By W. Tracy Parnell ã 1998


In the world of assassination research, the Martin Luther King slaying is something akin to a poor second cousin to the JFK assassination. After all, areas of interest in the JFK case that have been studied exclusively by some researchers for over 30 years are all but a footnote to the King killing.

The medical evidence in the Kennedy case, for example, is one of the areas of greatest contention among researchers. The JFK autopsy and the documentary evidence produced during that examination is contested hotly to this day on every major point. This is not so in the King assassination. The witnesses in Memphis heard one shot, which struck King in the jaw, pierced his neck and came to rest in his shoulder blade. Dr. Jerry Francisco, the Memphis Coroner, performed the autopsy and his findings are not disputed.

Still, the King assassination has its share of controversy, due largely to the fact that James Earl Ray, the alleged assassin, recanted his 1969 guilty plea and maintained his innocence until his death. Rayís repeated denials and convoluted stories about an accomplice named "Raoul" have helped to create confusion and foster speculation about the facts of April 4, 1968. Another factor fueling the conspiracy fire is the disclosure of FBI abuses, particularly by Director J. Edgar Hoover, in the bureauís surveillance of King. And as the world notes the 30th anniversary of Dr. Kingís death, the King family has declared Ray innocent and called on President Clinton for a new investigation. The general public may logically reason that if the King family believes in a conspiracy that it may well be so.

Enter journalist Gerald Posner and his new book, Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. published by Random House. Posner, author of the controversial best seller Case Closed which found Lee Harvey Oswald to be the lone assassin of JFK, sets out to close the book on the King case as well. Readers familiar with Case Closed will recognize the layout, style, and conclusions in Posnerís new book. Another similarity is Posnerís ability to gain access to information. In Case Closed, he was able to study of the files of Edward Wagmann, an attorney for Clay Shaw. This time around, Posner and his wife were the first researchers to examine the archives of George McMillan, who gained the trust of the Ray family during research for his book, The Making of an Assassin.

Posner organizes his book into three sections: The Assassination, The Assassin, and The Search for Truth. He makes use of extensive footnotes to discuss side issues and in many cases to debunk various myths. Several footnotes appear which will especially interest assassination researchers. In one, Posner uses conspiracy author David Lifton, who he castigated in Case Closed for his body-alteration theories, to bolster his contention that Rayís accomplice "Raoul" is fictitious.

Posner begins the first section of his book with an account of the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, the event which brought King to the city. He then offers a detailed description of the assassination and analyzes Rayís actions before and after the event. The former Wall Street attorney also details the international manhunt for Ray leading to his capture about two months after the assassination.

In Case Closed, Posner reasoned that the best way to find the truth about the JFK assassination was to study the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. It comes as no surprise then, that in the second part of his book, he devotes 173 pages to a biography of Ray. The alleged assassin was born in Alton, Illinois in 1928 to an impoverished family with a long history of criminal activity. Posner follows Rayís futile efforts to cope with his environment through his formative years and documents his first petty crimes at the age of fifteen.

Posner begins to develop a motive for Ray when he relates the story of his friendship with a tannery co-worker in Alton who was a Nazi sympathizer. Later, after joining the Army, Ray listed Germany as his choice for Foreign Service. After a general discharge, he began drifting and wound up in Los Angeles, where he was arrested for the first time and served 90 days for burglary.

After his release, Ray returned to Illinois where he tried his turn at a couple of legitimate jobs but could not stay "straight". He served 22 months in Joliet prison for a botched robbery and later was sent to Leavenworth after stealing postal money orders. While at Leavenworth, Ray again showed his racial bias by refusing to be sent to an honor farm, where there were integrated dormitories. Eventually, Ray was sent to Missouri State Penitentiary, where Posner develops evidence that he was involved in the prison drug trade and may have had preliminary discussions about murdering King. It may also have been here, Posner contends, that Ray first learned of an offer by a racist lawyer of $50,000 to kill King, thereby introducing a powerful second motive.

On April 23, 1967, Ray escaped from "Jeff City" by hiding in a breadbox, which was transported out of the prison by truck. The one-year journey that follows is probably the most interesting part of the book. Ray tried once again to return to the "straight" life but after that failed, Posner suggests that he returned to crime by pulling the biggest job of his career, a bank robbery in his hometown of Alton, with the help of his brothers. After a stint in Canada, Ray came to Birmingham, Alabama, where he purchased the infamous "White Mustang" and endeavored to establish a permanent address that he could use in conjunction with his many aliases.

Rayís odyssey continued with a holiday in Mexico that included another racial incident in a bar with black sailors. After returning to the United States, Ray made residence in Los Angeles where he participated in such uncharacteristic ventures as self-hypnosis, dance classes, and a bartending course. His brief trip to New Orleans to pick up the daughters of a friend during this period has aroused the suspicion of many theorists, who suspect a conspiracy may have been hatched while Ray was there. Ironically, Posner himself wades into the conspiracy waters, suggesting a possible meeting of the Ray brothers to brainstorm a plot to collect the long-standing bounty on King. After returning to Los Angeles from New Orleans, Ray soon departed on the journey that would culminate with the assassination in Memphis. Posner demonstrates quite effectively that he is indeed stalking King in this time period. He also does a good job of destroying Rayís alibi that he was at a gas station at the time of the assassination.

Part three of the book begins with the legal wrangling and the succession of lawyers who defended Ray, culminating with his current attorney, William Pepper. Posner follows Pepperís attempt to gain publicity for Ray through an HBO mock trial and the cast of characters that hoped to score big along the way. Posner also devotes a full chapter to the misidentification of the mysterious "Raoul" by Pepperís investigators, which resulted in much hardship for an innocent man and his family. Finally, Posner tackles the theory put forth by Pepper in his book, Orders to Kill, concerning the alleged presence of Green Beret snipers from the 20th Special Forces Group in Memphis on the day of the assassination. He demonstrates convincingly that, instead of a new lead in the case, this allegation was actually a shocking and embarrassing hoax.

Posner concludes the book with a chapter, again in convincing detail, which outlines Rayís probable movements on the day of the assassination. He deduces that, if a conspiracy was afoot, it involved the Ray brothers rather than the FBI or another government agency.

So does the book "close the case" on the assassination of Martin Luther King? As in Case Closed, conspiracy theorists should find plenty of material in the book that can be disputed. One such issue is Rayís purchase of expensive camera equipment, which Posner contends that he planned to use in a porn venture. His source for the porn statement is Rayís brother, Jerry, who is hardly a Gibraltar of truth.

An interesting aside is the evolution of Posnerís relationship with the dean of conspiracy writers, Harold Weisberg. Mr. Weisberg, apparently unaware of Posnerís "Oswald did it" theory, helped him during his research for Case Closed by making his extensive files available to him. When Weisberg read the book, he was livid and soon came out with an entire book Case Open which rebutted Posnerís work. Posner, who thanked Weisberg for his help in the acknowledgements for Case Closed, has now had a change of heart and refers to Weisberg as "a former chicken farmer who eventually self-published half a dozen convoluted books on the JFK case". He also debunks Weisberg in footnotes nine times.

Aside from a few issues that can probably never be resolved, Posner has done an admirable job of showing motive, means, and opportunity for James Earl Ray to kill Dr. King. He has demonstrated again his ability to find new information and gain access to sources that others can not. This book will probably not do much to help Posner vacate the title of "The man conspiracy buffs love to hate". It will, if researchers keep an open mind, answer the question, "Who killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?"

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