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MLK's killer was born in Alton. He had a pen pal from Belleville.

James Earl Ray

James Earl Ray, the man who shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr., was born in Alton IL.
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James Earl Ray, the man who shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr., was born in Alton IL.

James Earl Ray was a small-time criminal from Alton prior to his conviction for the murder of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ray confessed to killing King only to recant his story a few days later. During the brief plea and sentencing in a Tennessee court, Ray planted the seeds of doubt about his guilt, saying he did not agree with the court's finding that the killing was not a conspiracy.

It has been 50 years since the assassination of King, who was shot in the neck on the balcony of a hotel in Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

From his birth in Alton in 1928, Ray's home life was unstable and he turned to a life of crime. Until the murder of King, most of the crimes were petty.

Ray was a talented escape artist, worming his way out of various prisons and earning the prison nickname of "The Mole."

He was widely hated for the murder of King and survived a knife attack in prison by four black inmates in 1981. But he did have friends and people who believed in his innocence, even a pen pal from Belleville.

If Ray was involved in a conspiracy, as he claimed, the world may never know the truth. Ray died in 1998.

The search

Little was known, at first, about the man behind the rifle shot that killed King.

FBI agents knew he was well dressed and possibly fastidious.

According to the AP, the woman who ran the rooming house, where the shot that killed King came from, described "being impressed by his dress and manner." Another lodger in the house said the killer had dark hair and "a neat haircut."

When he left the scene of the crime, the killer left behind a rifle with fingerprints that was partially wrapped in a green blanket, a pair of binoculars, a sales receipt for $41.05, underwear and a pair of pliers.

Utilizing those few details, the search for the killer began.

An FBI memo dated April 18, 1968, was mailed to the BND from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"(Eric Starvo) Galt is being sought as a fugitive by the FBI ," read the memo. "Galt" was later discovered to be one of the many aliases used by Ray.

Among the identifying features of Ray listed were "brown hair, which he wears in a 'brush' cut and blue eyes."

"The fugitive is said to have a nervous habit of occasionally pulling at an ear lobe with his hand," read the memo. "Persons who have met Galt describe him as a 'loner.'"

He liked vodka and beer as well as Western and country music.

A mug shot, included with the memo, was taken at a bartending school in Los Angeles, where Ray graduated on March 2, 1968.

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The original mug shot of James Earl Ray included with the memo from the FBI to the Belleville News-Democrat. BND archives

Ray blinked in the original photo. An FBI artist drew eyes on the closed lids.

The 1966 white Mustang believed to belong to Ray and used to escape after the murder was discovered abandoned in Atlanta on April 11, 1968.

The rifle authorities believed was used to kill King was traced back to a shop in Birmingham, Ala. It was purchased on March 30, a few days before the shooting.

"Galt should be considered armed and dangerous," the memo concluded.

Confession and recantation

Ray was caught by authorities on June 8, 1968, at Heathrow Airport in London after more than two months on the run.

According to an Associated Press story about the capture, a Scotland Yard chief said, "I now believe your name is not George Sneyd, but James Earl Ray, that you are known as Eric Starvo Galt and by other names and that you are wanted at present in the United States for serious criminal offenses, including murder in which a firearm was used."

The chief said, after being confronted, Ray "slumped back onto a seat, put his head in his hands and said, 'Oh God, I feel so trapped.'"

Ray was extradited to the United States after a court battle to remain in England. On the same day his trial was supposed to begin, March 9, 1969, Ray confessed to killing King.

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James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to murdering Martin Luther King Jr. Three days later, Ray recanted. BND Archives

The judge said there was no evidence from either the defense or prosecution of a conspiracy to kill King. But if any was ever discovered, the case could be reopened.

In a statement that caused confusion and cast doubt on the court proceedings, Ray wanted on the record that he did not agree with "the theory there was no conspiracy" to kill King.

Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for the crime. The trial from plea to sentencing lasted less than four hours.

Three days later, Ray recanted his story and requested a new trial. He never received one.

Ray proclaimed his innocence for the rest of his life.

Ray proclaims innocence to BND

In a 1993 phone call from the River Bend Penitentiary near Nashville, Tenn., Ray told BND reporters he was innocent.

On the night King was killed, Ray said, "I was at a filling station trying to get a tire fixed. I wasn't even there."

He confessed to the murder because he was afraid. Ray's lawyer told him if he didn't confess he could receive the death penalty.

In a BND story by Doug Moore and Marilyn Vise, published on April 4, 1993, Ray said his biggest mistake was not staying in Canada.

"I should have never come back," Ray said.

Moore and Vise reported the prisoner spoke in a "drawling voice" and said his life in prison consisted of "reading, weightlifting, jogging and visits from family."

He didn't want to talk about the past but focused on a mock trial that was being filmed at the time by HBO.

Ray said, "If I get an acquittal on a mock trial, I can get an acquittal in a real trial, and then I'm gonna head for Europe."

In the mock trial, he was found not guilty by the jury, but it held no legal weight.

In the same 1993 interview, Ray discussed a book he had written, "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" in which he details a conspiracy to kill the civil rights leader.

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Cover of "Who Killed Martin Luther King? by James Earl Ray. BND Archives

"Everything is in the book," Ray told the BND.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the founder and president of Rainbow/PUSH, wrote the forward to Ray's book.

Jackson wrote, "No thoughtful person, after reviewing the evidence, can believe that this one man, James Earl Ray — who had bungled virtually everything he had tried, including criminal activity — acting alone, killed Martin Luther King, escaped during the evening traffic rush in Memphis on April 4, 1968, traveled to Canada and England with international passports, avoided an international network in search of him, and was only caught sometime later."

Ray insisted he was "a small-time criminal, escape artist but not a killer."

James Earl Ray of Alton

According to the Alton Telegraph, Ray was born near the corner of Ninth and Belle streets in a poverty-stricken area of Alton. A brothel was nearby.

His father was in and out of prison and his mother struggled with alcoholism.

After he dropped out of eighth grade in 1944, Ray lived with his grandmother on Broadway. He got a job at the International Shoe Co. in Hartford.

But it didn't last, Ray lost his job and turned to crime to make money.

Over the years, Ray robbed a cab driver in Chicago, dry cleaner in East Alton, IGA supermarket in Alton, and stores in St. Louis. He spent short amounts of time in different prisons for the crimes.

In 1967, after he escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Mo., in the back of a bread truck, Ray's winding path eventually led to Tennessee and Martin Luther King Jr.

Pen pal from Belleville

In 1993, the BND interviewed Ronnie Fitzgerald, a pen pal of Ray. Fitzgerald lived in Belleville at that time.

The BND was unable to reach Fitzgerald for comment for this article.

Fitzgerald told the BND in 1993, he started communicating with Ray in March 1984. He sent a birthday card to Ray because he heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday was going to become a federal holiday and he thought someone should recognize Ray's birthday, too.

Ray responded to the birthday card and their correspondence continued.

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In 1993, Ronnie Fitzgerald displays letters and items he received from James Earl Ray. Mary Butkus BND Archives

After nine years of writing back and forth, Fitzgerald had a collection of letters and items from Ray.

The items were given to Fitzgerald by James Earl Ray's brother, Jerry Ray, who lived in Rutledge, Tenn., and also had a friendship with Fitzgerald.

Some of the personal items included: a state-issued green sweatshirt with Ray's prison number, 65477, printed on the back, two pairs of size 9 Florsheim shoes, and a portable television and stereo engraved with Ray's name.

"James get a lot of hate mail," Fitzgerald said in 1993. "I'm one of the very few people James keeps in contact with."

At the time, Fitzgerald believed Ray was innocent. He also believed there had been a conspiracy to kill King.

Multiple prison escapes

Throughout his time in prison, Ray tried to escape. He was on the run from the Missouri State Penitentiary when he shot King.

The BND reported, "Ray distinguished himself in prison by his frequent solitary escape attempts, which earned him the cell block nickname of 'The Mole.'"

Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Prison, Tenn., in 1977, by creating a makeshift pipe ladder and climbing over the outside wall.

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Deputy Warden Herman Davis of the Brushy Mountain State Prison displays the makeshift pipe ladder Ray used to escape in 1977. Associated Press

Guards had said it was "impossible to escape" from Brushy Mountain Prison. "The only two ways out are across a mountain infested with rattlesnakes, or down a road leading past the warden's house," reported the AP.

In the 1977 escape attempt, Ray was captured with the use of bloodhounds after less than 55 hours of freedom. The dogs found Ray "in a wooded area, lying on the ground covered with leaves in an attempt to conceal himself."

The semi-successful 1977 escape was his third try from the Tennessee prison.

According to an AP report, the first attempt, in 1971, failed when Ray took the wrong tunnel off of the prison courtyard and he was discovered by guards.

A second escape attempt, in 1972, ended when prison guards caught Ray crawling through a hole in the ceiling of a room to the prison auditorium roof.

Ray proclaims innocence to MLK's son

According to an AP report, before his death, Ray met with Dexter King, the son of Martin Luther King Jr., in a state prison hospital in Tennessee.

In March 1997, Ray told Dexter King, "I had nothing to do with shooting your father."

Dexter King replied, "I believe you."

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FBI poster with James Earl Ray's mugshot. His eyes were closed so an FBI artist painted them on. BND Archives

Later, after reporters left the room, Dexter King said he asked Ray, "Did you kill my father?"

He said Ray's response was, "No, no, I didn't. No."

Ray developed liver disease in 1997. He was denied permission to go to a hospital in Pittsburgh for medical tests or a possible liver transplant.

He died on April 23, 1998, at age 70.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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