Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Down South

Of his own accord or as part of a grand plan whose architect remained a mystery to him, Ray traveled to Birmingham, Alabama and — at least for him — put down roots. After stopping to see his brother in Chicago, who reported that no one had been looking for him, James turned up in Birmingham. According to his explanation of events, he went to the Birmingham post office as Eric S. Galt and claimed a letter that Raoul had sent to him care of general delivery. In the letter, Raoul instructed James to meet him at the Starlight Bar, which Ray did.

"We need a good set of wheels," Raoul told Ray. "But I don't want to spend more than a couple thousand dollars." Raoul instructed Ray, whose tastes ran more toward $200 junkers to find a suitable car. After his arrest, Ray gave Huie great details about how he managed to establish an identity in Birmingham as Eric Galt. Ray was able to demonstrate to a Birmingham bank that he needed a safe deposit box and rented one in the name of Eric S. Galt. In the box he dropped the cash Raoul had given him, identity papers and other items he didn't want on his person and set out to find a car.

He found a nice 1966 pale yellow Mustang for sale at the right price: $1,995. Ray paid cash for the car. He claimed the cash came from Raoul. Hindsight showed James Earl Ray that he became involved in a plot to kill King when he agreed to drive the packages across the Canadian border. He became further enmeshed when he acquiesced to traveling to Birmingham.

"No one would have given me $3,000 in Birmingham just to haul narcotics across the border," Ray wrote to Huie. "But nobody told me about any planned murder of King or anyone else." To this claim, Huie mused: "I find it difficult to believe that any accomplice of Ray's in smuggling narcotics from Windsor to Detroit in August 1967 was planning to murder Dr. King in April 1968. And what criminal would have brought a car for Ray on August 20, 1967, for him to use in fleeing a murder scene on April 4, 1968?"

There is another explanation for how an escaped armed robber could end up in Birmingham, Alabama with about $3,000 in cash. Ray admitted receiving $750 from Raoul. He had $300 saved up when he broke out, and had earned more than $650 as a dishwasher during his time on the lam. He also admitted to a $1,700 armed robbery in Montreal. In August 1967 James Earl Ray was in Birmingham with about $3,400 cash.

How would a prisoner save up $300 in cash while incarcerated? Gerald Posner, author of Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. has unearthed evidence that Ray was an amphetamine dealer in prison, as well as a bennie addict. This would explain Ray's psychosis in 1966, Posner adds.

While in Birmingham, Ray claims Raoul ordered him to purchase some 8mm movie equipment through the mail, which Ray did. Correspondence between Ray and the camera company shows that a Super 8mm camera, projector, editing machine and a 20-foot remote control cable were sent to Ray during the month of September 1967. Ray was apparently unsatisfied with the camera and returned it. He asked for a refund to be sent to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ray also purchased a $245 Polaroid camera at the same time.

Initially after his capture, Ray denied knowing why the camera equipment was purchased. He stuck to his story that Raoul wanted the equipment for some mysterious purpose, but Huie offers another reason: "Ray enjoys only one game: Cops and Robbers," he wrote. "With himself as the elusive robber...pursued by the stupid cops...He told me the law had very poor pictures of him, that he looked much younger than he actually was, and that therefore, when the FBI put out a wanted poster on him, using a poor picture and saying he was born in 1928, 'nobody could recognize me from the poster...'"

Ray expected the FBI to put him on the 10 Most Wanted List while he was in Birmingham, but "prior to April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray was regarded by the FBI as one of the least likely ever to be elevated to the elite list of the Ten Most Wanted Criminals," Huie wrote. He spent hours posing before his movie camera, Ray told Huie, and taking photos of himself and mailing them out to "lonely hearts" clubs in an effort to throw off the FBI.

Posner offers a more likely explanation for why Ray would buy the high-quality equipment. James had already talked to his brother Jerry about getting into the lucrative but still very underground porn business. Records showed Ray purchased a chemical compound that could allegedly turn a piece of glass into a two-way mirror through which he could surreptitiously film women.

In the fall of 1967, Ray said Raoul contacted him in Birmingham and ordered him to New Orleans and then into Mexico on another smuggling job. This time the packages were kept in a spare tire which Raoul transported from car to car, but the method was similar to the Canadian border crossing: Ray drove the car and contraband, Raoul took a cab across the border. Again Ray hints at some complicity among the border guards, to whom he paid $4 each.

James Earl Ray, 1968
James Earl Ray, 1968

Ray spent a leisurely month in Mexico, near Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, before heading north to Los Angeles California, where he settled down for five months. During that time, he enrolled in bartending school and took dance classes. It was the bartending graduation class photo which FBI officials were able to use to put a face to the name Eric S. Galt.


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