a fairly high stakes poker game held in Chicago almost every night. Usually it had 8-12 players involved. Some of the pots went up to a few thousand dollars. So the brothers took a train to Chicago. They had a gym bag and guns. They got into the room where the game was played and held up everyone at gunpoint. (p. 57) With this heist, James Earl Ray had enough cash to buy a car and had money left over to finance his room and board in Canada.
As Jerry notes here, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) has tried to explain how Ray got to Canada and bought a car by saying the Ray brothers robbed a bank in Alton, Illinois. As William Pepper and others have shown, there has never been any evidence to prove this. Further, Jerry Ray passed a polygraph when he denied this to F. Lee Bailey. Evidently Robert Blakey did not want to hear from Jerry Ray how he and his brother did something less audacious, and less lucrative, like holding up a poker game.
In September of that year, James came back and met Jerry in Chicago. As a way of paying him back for the poker game idea, he showed Jerry a night on the town. Money was no object. Before he left, Jerry asked him what became of his Merchant Marine idea. James replied that in Canada he had met up with a smuggler named Raoul. When he left, he asked Jerry to mail him some things via general delivery in Birmingham under the care of Eric S. Galt. This was the first time Jerry had ever heard of that name.
At this point, Jerry digresses into a discussion of the famous aliases that his brother used. He admits that James used aliases before and would in the future. But as he notes, “Four of his five aliases were names of Canadian citizens living near Toronto. My brother did not know these men and had never traveled to Toronto.” While in Canada, Ray stayed in and around Montreal, which is where he met Raoul. Jerry goes on to detail just how strange these aliases were. All the men had similar appearances: height, weight, build, hair color, and style, Three of the four lived within a two mile radius of Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. Right before the assassination, the real Eric Galt had plastic surgery on the tip of his nose. Right about the same time Ray did the same thing.
The HSCA acknowledged that this appeared to be more than coincidental. But they ultimately decided that that is what it was. Jerry does not agree. He believes that Raoul secured the names for his brother: “I think the use of these names was a way to get Jimmy involved in a conspiracy without him realizing what was going on.” (p. 60)
After shipping him what his brother wanted to Birmingham, Jerry says he heard form James three more times before King was killed. Each time it was by pay phone, as Jerry could hear the coins dropping for extra time. And the calls were all short ones.
On April 4, 1968 Jerry was at his place of work at the Sportsman’s Country Club in Chicago. He was watching TV when a news bulletin came on. The announcer said King had been shot in Memphis. Later that night, it was announced King was dead. As Jerry then describes, riots broke out in several cities. He was not really concerned one way for the other, as he did not really follow the civil rights movement. But finally, days later, the announcement was that he FBI was looking for a man named Eric S. Galt. Jerry froze in his tracks and he then moved closer to the TV. Needless to say, that announcement would alter Jerry’s life forever.
From here on in, the book mainly focuses on the legal travails of James Earl Ray and Jerry’s attempts to help him. Some of the material that Jerry writes about here is either new or interesting or both.
As Jerry notes, Ray was apprehended in London at Heathrow Airport. The main evidence used to have him extradited was the very dubious testimony of on Charles Stephens. On the day of the assassination, James used the alias of John Willard to register at Bessie’s Boarding House, a very low rent affair across the street form the Lorraine, the place where King was staying. Bessie’s was right above Jim’s Grill, the diner that Loyd Jowers owned. (Jowers would later implicate himself by confessing to a role in the murder plot to Sam Donaldson on ABC television.)
According to the official story, Ray shot King from a communal bathroom while standing on the edge of a bathtub. As Harold Weisberg has shown, the contortions Ray would have had to gone through to bend his body while standing on the edge of the tub to aim through the window are ludicrous. But further, no one put him in the bath at the time. No one except Charles Stephens. Stephens was in a room at Bessie’s with his common law wife Grace. The authorities in Tennessee were so desperate to get Ray back from England that they put up a large reward of $100,000 for identification. Grace said she saw someone running off the floor, but it was not Ray. Charles said it was Ray. And his testimony was used in the extradition hearing. The problem is, he was falling down drunk. As Grace explained, Charles was splayed across the bed at the time, passed out. This was also attested to by the cab driver who was there a few moments before the shooting to pick Charles up. But the man was too drunk to even walk. A local reporter named Wayne Chastain also talked to Stephens after the shooting. He too said Charles was completely drunk. The same thing was testified to by a local police officer named Tommy Smith who talked to Stephens after the shooting. (p. 72)
Right at the start, the authorities were using false evidence to get Ray back to the USA. Now, what happened to Grace? The authorities played up to her like the false friends they were. They began to provide her an escort service around town. One day, they drove her to a local hospital to check on a leg injury. Once there, they informed her she really had a psychological problem. So she was then incarcerated in a mental ward for ten years before Mark Lane and James Lawson secured her release.
The reason that Charles was an important—though false—witness was that the FBI could not conclusively match the fatal bullet to the weapon in evidence, a 30.06 Remington Game Master. As Jerry notes, there are two stories about how this weapon came into evidence. The Memphis authorities say that Ray ran down the stairs from the boarding house. When he saw the police approaching he panicked and dropped a bundle, which included the rifle, in front of Guy Canipe’s novelty store. The other story, as surfaced by Ray’s first lawyer, Arthur Hanes, is quite different. He interviewed Canipe and he said the bundle was dropped in front of his store before the shooting. So from these two pieces of evidence—the inability to match the bullet and Canipe’s testimony—the authorities needed Charles Stephens to extradite Ray. But further, with competent representation, the case against Ray would have been difficult.
So what happened to secure a guilty plea? Jerry Ray explains here in more detail just how the Hanes team was jettisoned and how Percy Foreman then was called in, and essentially sold Ray out.
Jerry explains that he got in contact with writer William Bradford Huie, or rather how Huie got in contact with him. Huie was a wealthy best selling author who wanted to make an even bigger name and more money for himself off the King case. He decided to sell a magazine series to Look based on his access to James. In fact, the very first installments did include the mention of Raoul and it appeared that Huie was thinking at this time that Ray was a patsy. Huie was going to divide the profits from the series and the book sale three ways: between himself, Ray, and the legal team. But then something happened that changed all this. On his visit to see Huie in Alabama, Huie made a demand on Jerry: James Earl Ray was not to testify at his trial. If he did it would dilute the value of his book. Further, he would pay Jerry thirteen thousand dollars cash on the barrel to convince James not to talk at his trial. (p. 78) Further, Jerry also learned that the money given to James would not be accrued until after Hanes secured the set amount of his legal fees. (p. 79) Huie now offered to change the contract, so that James would not have to wait until the contingency was filled.
Based up this interview and this information, Jerry Ray concluded that Huie did not really care about him and his brother. That he was doing this for the money. Jerry and James Earl Ray now made a huge mistake. For as bad as this situation was, it at least allowed them to have a lawyer who was really bent on doing his best and securing an acquittal, or at least a good plea bargain. By nixing it, James Earl Ray went from the frying pan to the fire. After interviewing two lawyers, Jerry hit upon the idea of hiring the high profile and flamboyant Texas lawyer Percy Foreman. As James Earl Ray later said, this turned out to be the biggest mistake he made in the entire King case. But as Jerry admits here, it was not all of James’ doing. Jerry had a hand in it also. Foreman regaled Jerry with courtroom stories of his legal prowess. He even admitted to knowing a certain client was guilty but he managed to get her off anyway. He told Jerry he would do the same for James. (p. 83) After all, there was no really solid evidence against Ray except the drunken Stephens and fingerprints on a weapon to which the slug could not be matched to.
But then, in a shocking shift, in January of 1969, right before the trial date, Foreman did an about face on the case. He now said that unless the alleged assassin copped a guilty plea he would fry in the electric chair. (Ibid) He then began to say that others in the family could be in trouble also: There was really no Raoul and this was a cover for Jerry’s role. Meanwhile, James Earl Ray was being worn down by the harsh lights of his cell that made it difficult for him to sleep. He now wanted to fire Foreman. But Judge Preston Battle said that if he did there would be no more continuances and he would go to trial with a public defender. (p. 84) Finally, Foreman then said that if the guilty plea was not arranged, he would throw the trial. To this day, no one knows what caused Foreman to do his reversal. Jerry speculates that someone in a high place in Washington gave him a warning that his career would be in danger if he did not throw the case.
Quickly after Ray pleaded, in March of 1969, he wrote a letter to Judge Battle saying that due to the legal subterfuge, he wanted a new trial. Foreman had been terminated and Richard Ryan, a local lawyer, would now represent him. In one of the strangest aspects of this case, on March 31, 1969 the judge was found dead at his desk with Ray’s letter next to him. Jerry now goes into the inescapable fact that due to Battle’s death, James Earl Ray should have been automatically granted a new trial. There were two state laws on the books at the time which said that if a presiding judge gets such a request within 30 days of the previous proceeding, and he dies before he can act on it, the request is automatically granted. This did not happen. And it is the only time in the history of Tennessee that it did not. (p. 102)
Ray now was transferred to state prison. And Jerry now needed a lawyer and a job, for he was going to dedicate time to getting his brother a new trial. One of the lawyers who had volunteered to help Ray while he was in England was J. B Stoner, who was the leader of an extreme rightwing party in the south, the NSRP. This party was both anti-black and anti-Semitic. But since Stoner would work for free, Jerry went and associated with him. The book makes clear that neither Jerry nor James ever knew Stoner prior to the King shooting. But yet, some writers have blown this up into making it an angle to incriminate them with. Also, after he was incarcerated, the prison authorities and the governor tried to get Ray to say that he was ordered to kill King by two St. Louis racists John Kaufman and John Sutherland. This is another after the fact story that the HSCA entertained.
The book concludes with the mention of the only two trials James Earl Ray ever got. The televised mock trial made by British television in 1993, and the Jowers vs. King civil case. Ray’s lawyer Bill Pepper won both. Unfortunately, James was not around for the second proceeding in 1999, having died in 1998 after the Tennessee authorities refused to let him fly out of state to get a necessary medical operation. After the second proceeding, and even a bit before, Jerry tried to secure the rifle in question so he could conduct conclusive tests on it to prove once and for all if the bullet was fired from it. The state of Tennessee would not agree to this transaction, and they used a technicality in the law to keep it away from him. Today it sits in the museum that is now at the former Lorraine Motel, the site of the King shooting.
All in all, this is a creditable and quite candid book. As memoirs go, Jerry Ray and Tamara Carter have acquitted themselves well. It’s a concise, well crafted, and interesting book. As one can see, Jerry Ray never left his brother’s side. Even after he died.