Rarely has a book in the field been less aptly titled than this one. John Ray has been talking about writing some kind of book on the King case ever since his brother James died back in 1998. (See Probe, Vol. 6 No. 1 p. 4) Lyndon Barsten has been researching the King case for about that long. In the small world of King researchers, it was inevitable that they would meet. They did. I can't say that the meeting was beneficial for those interested in the real facts behind King's assassination.
In almost every way, this is an anecdotal, impressionistic type of book. It's achievements in that regard are few. You can get a glimpse of James Earl Ray's childhood, where he seems like a nice enough boy. And John Ray does a nice job of countering the idea – promulgated by authors like Gerald Posner – that James Earl Ray was a racist. On the contrary, among other things, he had black friends and frequented an African American dance club in Los Angeles. (See pgs.42-47, 83, 99-100, 103, 167) And you are alerted to the fact that the Memphis coroner who covered up the killing of King, also concealed the true circumstances of the death of Elvis Presley. (p. 135) In counting the virtues, that's about it.
It doesn't take much to enumerate the book's documentation: it is miniscule. The volume has a bibliography, but there are no footnotes to sources. And as far as I could see, there are sources in that bibliography that are not used. Two examples: a lecture by Judge Joe Brown on the ballistics in the MLK case, and the evidentiary brief presented by Jim Lesar and Bud Fensterwald in 1974. The authors mention this evidentiary hearing but spend all of about one paragraph on the specifics of that pleading. And they get a crucial detail wrong about the outcome. They imply that the judge ruling on the hearing was found dead in his chambers a month before he was prepared to rule. When I called Jim Lesar on this he said that was not the case. The original judge had already ruled against him. One of the judges on the three-man panel for the appeal died during the appeal. But it would not have impacted the outcome since the other two judges ruled against the appeal anyway. (Interview with Jim Lesar, 5/18/08) Much of the bibliography appears to be padding: things that Barsten read in his years of research on the case. And he included it whether it was relevant or not.
In a book like this, a lot of the credibility must come from the reader's trust in the author (s). Unfortunately, that is not forthcoming here. Ray and Barsten make too many outlandish claims that they do not really back up. What is worse, some of those claims are contradicted in other places. For instance, very early on (p. 17), the book claims that James Earl Ray worked at a company called International Shoe for two years in his youth. That is true. The authors go on to claim that he saved $7, 000 in that time period. But if you go to Ray's own (much better book), you will see that he actually worked there for less than two years. It was more like twenty months. And he says he made sixty cents an hour. At that rate, even if he worked overtime, and saved every dime he made, he could not have saved that sum. (See Who Killed Martin Luther King? p. 22)
After he was laid off from this job, Ray writes that he enlisted in the Army for a three-year term. In his book he writes that he went through basic training, served as a trucker, worked in the military police for a year, and then got shifted to a combat unit. One night he missed a guard shift due to illness and was confined to quarters. He jumped the confinement, was caught, and was court martialed for it. (Ibid, pages 22-23)
To say that Ray and Barsten expand and revise this part of the alleged assassin's life is an understatement of monumental proportions. Somehow, James Earl either forgot something, or was holding back on everyone. According to the authors of the present book, after he left the military police, Ray actually was recruited by the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. Now, the CIA was created in July of 1947, mainly through the lobbying efforts of men like William Donovan and Allen Dulles. Why they would have someone like James Earl Ray on their short list of recruits is never explained.
But, in the book's own terms, there is a reason for this. It has to do with a black soldier named Washington. Barsten met John Ray after he saw a video of John talking about this black soldier that he says his brother shot. The man's name was Washington. And that is about all that is known of him. Neither Barsten nor John Ray has ever been able to track him down. But John says that James told him about this shooting and the subsequent trial that followed. Trouble is, there are no existing records. (p. 22), and James Earl never wrote about it or mentioned it elsewhere.
On the next page, we see why this issue has been surfaced. Barsten has a keen interest in MK/ULTRA, so he attempts to now make the case that Ray was a mind control victim and the alleged Washington shooting was done while Ray was under the influence of drugs and hypnosis. One of the many problems with this is that if one reads some of the better books on MK/ULTRA, the program was not nearly developed enough at that stage to do these kinds of things. It was still in the exploratory stages. Second, no other author in any book on the MLK case has ever even insinuated this charge about Ray. But, for John Ray, it happened. In fact, his brother told him and no one else: "When you join the OSS, it's like joining the Mafia: you never leave." (p. 20)
Clearly Barsten – who calls himself a lay historian – has been doing a lot of background reading about the assassinations of the sixties. And he understands that one of the bombshell revelations of the Church Committee was the public exposure of the CIA/Mafia plots to kill Fidel Castro. So if you create out of whole cloth this CIA aspect of Ray's life, then all you have to do is add some kind of Mafia association, and presto: the King assassination is a CIA/Mob hit. How? According to the authors, Ray is tricked into going to Memphis by the Mob. It is then his CIA associated paymaster Raul who kills King and sets up Ray as the patsy.
What is the long term Mafia connection to Ray? Well, the authors say it was all over the place. Grandpa James Ray, his Aunt Mabel, an inmate pal of Ray's named Walter Rife, another named John Spica etc etc. All of this paraphernalia reminded me of Robert Blakey at his worst. If, with very little evidence, you insinuate that someone is associated with the Mob, and then you put that person in some kind of proximity to the alleged assassin, then somehow the Mob had a role in the assassination. Barsten works this technique into overdrive. Yet, for me, it all came to naught.
The book says John Ray was also in Memphis in April of 1968. He met his brother and James told him he was there because he "was going to do a job." (p. 109) The job was being done to repay $25, 000 he owed the Mob. There are several problems with the scenario as presented. First, Ray has never said anywhere that his brother John was in Memphis at the time. If you read his book, he mentions John coming to see him in March of 1969 right before he agreed to plead guilty under attorney Percy Foreman's coercion. This is almost a year after the assassination. According to his brother Jerry, prior to the assassination, the last time John met James was in 1967 at the Fairview Hotel in Chicago. (Probe, op. cit.) Further, when John heard the news that the FBI was hunting down a man named Eric Starvo Galt, according to Jerry, John didn't even know Galt was the alias at the time for Ray. Jerry did. (Probe, op. cit. p. 36) How could John not know this if he was in phone contact and then met Ray in Memphis on the eve of the assassination?
Another problem with this scenario is the repayment aspect. There has always been a serious question as to where Ray got his funds after his Missouri prison escape in early 1967. The present authors say that this transfer of funds occurred in East St. Louis through something called the Buster Wortman outfit. This was a gang that was prominent in south Illinois and St. Louis in the fifties and sixties. The problem is that Wortman's influence was in serious decline by 1967 and he died in August of 1968. And again, James Ray has never made this claim anywhere. Further, no other author has ever brought it up. But yet Barsten then expands on this unfounded tale and says that Wortman got the money "from the Chicago Mob, who got it from a select group of clandestine operators within the Central Intelligence Agency." (p. 87) What is the evidence for this money trail through the Mafia and to the CIA? Zilch.
But the claim is similar in gravity to other extraordinary presumptions made in the book. Ray's 1967 escape was allegedly "orchestrated by Richard Helms and the CIA and their agents". (p. 73) How did Percy Foreman convince Ray to plead guilty to killing King? According to the authors, it was because the shooting of Washington would be exposed if he did not. That shooting for which no records exist. But it gets better. Originally, the deal was that Ray was supposed to pin the death of King on the Bronfman family of Montreal. And with that, Barsten tries to connect the King assassination to Mortimer Bloomfield and the infamous Permindex cabal, which surfaced during the Jim Garrison investigation. (Except Barsten has a new member of Permindex I never saw before: H. L. Hunt.) Barsten even weaves Edward Grady Partin into his pastiche. Yep. Partin is somehow associated with Ray and since he lived in New Orleans this brings Carols Marcello into the King plot. Again, what is the evidence presented that Ray knew Partin? None.
To top it all off, when John Ray is later arrested for taking part in a 1970 bank robbery the reason for his arrest traces back to the King murder. He writes that he was framed "because of my knowledge of James's CIA connections and the connection to the Washington shooting." (p. 149) A shooting that Ray never spoke about, no other writer ever wrote about, no records exist of, and a "Washington" who was never found. Yet this is what John Ray was framed over. What can one say about such evidence and reasoning? Except: enough!
When Tennessee free-lancer Mike Vinson was writing for Probe he interviewed Jerry Ray about his brother John. Mike had heard that John had let the word out that "for a monetary exchange, [he] was willing to give up information detailing his brother's involvement in the King assassination." (Probe, op. cit, p. 4) In the published interview that followed, Vinson asked Jerry what this information could be. Jerry replied that it was all a pile of malarkey. And at James Earl Ray's memorial service John had told Jerry that "he would go whichever way would make him the most money: James guilty or not guilty in King's death. John never liked James, anyway..." (Ibid)
From the experience of reading this almost satirical book, it looks like Jerry Ray was right. The question remains though: What was Lyndon Barsten's excuse for taking part in this wretched exercise?