Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Dr. Martin Luther King

James Earl Ray

James Earl Ray managed to stay out of trouble as a child — a little truant, perhaps, but generally not a bad kid. He had it rough; his family was poor, they moved around frequently, thanks to a couple of shiftless relatives that made life difficult in the small towns in the Midwest the family lived in. He was accused of theft in the sixth grade, and by the time he was 15, he had had enough of school.

He got his first taste of prison life after joining the Army and getting sent to Germany in the years following World War II. Seems James liked to drink and got himself arrested by the MPs on a drunk and disorderly charge and sentenced to 90 days hard labor in the stockade. When he got out of the service, he began drifting around and spending a few nights in jail for vagrancy. His first big arrest came in 1949 and he served eight months in a California jail for burglary. In 1952, he did two years for an armed robbery of a taxi driver in Illinois. In 1955, Ray broke his first federal law, stealing and forging postal money orders. He was caught and sent to Leavenworth, Kansas.

By 1956, society in general had already given up on James Earl Ray. A parole officer wrote about him: "He apparently lacks foresight, or is afraid of the future, as he absolutely refuses to look forward. He claims that he can do his time better if he doesn't think. (He) apparently is enjoying his present situation."

An important note is made in Ray's Leavenworth file upon his release in 1958. On its face it appears pitiful but insignificant. However, when looking at the broader picture of Ray's life, it takes on a whole new meaning. On his parole report, the officer wrote: "He was approved for our Honor Farm but was never actually transferred to the Farm due to the fact that he did not feel he could live in an Honor Farm dormitory because they are integrated..." Ray apparently had made his racist feelings well known a decade before that fateful day in Memphis.

Mugshot, 1960
Mugshot, 1960

He stayed clean about a year, working odd jobs and drifting, but soon relapsed to his old way of life. On October 10, 1959, James Earl Ray robbed a Kroger grocery store using a gun and was collared 20 minutes later. He was sentenced as a habitual offender and given 20 years in the Missouri State Prison at Jefferson City. Ray showed he could do his time quietly, and for several years he was just another prisoner at MSP. His time passed slowly, but Ray spent the days honing his skills as a criminal and plotting his escape. His first attempt in 1961 was a dismal failure and he spent some time in the hole because of it. Ray wasn't finished and he watched carefully for another opportunity to present itself. It took six years.

James Earl Ray, mugshots 1966
James Earl Ray, mugshots 1966

At his own request, in 1966 Ray began psychological counseling to quiet the voices in his head. It turned out to be something of a mistake, because the authorities that had watched him do his time quietly with only that one rule violation learned they had a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive paranoid on their hands. The examining doctor wrote, "It is doubtful that he should be considered for parole."

Eventually, Ray managed to get a job in the Jefferson City prison bakery, which made the bread for the institution and its outlying farms and honor dorms. Every day, a truck laden with bread would head out the prison away from the city toward the remote farms.

James Earl Ray made it his goal to someday be on that truck. He needed the assistance of another prisoner, and once he found a willing conspirator, he wasted no time in climbing into a large 4-by-4 bread box, covering himself with a false bottom and having the accomplice cover the crate with loaves of bread. The box was pushed onto the truck with the other boxes and after a cursory search by guards on April 23, 1967 James Earl Ray escaped from Missouri State Prison.


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