Hellhound On His Trail: Hampton Sides Wishes with all his Might
Imagine you are an author. You've written a few books with some journalistic or historical credibility behind them; at least, Newsweek and Reader's Digest think so.
One day you receive a phone call from your agent, who says he has a big offer from an established publisher. A big advance. Guaranteed publicity. A run on the talk shows. Larry King will approve. Just one catch: Your book has to disprove the theory of gravity.
But, you remark, not unreasonably, gravity exists. Throw a rock and watch the parabola.
Did you notice, replies your agent, the dollar amount?
Yeah, you say, but how do I disprove the theory of gravity?
Look, says the agent – just assume it doesn't exist and everybody will play along. Promise.
OK, you say…
At some point, one assumes, the process has to be something like this, because otherwise it is impossible to justify the existence of something like Hellhound On His Trail:The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin. It isn't a poorly written book; in the main, except for its utter lack of factual accuracy in relation to James Earl Ray, it is perfectly adequate. It flows like an airport novel and seems ripe for movie adaptation. However, it also perfectly exemplifies what Samuel Johnson meant when he remarked of a fellow's work that “What is good in your work is not original, and what is original is not good.”
JAMES EARL RAY, PSYCHO AT LARGE
The structure of the book is to follow the last days of Dr. King's life and contrast it with the movements of his assassin, a creepy racist named Eric Stavro Galt. Then, once King is killed, it focuses on the FBI's manhunt for this dangerous international criminal. The reason Galt is an international criminal, by the way, is that he managed to go to England and Canada following the assassination, eluding everyone despite an I.Q. of 80.[i]
Eric S. Galt is, of course, James Earl Ray, but one of the book's conceits is that the author calls him Galt for the first three-fourths of the book. The reason for this is obscure, but one might uncharitably observe that it's because his account of the man is so utterly fictional. William Pepper, who was Ray's lawyer and thus interviewed him many times, has described him as a petty criminal who tended to knock over corner stores and was uncomfortable with guns. In Sides's book, Ray is a psychopath; openly racist, using methamphetamine, he regularly carries a .38 with him and is shown threatening to kill a Mexican prostitute in Puerto Vallarta.[ii] He also, Sides mentions twice, was unable to master the Rumba.
With this structure in place, everything plays out like a fictional scenario in a pulp thriller like The First Deadly Sin. We switch back and forth from the target, Dr. King, and the “hellhound” tracking him, who reveals himself to be a racist aligned with George Wallace. And as the author himself notes, the Eric Stavro Galt name is itself bundled from literary references – Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and its famous opening line, “Who is John Galt?” and Stavro the middle name of Ernst Blofeld, arch-nemesis of Ian Fleming's creation James Bond.[iii]
Not only does this structure help the author from a literary standpoint – he can theoretically engage the reader with cross-cutting – but it also helps him with the main thrust of the book, painting Ray as the killer. Since the book ends with the capture of Ray, and much of the real craziness surrounding this particular case took place after his arrest, Sides gets rid of a lot of contrary information in one fell swoop. He doesn't have to deal with it at all.
That's not to say that Sides doesn't get anything interesting into the narrative. The facts are still the facts, and in a book-length treatment some of them are bound to squirrel their way into the story. He does point out that the FBI was a racist organization, led by J. Edgar Hoover, and does allow that under COINTELPRO the Bureau attempted to coerce Dr. King into committing suicide. Of course, these facts are so universally well known that Sides could hardly keep them out without flushing his credibility. And it wasn't just the FBI; Abraham Bolden, for example, relates a story that Secret Service agents placed a crude caricature in his agent manual and commonly used racial slurs.[iv] Institutional racism was just as common then as it is today, but more openly expressed.
Unfortunately, this reveals a basic problem with Sides's narrative. On the one hand, he allows that the FBI was so afraid of MLK that they explicitly wanted him dead. On the other, all of his information relating to the investigation and Ray's alleged racism and psychopathy comes from FBI reports. All of which has to be taken with a large grain of salt, because the FBI are the prime suspects in the case. Sides writes that when FBI agent James Rose heard of the assassination, he immediately exclaimed, “They got Zorro!”[v] (“Zorro” was the FBI's code name for MLK.) He also notes they controlled the investigation at Hoover's specific behest. Hoover tells Cartha DeLoach, “Don't let [Ramsey] Clark turn this into a political circus. You make it clear this is the FBI's case.”[vi]
In his doublethink handling of the FBI, Sides follows Gerald Posner's lead from Killing the Dream. However, in his handling of the actual shooting, he makes some truly inane statements.
The hellhound arrives at Bessie's Boarding House, which Sides correctly describes as “a half step up from homelessness.”[vii] Naturally, so as not to attract undue attention at this flophouse, he is dressed in a suit and tie. He also unnerves the woman at the front desk, Mrs. Brewer, who says that “[Ray] had a strange and silly smile that she found unsettling.”[viii] He refuses to take the best room in the place but instead chooses a different room so as to be across from the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King is staying.
However, the assassin has a problem. He does not have a clear shot from his room.
“Galt [Ray] found a solution: first down the hall, the moldy communal bathroom afforded a more promising angle.
There, all he'd have to do was crack the window, rest the rifle barrel on the sill, and take aim.”[ix]
First things first: a communal bathroom? That's right; Bessie's was such a dump that there were no individual bathrooms. So Ray's plan is to – what? To sit in the communal bathroom waiting for Dr. King to come out? And presumably the various drunks going in and out will have no problem relieving themselves in his presence? And what is he going to do, keep the gun with him in the bathroom? Or does he keep watch, ready to run back to his room and get it, hoping that no one sees him or needs to use the toilet in the interim? For his part, Sides writes that “…he could raise his rifle with little fear of detection and fire directly at, and slightly down upon, his target.”[x] The only way Ray could count on going undetected is if he suddenly learned to turn invisible.
In any event, this is exactly what happens in the book. Ray sees King by a stroke of luck, runs back to his room, puts together his rifle, and returns to perform the deed. “Once inside [the bathroom], he slammed and locked the door.”[xi]
Second problem: Sides says that Ray rested the gun on the windowsill, and in fact there was an indentation mark found on the sill. (In order to take this shot, Ray would also have had to climb onto the bathtub which was attached to the wall, but we'll leave that aside.) However, Judge Joe Brown, who presided over Ray's attempt to get a new trial with his attorney William Pepper, has advised this is impossible. Brown is a ballistics expert who has testified as such in open court. “There's a peculiar thing about this weapon…if you're attempting to use a rest when you shoot it – the weapon does not shoot where it is sighted in. Any hunter will tell you, that if you are attempting to use a rest to shoot game, you put your coat, your hat, your pack, something under the rifle barrel – and you do not allow the rifle barrel to touch hard wood, rock, or anything else because your weapon will not shoot where you have sighted it in to shoot.”[xii]
Ray now has another problem. Having successfully shot MLK, he must escape. His plan involves bundling all of the incriminating items in his possession and carrying them out of the building to his getaway car. Unfortunately, this plan has the downside that everyone in the vicinity will see him. “[Ray] made an impulsive decision he would later rue: he would have to ditch the rifle.”[xiii] He therefore decides to drop the entire bundle of incriminating items in front of a store called Canipe's. He does indeed live to rue that decision.
There is one slight problem with this, however. Guy Canipe, the owner of the store, told James Earl Ray's first lawyer that the bundle appeared 10 minutes prior to the shooting. Canipe had been prepared to testify on behalf of the defense.[xiv]
SINS OF OMISSION
Ray eluded the police for about two months, and in that time he traveled to England and to Canada. One of the peculiarities about his travels was where he got the money to fund his escape. Ray himself attributed this to ‘Raoul,' a mysterious figure who bankrolled him and told him where to go and what to do over that period. The ‘Raoul' aspect of the case is one of the most well-known with respect to the King assassination, but Sides has nothing to say about it in his book.
Another peculiarity is the fact that when Ray reached Montreal, he was able to obtain four identities, all of whom lived near each other and who looked like him. Sides explains this by saying that Ray went to the library and searched through microfiche to find people of similar age.[xv]
More omission is present in the characterization of Marrell McCullough. McCullough is not a well-known figure, although he is present in one of the most famous photographs in U.S. history; he is the man bent over a dying Dr. King at the final moment of his life. Sides declares that he was “an undercover policeman who was spying on the Invaders.”[xvi]
McCullough was in fact an FBI informant as part of the Invaders, a gang that allegedly modeled itself after the Black Panthers. The Invaders had started a riot during King's March 28, 1968 appearance at Memphis, an incident which embarrassed him into returning for what would be the site of his murder. McCullough later admitted to Sam Donaldson on the program Nightline that he worked for the CIA, although when Donaldson told him he was calling about the MLK assassination, McCullough hung up. It was then admitted McCullough had worked for the CIA since 1974. [xvii] For its part, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) investigated McCullough, although they eventually cleared him and accepted his statements about not working for the CIA, later proven to be lies.[xviii]
Sides is silent about all this.
He also has nothing to say, since he does not deal with the aftermath of Ray's arrest, with one of the most stunning moments in the civil trial against Lloyd Jowers. In 1997, Dexter King met with James Earl Ray and, when the latter said he did not kill his father, stated that he believed Ray. The King family then decided to assist Ray in getting a new trial.[xix] Unfortunately, Ray was stabbed in prison; although he survived the attack, he developed hepatitis. He petitioned to be relocated so that he could obtain a new kidney, but this was denied and he died in 1998. However, following this, the family and William Pepper pursued a civil case against Jowers, a man who had made public statements about his involvement in the assassination. During the civil trial, the Reverend Billy Kyles, who was with King at the moment of his death, made an astonishing revelation:
Then, as he described how he and Dr. King stood together on the balcony at the railing, he seemed to get carried away as he said, ‘…only as I moved away so he could have a clear shot, the shot rang out…' The jury and the judge looked stunned.
Juliet played the tape three times, so it became very clear that that Kyles had, in fact, somehow admitted stepping aside so that a shooter could get a clear shot. When she asked him who he was thinking about getting a clear shot, he said he supposed it would have been James Earl Ray.[xx]
The King family won their case. In the final ruling, Jowers was found 30% responsible by the judge with 70% belonging to other unknown parties.
Sides says that Ray was a racist. Not even the HSCA concluded this; in fact, they explicitly denied it.[xxi]
Sides says that Ray dropped the rifle outside Canipe's. Canipe himself says the bundle was dropped 10 minutes before the shooting.
Sides says that Marrell McCullough was an undercover policeman. McCullough admitted to working for the CIA on national television.
Sides says the rifle made the indentation on the window. A ballistics expert, Joe Brown, says this is not possible, assuming the shooter wanted to hit the target.
This is far from the only problem with the murder weapon; as Brown pointed out, the sight was haphazardly attached to the rifle when to be accurate it needed to be bore-sighted. The bore-sighting for this weapon requires a machine.[xxii]
The facts are so clear that even Noam Chomsky has said, “That's the one case where we can imagine pretty good reasons why somebody would want to kill him. I would not be in the least surprised if there was a real conspiracy behind that one, and probably a high-level one.”[xxiii]
If we are to be serious about historical revisionism, we need to have explanations built on the best facts available. If we ignore basic facts and instead present the facts as we would prefer, we are creating a work of fiction – which, as noted, this book resembles to a great deal. The author can try to wish his hellhound into existence all he wants, but wishes, as Allan Bloom once said, do not give birth to horses. As a result, the book has nothing to recommend it; the parts about MLK can be found in other, better biographies, and the material about Ray is as trenchant as Peter Pan. The book is a product of exactly the machinations discussed at the beginning of this article – greed mixed with propaganda in equal measure. Hellhound On His Trail is slick, fast-paced, and false.
[ii] Hampton Sides, Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (Doubleday:New York 2010), 37-38.
[iii] Sides, 317-318.
[iv] Abraham Bolden, The Echo from Dealey Plaza (Harmony Books: New York 2008), 22-23.
[v] Sides, 194.
[vi] Ibid, 200.
[vii] Ibid, 145.
[viii] Ibid, 147.
[ix] Ibid, 150.
[x] Ibid, 150.
[xi] Ibid, 160.
[xii] Joe Brown, “Judge Brown Slams Memphis Over the King Case,” The Assassinations, ed. James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease (Feral House: Los Angeles 2003), 468.
[xiii] Sides, 170.
[xiv] William Pepper, An Act of State (Verso: London 2003), 120.
[xv] Sides, 272.
[xvi] Ibid, 171.
[xvii] Lisa Pease, “James Earl Ray Did Not Kill MLK,” The Assassinations, 447-448.
[xviii] Doug Valentine, “The DOJ's Strange MLK Report,” The Assassinations, 518.
[xx] Pepper, 142.
[xxi] Ibid, 311.
[xxii] Joe Brown, Statement at COPA Conference, 4 April 1998, The Assassinations, 473. Also, the rifle problems are well summarized in John Judge's “The Alleged Murder Weapon in the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/JohnJudge/MLKrifle.html.
[xxiii] Conversation Between Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert, Part 2: http://www.zcommunications.org/conversations-between-michael-albert-and-noam-chomsky-pt-2-by-noam-chomsky