Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Known Facts

The main item on King's agenda in the spring of 1968 was not the war in Vietnam, nor was it the labor movement in Memphis. King was trying to organize a Poor Peoples' March on Washington for early April where thousands of disenfranchised Americans of all races would descend on the nation's capital and protest the country's economic divisiveness. However, King accepted an invitation from labor leaders in Memphis to help the city's sanitation department — nearly all black except for drivers — in its unionization efforts in March. A rally in Memphis turned violent, with renegade gangs looting and rioting despite King's pleas for nonviolent protests.

King and the SCLC leadership left Memphis, but King felt the need to return to demonstrate that nonviolent protest had not lost its effectiveness. The SCLC made plans to return to Memphis and stay, once again, in the Lorraine Motel on April 3. King planned a nonviolent march in Memphis on April 8, to refocus attention on the sanitation workers strike. However, as he arrived in Memphis, King was served with a restraining order from a federal judge barring the march, which the civil rights leader planned to challenge in court the next day.

King spent the evening of April 3 into the early hours of April 4 in a strategy session with aides, and at about 4:30 a.m. he returned to the Lorraine where his brother, the Rev. A.D. Williams King, Georgia Davis and Lucie Ward met him. The two brothers spent about a half-hour with the women before Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the room he was sharing with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Thirty minutes after returning to his room, King once again met with Davis in a separate room. He remained there for about an hour before returning to his own room.

It was not until the early afternoon that King emerged from the hotel room, as Andrew Young went to court instead of King to fight the restraining order. King spent much of the afternoon with Davis, his brother, Ward and Abernathy. Sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. — Abernathy and Davis disagree on the time — King and Abernathy returned to their own hotel room to change for dinner. The entire group was headed for a meal at the home of a local minister, the Rev. Billy Kyles.

At 6 p.m., King and Abernathy emerged from their second-story room onto the balcony of the Lorraine. King initiated a conversation with his driver, Solomon Jones, about the weather and Jones advised King to grab a coat, as the weather was turning chilly. King acknowledged Jones' comment and started to turn toward his room. At that instant, Jones later told authorities that he heard a sound he assumed to be a firecracker and noticed King falling to the floor of the balcony. Jones called for help and King's aides, who were all nearby, rushed to the stricken civil rights leader.

Pointing in the direction of shot (credit:TIMEPIX)
Pointing in the direction of shot

The bullet struck King near his jaw, fracturing his lower mandible, severing the jugular vein, vertebral and subclavian arteries and shattering several vertebrae in his neck and back. There was nothing that could be done and Dr. Martin Luther King was pronounced dead at St. Joseph Hospital at 7:05 p.m.

"Death was the result of a gunshot wound to the chin and neck with a fatal transection of the lower cervical and upper thoracic spinal cord and other structures in the neck," wrote Dr. J.T. Francisco, the county medical examiner, in his official autopsy report. "The direction of the wound was front to back, above downward (from right to left)."

Police security around Dr. King had been tight for the two days he was in Memphis in April. He had been under constant surveillance by at least two plainclothes officers who did not travel with King's party; instead, they maintained a surreptitious watch over King's activities. During most of this surveillance, two of the four officers who held the 24-hour vigil around King's group were black: Detective Edward E. Redditt and Patrolman Willie B. Richmond.

At the time of the shooting, Redditt had been removed from duty because an anonymous caller to the Memphis Police Department had made a threat against Redditt and his family because of the detective's perceived actions as part of the "establishment." At 4 p.m. April 4, Redditt left the scene of the surveillance — Memphis Fire Station No. 2, which provided a secure and covert place from which to observe King's party. When the shots were fired, Richmond was still on duty at Fire Station No. 2, and reported hearing the shots. Richmond observed King fall to the floor of the balcony, and alerted both a tactical police unit nearby and Memphis Police headquarters. He was ordered to remain at the fire station while other officers responded to the Lorraine. Shortly afterward, Richmond was ordered to police headquarters to make a detailed report of his observations.

Police strength in Memphis was high during King's April visit, with nine tactical units spaced around the city and ten regular patrol units with three or four men per car near the Lorraine Motel at the time of the shooting. Five of the tac units were within a two-mile radius of the Lorraine at 6 p.m., including Tac Unit 10, which was located at Fire Station No. 2. The unit consisted of 12 men in three cars, under the command of Shelby County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Judson Gormley. Tactical Unit 10 was taking a break at the fire station; the men were drinking coffee or using the restroom when the shots rang out. As soon as they were alerted to the shots, eight of the men ran toward the Lorraine Motel and two others drove from the fire station to the hotel.


Patrolman Morris, alerted by King's staff that the shot had come from the rear of a boarding house across the street from the hotel, ran around the block to the front of the motel, where he met another officer from the tac unit, whose identity today remains in dispute. A search by two other officers found fresh footprints in the mud in an alley between the building from which the shot was believed to have originated and another building. One officer remained at that scene until crime scene technicians were able to make casts of the footprints. A second officer, Patrolman Dollahite, ran around the front of the building from which the assassin fired the bullet and ended up on Main Street in front of a rundown flophouse. Continuing down the block, Dollahite came upon a green blanket lying in front of Canipe's Amusement Company, next door to the flophouse. The blanket covered a blue suitcase and a box containing a high-powered rifle equipped with a scope. For some reason, Dollahite, who observed Tac 10 commander Gormley approaching, ran past the blanket and took up a guard position at the end of the block. Gormley, coming toward Dollahite, also spied the blanket and gun and was told by the owner of Canipe's Amusement Company that a white man had run past and dropped the bundle. Canipe told Gormley that the man fled the scene in a late model white Mustang. Gormley communicated this information to Memphis Police headquarters.

The initial word of King's assassination was radioed to headquarters at 6:03 p.m. At 6:06 p.m. a perimeter had been established around the blocks containing both the Lorraine and the flophouse. At 6:07 p.m Gormley advised HQ that the weapon could be found in front of Canipe's Amusement Company. At 6:08, the dispatcher relayed information that the subject was a young, well-dressed white male. Two minutes later, the dispatcher reported to all units that the suspect had fled in a white Mustang. At 6:15 p.m. homicide detectives were on hand and by 6:30 they had possession of the bundle. The bundle, except for a t-shirt and shorts was turned over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation at 9:15 p.m.

All in all, the Memphis police botched the dragnet. They never put out an all-points bulletin to the Mississippi or Arkansas police despite the fact that Arkansas is less than 15 minutes from Memphis and Mississippi only a little further. Even though police throughout Memphis and Tennessee were looking for a white man in a Mustang, their Arkansas and Mississippi counterparts were blissfully unaware of any assassin in their midst.


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