Sunday, 6 May 2018

James Earl Ray: Bounty Hunter?

There have been numerous conspiracy theories proposed over the last fifty years as a means to explain the assassination of Martin Luther King. Most of them have them have been almost entirely speculative or just downright silly. In two recent books, authors Stuart Wexler and Larry Hancock have attempted to revive a 40-year-old theory proposing that James Earl Ray “probably” shot Dr. King in response to a $100,000 bounty being offered by a group of racist, right-wing extremists. Putting aside, for a moment, the fact that there exists nothing even approaching proof that Ray actually fired the fatal shot, just how well supported is this theory?

In short, not very.

In the late 1970s, the House Select Committee on Assassinations was tasked with reinvestigating the assassinations of both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King but failed to do so in either case. Far from being a no holds barred search for the truth, what the Committee actually performed was little more than a public relations exercise, aimed at quieting the growing number of critics and reaffirming the official solutions. Or, at least, not straying too far from them. In the case of King's tragic murder, the Committee's primary objective was to ensure that Ray took the blame. But when it became clear that Ray was not the angry, violent white supremacist he had been made out to be, the Committee found itself stuck for a motive.

Enter: Russell Byers.

Russell Byers was a notorious St. Louis criminal whose name came to the Committee's attention via the report of an FBI informant. Byers had apparently told the informant that he had once been offered $10,000 or $20,000 to kill Dr. King by a lawyer and a short, stocky man who walked with a limp. The latter individual, Byers claimed, was the man “who made the payoff to James Earl Ray after the killing.” The Committee liked Byers' story enough to call him to testify. However, someone must have informed Byers that Ray was flat-broke when he was picked up in London two months after the assassination because Byers dropped all reference to a “payoff” when he gave his testimony. He also upped the amount he was supposedly offered to $50,000 [1] and identified the two men as John Kauffmann and John Sutherland—both conveniently dead.

The Committee members ignored the fact that Byers had changed important details of his story and then downplayed the suggestion by his former lawyer, Judge Murray L. Randall, that Byers had concocted the whole thing as a means to identify an FBI informant. [2] Byers' tale was useful to the Committee so, despite a number of contradictions and logical issues, it was deemed credible and became the basis for the Committee's suggestion that Ray had probably murdered Dr. King in response to the alleged bounty. And yet, the Committee was nonetheless forced to admit that it had uncovered “no direct evidence” whatsoever that Ray “or a representative” had even heard of any such offer at any time. [3]

For obvious reasons, few people with a grasp of the facts have ever taken the Committee's theory seriously. It is surprising, then, to see the same basic idea being regurgitated today by Wexler and Hancock. In their version, however, the bounty was being offered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the evidence that Ray heard of and planned to collect it comes in the form of statements made by his fellow inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary.

To be sure, a few of Ray's fellow prisoners did indeed spin such stories. One of the more famous was Raymond Curtis who wrote a letter to Ebony magazine stating that he and Ray had talked to a man from Mississippi about a KKK contract on King, only to admit later that he had fabricated the whole tale for $5,000. [4] Then there was Donald Mitchell who said that some “friends in St. Louis” had “fixed it with someone in Philadelphia” for Ray to kill King and Ray offered to split the $50,000 he was to be paid with Mitchell if he would act as a decoy. But Mitchell was not done there. He also claimed that after picking up the $50,000 for killing Dr. King, they would be picking up another payment for killing “one of those stinking Kennedy's.” [5]

There was also James W. Brown who is quoted as saying that he had heard Ray state that a “Cooley or Cooley's organization would pay $10,000 to have King dead.” [6] But, when he was located and reinterviewed by Congressional investigators years later, Brown “denied any knowledge of a 'Cooley' organization, or of an offer of $10,000 from any group to kill Dr. King.” [7] Yet another bounty story came from Thomas Britton who said that Ray had spoken of an unnamed “businessmen's association” that was offering $100,000 for the killing of Dr. King. Britton told the FBI that he was “somewhat interested” in being paid for “services rendered.” [8] And finally there was Lewis Raymond Dowda who said simply that Ray was ready to kill King “if the price is right.” [9]

The problems with all of this are readily apparent. The stories are all mutually exclusive since each of the inmates related an entirely different version of the supposed bounty to the other. Depending on whose statement you choose to accept, the money was coming from the KKK, Cooley's organization, someone in Philadelphia or an unnamed businessman's association. Additionally, the amount on offer was either $10,000, $50,000 or $100,000. What's more, two of the inmates expressed an interest in being paid for their stories, two repudiated their own accounts, and one gave a story so vague it was devoid of any real meaning. Yet, if you can believe it, Wexler and Hancock have, at one time or another, cited all except Raymond Curtis in support of their theory.

As far as I can see, the only way it is even possible to reconcile each of these accounts is to suggest that the non-violent, soft-spoken Ray who usually kept largely to himself both inside and outside of prison, somehow got himself in a position to hear about every one of these different bounties and then expressed an interest in each one but to an entirely different individual each time. Does this not seem a tad far-fetched?

It should be fairly obvious to even the most gullible individual that all of these inmates could not possibly have been telling the truth. On the other hand, they could quiet easily have all been lying. Which, if you ask me, they most likely were. And that means, once again, that there is no direct evidence that James Earl Ray ever heard of or planned to collect a bounty on the life of Dr. King.

And that simple fact leaves the HSCA/Wexler/Hancock conspiracy theory dead in the water.

  1. House Select Committee on Assassinations, MLK volume 7, p. 182.
  2. Ibid, 204 – 237.
  3. House Select Committee on Assassination report, p. 372.
  4. FBI Airtel from SAC, Atlanta, to Director, 7/3/68
  5. House Select Committee on Assassinations, MLK volume 13, p. 248.
  6. FBI Interview of James W. Brown, 5/8/68 and FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 28, p. 190.
  7. House Select Committee on Assassinations, MLK volume 13, p. 248.
  8. FBI MURKIN Central Headquarters File, Section 33, p. 25.
  9. Stuart Wexler & Larry Hancock, Killing King, p. 73.

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