Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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


FBI Wanted poster
FBI Wanted poster

While King was sparring with the FBI and gradually shifting his focus from civil rights to a more general human rights/anti-war perspective, James Earl Ray was maintaining a low profile and slowly working his way north toward Canada. His escape from the Missouri prison caused little concern and resulted in almost no news. Wanted posters were printed with Ray's prison mug shots, but the first press run included the wrong fingerprints — something that gives conspiracy theorists fuel for their fires. A reward was offered for his return: $50.

Ray managed to get a number of menial jobs on his journey north and his employers remember him as a hard worker and nice person. Most were shocked to find later the man they hired was wanted for murdering Martin Luther King Jr. James, who had always been something of a miser, managed to put together a decent nest egg through hard work, saving and petty robbery.

His goal in crossing the border to Canada was to get a Canadian passport and get a job onboard a ship. Once he was abroad, he planned to jump ship and start a new life somewhere else. Just where that somewhere was, he didn't know and didn't care. He believed that in order to get a Canadian passport he had to find a rube that would be willing to swear they had known him for at least two years.

James Earl Ray, 1967, FBI
James Earl Ray,
1967, FBI

In a beat-up Plymouth he purchased for a couple hundred in cash, Ray crossed the border to Canada in July 1967 at Detroit and headed from Windsor to Montreal, where many foreigners were on hand for an international expo. On the way to Montreal Ray first used the name Eric S. Galt, which he claimed he made up after seeing a road sign for the town of Galt along Highway 401. However, an Eric S. Galt lived at that time in Montreal and bore at best a superficial resemblance to Ray. How Ray came to choose the name Galt is important to many conspiracy theorists. They suppose that someone who knew Galt or at least knew he existed assisted Ray's escape to Canada and financed his stay there. William Bradford Huie, the man who pioneered the practice of checkbook journalism and paid James Earl Ray $40,000 to tell him "the truth" about the assassination, offers a more rational explanation: "(He) saw the name Galt on exit markers and chose it as a surname. When he stopped for the night of July 16 at a Toronto motel, he looked through the Galts in the telephone directory...he chose 'Eric S.'" There has never been any indication that the real Eric S. Galt had ever heard of or seen James Earl Ray before that fateful day in April.

Ray himself offers this advice on picking an alias: "I've used many different names, but picking a new one is never easy. I can't afford to pick something easy like Smith or Brown or Jones, because I might forget who I was if somebody suddenly asks me. My name has to be unusual so it'll stick in my memory and I'll always know who I am."

Montreal is a large port on the St. Lawrence Seaway and Ray spent a good deal of time near the waterfront trying to earn a union card to get a shipboard job. Without the passport, he couldn't get the union card and without the union card, he would never get on board a ship. His attempts to get a woman to vouch for him with immigration authorities were unsuccessful and in a couple of weeks his cash reserve began to dwindle. Ray told Huie he never intended to go back to the United States, but in need of money, he began to let it be known in some of the seedier waterfront bars that he had been in trouble in the States and that for a fee, he was willing to undertake low-risk "jobs."

According to Ray, his hints paid off.

"One afternoon, I stopped by (the Neptune Tavern) and met an individual who seemed to be in his mid-30s," Ray wrote in his autobiography. "He was about 5'-8'', weighed 140 pounds or so and had slightly wavy red hair that might have been the result of a dye job. He sat down at my table, ordered a drink and made small talk in what sounded to me like a Spanish accent, then introduced himself as 'Raoul.' He never mentioned his last name. I figured if he wanted me to know it, he'd tell me and I didn't press the matter."

Raoul and Ray sized each other up over the next few days, trying to smoke out the other's real purpose and once trust was established, they struck a deal. In return for a smuggling job, Raoul would procure travel papers for James Ray. Raoul told James he had a couple of small packages that he needed to get to Mexico. If Ray would get the packages across the border to the U.S., Raoul would take them to Mobile, Alabama where the pair would meet once again. Together they would drive to the Mexican border and repeat the process.

Ray agreed to the plan, except he recommended that they meet not in Mobile, on the Gulf of Mexico, but in Birmingham, several hours north of Mobile in central Alabama. Raoul agreed to this amendment, Ray claims. "It didn't matter to me," Ray wrote. "I wasn't going to set foot in either place." He planned to cross the border with the contraband and then head back across with his new Canadian identity.

The trip across the border was uneventful, according to Ray. The pair drove to Windsor and separated prior to reaching the Customs area. Raoul took a cab across the mile-long river border. Ray drove his Plymouth through the Ambassador tunnel with two packages in red wrapping hidden behind the seats in the rear of the car. In his book he claims that the car was subjected to a limited search, but no contraband was found. According to Ray, the first officer who searched the car was pulled off the job before finishing. "Just before he reached the back seat a second officer came up and told the first that he'd complete the search," Ray claims. "The first inspector walked away. The second abruptly ended the search." In Detroit, Raoul and Ray reunited where the mysterious Latino took possession of the two brick-sized packages. Ray was ready to get his passport and ditch Raoul, but the man confessed trouble getting the false papers. Raoul placated the angry Ray by giving him "a stack of cash" and promising him the papers once they reached Alabama.

They split up and Ray headed toward Birmingham.

There are several elements of truth in the story told by James Earl Ray to William Huie — who believed Ray killed King and acted alone. Huie was able to prove that Ray did work his way north from Missouri to Detroit, and that he accumulated a remarkably good set of references. Huie also proved that Ray did cross into Canada, did spend time in Montreal and eventually returned to the United States. Huie also confirms that a popular form of smuggling in the late 1960s involved bandits who teamed with Americans and smuggled drugs or other contraband into the U.S. and met their accomplices across the border after crossing in a cab. Huie was never able to find anyone who could finger Raoul. But as an escaped convict who had made it safely across the Canadian border, James Earl Ray would have to have a damned good reason to cross back into the United States and risk being stopped at immigration. Smuggling was about as good a reason as any, Huie reasoned.


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