Hunting Down an Assassin: The Manhunt for MLK’s Killer
American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968) speaks at Quinn Chapel on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, 1960s. Source: (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)
A tragic and pivotal moment in American history was the assassination of Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. Dr. King was standing on the balcony of his room at the Motel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was shot with a Remington hunting rifle that was fired from a window in a boarding house a block away. While the world mourned the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI sprang into action to track down the assassin. More than two months later, the FBI had their man, James Earl Ray. How did they track down Ray and finally arrest him? Let’s look at the manhunt for MLK’s killer.
James Earl Ray was a petty criminal and an outspoken racist. A year prior to assassinating Dr. King, Ray escaped from a jail in Missouri and was living on the run. He had a history of ranting to friends and family about his hatred for African Americans and his desire to kill Dr. King. Ray checked into a room in Bessie Brewer’s rooming house, which was located across the street from the Motel Lorraine where King and his entourage were staying. From the bathroom window of his room at the boarding house, Ray had a clear shot at Dr. King’s balcony.
The Immediate Aftermath
Because Civil Rights tensions were so high, the Memphis police were on high alert during Dr. King’s visit to the city. They stationed squad cars near Dr. King’s motel, in case riots broke out. Ten patrol cars arrived on the scene of the assassination within minutes. Witnesses indicated the direction of the shots, pointing toward the boarding house. In less than four minutes after the shooting, the Memphis police had set up a perimeter around the Motel Lorraine and Bessie Brewer’s Boarding House, but it was too late.
James Earl Ray Fled the Scene
Almost immediately after making his shot, James Earl Ray wrapped the rifle in a blanket and left the boarding house. He got nervous when he saw a police car parked nearby so he abandoned his bundle in front of the Canipe Amusement Company and left the area. Within minutes, police found the bundle, with the rifle sticking out of it. The bundle also contained random toiletry items and a pair of binoculars. Police learned that the rifle had been purchased five days prior to the shooting in Birmingham, Alabama, by someone named Harvey Lowmeyer. The binoculars, they discovered, were purchased in Memphis just hours before the shooting.
Clues in the Boarding House
A search of the boarding house led to the discovery of a bullet cartridge in the bathroom of one of the rooms. It proved to be a match for the rifle and the bullet that killed King. The room was registered to a person named John Willard, but the boarding house offered more clues. Some clothing had been left behind that still had tags on them from a laundry service in Los Angeles. The laundry service was able to offer the name Eric S. Galt from their records. Officials in Atlanta ran a check on a white Ford Mustang that was found abandoned in a parking lot and it came back as registered to a person named Eric S. Galt. Working with police detectives in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, the FBI was able to get a photograph of Eric Galt.
Forensic detectives were able to lift some fingerprints from the boarding house room and the FBI matched them to James Earl Ray. His fingerprints were on file because of his previous criminal history. When they compared Ray’s mug shot photos to the photos of Eric Galt, they realized they were dealing with the same person. Now that they had the real name of the suspect, the manhunt intensified.
Ray on the Run
Immediately after killing Dr. King, James Earl Ray slipped out of Memphis in his white Mustang, heading toward New Orleans. As he drove, he listened to radio reports about the assassination and manhunt. It was then that he decided to change his plans. He drove instead to Atlanta where he stayed one night at Garner’s rooming house. He ditched his vehicle, packed a bag, and took a Greyhound bus to Detroit. In Detroit, he hailed a taxi to take him across the international border into Canada.
A Canadian Passport
In Canada, Ray was able to obtain a Canadian passport using forged identification papers. In 1968, Canada’s rules were so lax that it was easy to get a Canadian passport. With his new passport, issued under the name Ramon George Sneyd, Ray bought a round trip plane ticket to London. He later stated that he planned to travel from London to Belgium and on to Rhodesia, which is now called Zimbabwe. During the 1960s, Rhodesia was controlled by a white minority government that was oppressive toward its black citizens. Rhodesia a white supremacy nation without an extradition policy with the United States.
A Watchful Customs Official
The FBI was following leads on James Earl Ray and learned that he may have obtained a Canadian passport. They pulled records of recently issued passports and found a few with photos that looked similar to Ray. This gave them a short list of names to watch for. On June 8, 1968, at London’s Heathrow Airport, Ray had checked into his flight to Belgium and was going through customs when an alert customs officer noticed that he was carrying two Canadian passports. Ray was pulled aside for questioning. Both passports were issued to Ramon George Sneyd, but one of them had a small error on it. The customs official checked the name and found that it was included on a detain list, so Ray was held by airport security until Scotland Yard arrived.
More than two months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Earl Ray was finally in custody. He was extradited back to the United States on July 19 and arrived in Memphis wearing leg shackles and handcuffs. In March of the following year, Ray pled guilty to the murder of Dr. King – which spared him the death penalty – and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He died in jail in 1998.
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