America's Secret Jihad: The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States(2015)
the FINAL PLOT to ASSASSINATE MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., 1967–1968
It would be inaccurate to say that the omega plot began in the spring of 1967. Rather, evidence shows that the omega plot refined and expanded upon the alpha plot from 1964. It would be more accurate to say that in executing the omega plot, Identity terrorists revived a dormant plan, developed by the White Knights, to use a contract killer to murder King, a plan that didn’t succeed because the White Knights could not raise the bounty money in time. If the earlier concerns over money had given Dixie Mafia members pause when it came time to accept another contract offer on King’s life, in 1967–1968, the new dollar amount likely overrode any qualms: From $13,000 in 1964, the offer had ballooned to $100,000.1
But by 1967 the original constituents of the 1964 alpha plot both were in prison. The FBI had finally arrested Donald Sparks in early 1967, after a spree of home and bank robberies that had landed the Tulsa-based criminal on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Convicted not long after, Sparks was sent to federal prison in Alabama. Sparks’s fellow gang member Leroy McManaman was serving his sentence in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, a result of a 1963 conviction for the interstate transportation of stolen cars. McMamanan joined Sparks in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 while out on appeal bond. (He lost the appeal in April 1964.) While in Jackson, McManaman stayed with a local businesswoman, real estate agent Sybil Eure. The record shows that Eure had maintained contact with McManaman since he had lost his federal appeal, visiting him more than any of McManaman’s family members did and engaging in ongoing correspondence with the felon through the prison mail. It is possible that Eure provided McManaman with the update on the growing bounty offer. Or McManaman could have received the information through criminal contacts in Leavenworth. Increasingly, by 1967 not only did the Dixie Mafia have a network of gangs inside prisons, but gang members also helped plan crimes while still serving time.
Such was the case when McManaman approached fellow prisoner Donald Nissen with an offer to kill King in the spring of 1967. Nissen did not belong to any Dixie Mafia gang, but he had enjoyed a successful criminal career in home robberies and similar crimes. Convicted in 1963 for forgery, Nissen kept to himself in Leavenworth. He did not associate with McManaman, although the two worked together in Leavenworth’s shoe factory. But McManaman likely knew something about Nissen that made Nissen an attractive candidate for use in a King murder conspiracy. In a matter of weeks, Nissen would be released from Leavenworth with a prearranged job as a book salesman. As a traveling salesman, Nissen could travel across the country without raising alarms. Similarly, he could justify such travels to investigators if he became a suspect. To a criminal conspiracy that stretched across state lines, such mobility could be valuable. But however much he could travel without scrutiny, it was Nissen’s ultimate base of operations that likely enhanced his résumé as a potential conspirator. Nissen’s future residence would be in Atlanta, Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown.
With that likely in mind, McManaman offered Nissen two possible roles in the omega plot. Nissen could be a scout who tracked King’s movements and reported the information to go-betweens, who could relay it to other contract killers. Or, if Nissen wanted to obtain a larger share of the $100,000 bounty, the soon-to-be-released con could also directly participate in King’s murder. In addition, McManaman hoped that Nissen would approach his cell mate, John May, about taking a role in the plot. May was an expert machinist, and McManaman hoped Nissen could convince his friend to help design a rifle specifically suited to kill the civil rights leader.
Donald Nissen wanted no part of any murder plot against King—or against anyone else for that matter. In his previous crimes, he had used violence only once, reluctantly, to pacify an aggressive homeowner during a robbery. He had never even fired a gun. But McManaman’s offer placed Nissen in a compromising position. Nissen knew that by saying no to McManaman, he risked retaliation; McManaman might kill Nissen in fear that he would talk. On the other hand, saying yes would implicate Nissen in a criminal conspiracy. Nissen told his story to his cell mate, John May, more to talk through the dilemma than to recruit the machinist to design a special gun with which to kill King. Nissen ultimately decided to say nothing either way. He thought, incorrectly, that by waiting out McManaman, he could avoid violence and extricate himself from the plot. On the first account, Nissen was correct: He left Leavenworth prison in May 1967 without any attack from McManaman. But as it will become clear, McManaman took Nissen’s silence as tacit consent to a conspiracy. Nissen would come to understand that—but only later, after events had trapped him inside a conspiracy he wanted nothing to do with.2
Nissen did not know that other bounty offers, similar to the one offered by the White Knights and fronted by McManaman, were circulating throughout America’s prison system. Records suggest, for instance, that also in 1967, a group of unidentified, wealthy Georgia businessmen bribed guards in a federal prison in Atlanta to approach prisoners with a bounty offer on King. The son of one of the prison guards (his sister confirmed the story to the author) reported the offer to the FBI in the mid-1970s, after his father had died under suspicious circumstances; the father apparently had taken affidavits from prisoners and used them to blackmail the businessmen.3 Following the father’s death, the mother hid or destroyed those records. But it is in another prison where offers of a bounty on King likely contributed to the leader’s ultimate death.
At Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) in Jefferson City, several prisoners reported either hearing about or being approached with a proposal to murder King for money. Some details are vague and difficult to make sense of, so it is hard to tell if the prisoners were describing the same bounty or more than one offer. That said, the general outlines suggest that some group, located in the South, offered a considerable amount of money to any MSP inmate who could help assassinate King. Some doubt the veracity of these claims, arguing that the prisoners fabricated reports of MSP bounty offers based on the promise of a large reward from law enforcement or reduced prison sentences for their help in apprehending King’s assassin. Some of the reports lack credibility. But several of the prisoners who spoke of a bounty had already been released from Leavenworth; some openly rejected a monetary reward. More importantly, in one instance, corroboration for a bounty came from an unpaid law enforcement source who had served time in the Jefferson City prison and had gone on to work for the police for three years.
The specific plot, confirmed by two prisoners, traced back to two St. Louis businessmen with close ties to the National States Rights Party. The dollar amount was high: one prisoner said he was offered $50,000 to participate in a murder conspiracy against King.4
This bounty offer, or something like it, likely captured the attention of the most significant figure in any discussion of the King assassination: James Earl Ray, the man who, according to official accounts, assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968. A St. Louis native with a history of arrests for armed robbery and similar offenses, Ray was motivated by the pursuit of money far more than anything else, according to his brothers and others. Several prisoners, some of whom were close to Ray, say that Ray spoke glowingly about the prospect of a King bounty. Some prisoners attributed this enthusiasm as latent racial animus on Ray’s part, but while the evidence suggests that Ray shared the kind of prejudice common to those raised in Jim Crow Missouri, he had never participated in any racial violence. On the other hand, a bounty prize of $50,000 or $100,000 represented far more cash than Ray had ever stolen in any robbery.
Still, in 1967 Ray faced another twelve years of prison time at MSP, the result of a conviction for robbing a Kroger convenience store in 1959; participating in any conspiracy against Martin Luther King Jr. would be impossible—unless he escaped. To that end, Ray finagled his way into work detail at the prison bakery that “made the bread for the institution and its outlying farms and honor dorms. Every day, a truck laden with bread would head out of the prison away from the city toward the remote farms.” Ray, who had failed at escaping twice before, succeeded on April 23, 1967, when, with “the assistance of another prisoner,” he climbed “into a large 4-by-4 bread box, covering himself with a false bottom and having the accomplice cover the crate with loaves of bread. The box was pushed onto the truck with the other boxes and after a cursory search by guards.”5
Ray’s decisions and actions in the first several months following his escape suggest that any bounty offer was of secondary importance to him. Ray assumed false identities and aliases, worked odd jobs, and raised money through criminal activity, first in St. Louis and then Chicago, with one goal in mind: reaching Canada. There he could obtain a fake passport and travel documents to escape North America. As will become clear, Ray’s failure to execute this plan likely made a King bounty more attractive to the fugitive. It would be several months before he became part of the omega plot.
From the time of his conviction in 1969 to the day he died of liver disease in 1997, James Earl Ray insisted that he never knew of any bounty on King’s life. He claimed that he had never agreed to join any murder plot. He asserted that others, notably a mysterious criminal mastermind whom he knew only as Raul, had manipulated him into incriminating behavior, such as buying a sniper rifle. As the remaining narrative will make clear, the Raul story allowed Ray to deflect blame away from himself and the actual conspirators onto others, such as the U.S. government. It was a ploy to get him out of prison and possibly to help him collect a share of the bounty money he had failed to obtain prior to his 1969 conviction.
The omega plot likely did involve a patsy—just not Ray. This individual came to the attention of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi at the same time that Leroy McManaman proposed the bounty to Donald Nissen, which was the same time that Ray escaped MSP in a breadbox. Thomas Albert Tarrants, then a twenty-year-old Christian Identity radical from Mobile, Alabama, had migrated to Laurel, Mississippi, in April 1967. He wanted to offer his services to the most actively violent white supremacist in the nation: Samuel Holloway Bowers. Despite his young age, Tarrants could point to a host of influential Christian Identity radicals to vouch for him, including Admiral John Crommelin, Noah Carden, and Sidney Barnes (all partners in the 1963 Birmingham assassination attempt on King). These men had mentored Tarrants and nourished his rage since the young man had quit high school in 1963 out of disgust with racial integration. Tarrants convinced the always-skeptical Bowers that they were like-minded in their opposition to racial equality, to communism, and most importantly to Jews.
It is unclear whether Bowers identified Tarrants as a future scapegoat in a King murder plot during their first months of contact in 1967. For a while at least, Tarrants served another important purpose for Bowers, as leader of a team of outsiders who could perpetrate violence while eluding law enforcement. By 1967, with an ever-dwindling pool of native Mississippians to use in terrorist operations, someone like this became more and more necessary.
Bowers already feared the kind of infiltration and surveillance employed by the FBI in its COINTELPRO operations. But in Mississippi the level of harassment from the Jackson FBI field office went far beyond the disruptive dirty tricks associated with COINTELPRO; it reached a level of intensity that stretched the bounds of legal propriety. The record now shows that during its investigation of the murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in 1966, the FBI used out-of-state mobsters to bully and threaten KKK members, pressuring them to reveal details of their crimes.6 Jackson’s FBI agents looked the other way as the local police fired warning shots into the homes of KKK members and physically accosted them in front of their families.7
The White Knights countered the FBI with a level of bravado not seen in other Klan–FBI rivalries throughout the nation. The White Knights even placed FBI agents on hit lists. In 1967 a caravan of KKK members forced a team of FBI agents, who had been following other KKK members as part of a surveillance operation, off the road. The Klan members held the FBI agents at gunpoint while the target of their surveillance mission, Joe Daniel (Danny Joe) Hawkins, exited his vehicle and confronted the agents. A young precocious racist whose entire family, including his father and mother, dedicated their lives to the White Knights, Hawkins proceeded to smack one of the FBI agents. He and the others knew that they could escape criminal liability because the White Knights had infiltrated and compromised Mississippi juries and local and state law enforcement agencies. That level of hubris infuriated the FBI even more.8
But in 1967 the scales of official justice finally began to turn against the White Knights. Increasingly, the Justice Department began to use early civil rights laws, some dating back to the Reconstruction era, to charge KKK members with crimes in federal, rather than local, courts. Such cases were far less apt to be corrupted by tainted juries or racist law enforcement officers. In February 1967 the Justice Department leveled federal charges against several of the conspirators in the Neshoba murders, including Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, Wayne Roberts, and Sam Bowers himself. With the Imperial Wizard and his longtime followers under constant harassment and scrutiny, Bowers decided on his most brilliant move yet: assembling a team of dedicated terrorists, unknown to the FBI, to perpetrate one of the worst waves of arson and bombing ever seen in Mississippi. As part of Bowers’s plan, Tarrants, the outsider from Alabama, became, in his own words, “the chief terrorist for the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi.”
Bowers took this devious plan to another level when he teamed Tarrants with a female, Kathy Ainsworth. Historically, women served an auxiliary role for the Klan. At rare times, some women assumed positions of leadership. But women were never used to perpetrate acts of violence—that is, before Kathy Ainsworth.
A pretty young married elementary schoolteacher, Ainsworth defied all profiles of a KKK operative. But she was a true believer, raised on hate in Florida by her single mother, Margaret Capomacchia, a woman whose bigotry made George Wallace look like a Freedom Rider. Capomacchia took her daughter on trips to Mobile to visit Sidney Barnes, where Kathy became indoctrinated into the teachings of Wesley Swift. She roomed with Barnes’s daughter at college in Mississippi, and Barnes gave Kathy away at her wedding to Peter Ainsworth. Privately, Barnes did not approve of the marriage, as Peter Ainsworth did not belong to any radical white supremacist groups. Barnes had wanted Kathy to marry Tommy Tarrants; the two young Identity believers had met at Barnes’s home in Alabama sometime before Tarrants had moved to Mississippi, before Kathy Ainsworth had met her future husband.
Unbeknownst to her husband, Kathy Ainsworth began training in firearms and explosives in 1967. Along with Hawkins and another young KKK member, Benny Waldrup, Tarrants and Ainsworth became part of what another KKK leader Laude E. (L.E.) Matthews called the Swift Underground.
As summer approached, the always-paranoid Sam Bowers insisted that he and Tarrants meet in the woods of Laurel to elude surveillance. Even then, the Imperial Wizard demanded that they communicate by exchanging notes on paper, for fear that the FBI might be listening. They burned the correspondence after each meeting. Tarrants later said that the get-togethers often involved exchanging ideas about Swift’s latest sermons and planning future violent operations in Mississippi. Today, having long abandoned Christian Identity theology and racial violence, Tarrants asserts that he never heard of any plot to kill King. Bowers may have been compartmentalizing his operations to limit exposure to infiltration and disruption. His choosing to outsource the omega plot to contract killers suggests exactly that. In betting on the Dixie Mafia’s cooperation and silence, Bowers was placing his faith in a group whose members rarely cooperated with law enforcement as informants and who routinely murdered their own on account of disloyalty.
But Donald Nissen was not part of the Dixie Mafia. While Tarrants and Bowers discussed Christian Identity theology in the forests of Laurel, Nissen, just released from Leavenworth Penitentiary, encountered a roadblock on his trip to Atlanta. Having gone to Texas to pick up a company car to travel to Georgia, Nissen was arrested by officers in Sherman, Texas, on charges of check fraud that predated his stay at Leavenworth. Privately, Nissen knew he was guilty of the crime, but he also knew that the case was too weak to be successfully prosecuted. Apparently, so did the local sheriff, who detained Nissen in jail while refusing to arraign him in court. In essence, Nissen found himself detained without charge, with nothing to suggest that the situation would change. He knew that if he could get word to federal authorities, the situation would likely be resolved. But he also saw this as an opportunity to fully divorce himself from any murder conspiracy hatched by Leroy McManaman. Nissen managed to sneak a note out to the Bureau of Prisons, making sure to say that he had information about a murder conspiracy.9
On June 2, 1967, two FBI agents from the Dallas field office visited Nissen in the Sherman, Texas, jail. According to their report, the agents told Nissen that they would not promise to help him with his current dilemma. Nissen chose to provide them with information on the King plot anyway. He relayed McManaman’s offer to the FBI: the $100,000 bounty fronted by the White Knights to kill King; the two available roles in the conspiracy (as a scout or as a direct participant in the murder). He told them about John May, his cell mate, whom McManaman hoped would design a gun to kill King. He even gave them details on the go-betweens, the people Nissen would use to maintain indirect connection to McManaman. One of these cutouts was a federal law enforcement officer out of Mississippi, but Nissen could not remember either his first or last name. Nissen did know the first name, but only the first name, of the second go-between: someone named Floyd. Nissen knew the full name and location of the third go-between: Sybil Eure of Jackson, Mississippi. The Dallas FBI passed that information on to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.10 Either the FBI or officials in the Bureau of Prisons soon told a judge about Nissen’s legal predicament, and as Nissen had predicted, the Sherman, Texas, prosecutors could not develop a case against him. Within days, Nissen was released from the Sherman jail and had found his way to Atlanta. He thought, wrongly, that he had exculpated himself from the omega plot by revealing the details to the FBI.
Indeed, in early June 1967, not long after Nissen arrived in Atlanta, someone named Floyd approached him to ask a favor. Floyd Ayers, a fellow salesman, asked Nissen to drop off a package at a real estate office in Jackson, Mississippi. Such requests were routine among salesmen, and Nissen agreed, thinking nothing of it. When he next visited Mississippi, sometime in late June or early July by his reckoning, Nissen visited the address provided by Ayers. Nissen was surprised to see that the real estate office was not an office but someone’s home; he was also surprised that the manager of the office was a relatively tall, modestly attractive middle-aged woman. He gave her the package, and they barely exchanged words.
Nissen did not know that the woman was Sybil Eure, the same woman whom McManaman had named in Leavenworth as the third go-between in the King operation, the same woman who had provided shelter to McManaman during the alpha plot in 1964. Nissen knew nothing about any alpha plot to begin with. (Larry Hancock and I established the particulars of the 1964 Sparks/McManaman assassination attempt only after 2006.) Nissen did not realize that Floyd Ayers was likely the Floyd whom McManaman had named as the second go-between in the omega plot. In several interviews with the author since 2009, Nissen asserted that he always assumed the go-between Floyd was a Mississippian, as was the case with other two cutouts (Eure and the unknown federal law enforcement officer). Moreover, Nissen, understandably, did not realize, after their interaction in prison, that McManaman viewed his nonanswer as some sort of affirmation that Nissen wanted to help murder Martin Luther King Jr.
Some of these revelations came into focus only recently, but others became clear within weeks of Nissen’s trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1967. Nissen cannot recall if it was weeks or months later, but Floyd Ayers eventually revealed to Nissen the contents of the package that the ex-con had delivered to the real estate office in Mississippi: money for a bounty offer on Martin Luther King Jr. As it turns out, Floyd Ayers had worked closely with James Venable, the Grand Wizard of the NKKKK, who had fronted $25,000 for a bounty on King in 1965.
An eccentric individual, Ayers was a perfect conduit to move money from white supremacists in the Southeast to Bowers’s group in Mississippi. Accounts of Ayers’s behavior, from magazine articles to interviews with his brother, point to a Walter Mitty–type personality: someone who wanted to be a mover and shaker in the world of crime or espionage. Atlanta-based civil rights activist Julian Bond described an illustrative incident with Ayers to Jet magazine. Ayers recognized Bond waiting on a long line to enter a popular restaurant, and Ayers told the future leader of the NAACP that he could arrange for Bond to move to the top of the queue. Ayers attributed this ability to his background in the CIA and the Secret Service—both fabrications that Bond found laughable. But for all his zaniness, Ayers did manage to get Bond into the restaurant ahead of everyone else, just as he had promised.11
The incident underscores what Ayers’s brother told the author: Despite his connection to Venable, Floyd Ayers was not a violent racist;12 no hard-core member of the KKK would have given Julian Bond the time of day, much less helped him to an early dinner. But Ayers worked with Venable and did what Venable wanted because Ayers saw that connection as a way to burnish his fabulist résumé. It is not hard to imagine him agreeing to take part in a cloak-and-dagger operation against Martin Luther King Jr. At the same time, Ayers’s reputation for telling tall tales and exaggerating his background could help Venable in another way. No one would take Ayers seriously if he reported on the omega plot either before King’s murder or afterward. This is not idle speculation; witnesses reported that Ayers talked about the King assassination in the weeks before April 4, and he appears to have tried to clear his conscience about the crime afterward. In both cases, authorities dismissed him as a crank.
As it stands, recent disclosures by historical researcher Lamar Waldron corroborate the idea that the Southeast hub of the Identity network was the source for the omega plot bounty money. A source told Waldron that a group of racist Georgians had for years been secretly diverting union dues from factory workers at the Lakeland auto plant in Atlanta and directing them toward a King assassination bounty. This group included Hugh Spake, who worked at the plant. By 1967 the diverted dues had grown into a sizable nest egg, coming from hundreds of workers earning what was then a solid middle-class salary. Some union members were aware that their dues were being used to fund fights against integration, but very few knew about the more sinister reason for collecting the money.
A key figure in the latter effort was Joseph Milteer, an independently wealthy traveling salesman with close ties to the NSRP, to Venable’s top aides, and to Swift.13 (Milteer had obtained dozens of Swift’s taped sermons.) Milteer is well-known in the study of another assassination, the John F. Kennedy murder, for having predicted elements of the president’s assassination weeks in advance of November 22, 1963. As he had with Sidney Barnes in 1964 while gathering information on the Birmingham church bombing, Miami police and FBI informant Willie Somersett surreptitiously recorded Milteer saying that John F. Kennedy would be killed “from an office building with a high-powered rifle.” Less known is the fact that Milteer also spoke about an ongoing effort to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. That plot had involved a leader of the Tennessee-based Dixie Klans named Jack Brown. Brown enjoyed a close relationship with J.B. Stoner, and reports from a source inside Eastview Klavern 13 suggest that Brown helped train the Cahaba Boys to develop the explosive device for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.14 If that’s true, Brown was yet another Identity follower (he was on Swift’s mailing list) connected to the Birmingham murders. Those same Identity followers, as noted earlier, had tried to murder Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to eulogize the four young victims of the September 15, 1963, blast.
The insider information provided to Somersett by Milteer suggests that Milteer was part of the Identity network trying to murder Dr. King as far back as 1963. That the well-connected Georgian would work to secretly hoard cash for a King bounty and provide it to someone like Venable is thus not surprising. Nor is it surprising that Venable would, in turn, move that money through intermediaries like Ayers to Sam Bowers. Bowers’s White Knights more than earned their reputation as the most violent KKK organization in the nation. Unfortunately, Waldron’s source would cooperate only if his identity was protected. The source remains anonymous, and it is thus impossible to fully evaluate his credibility.
However Venable raised the money, the fact that a significant amount of cash transferred from Atlanta to Jackson becomes important in legitimizing the omega plot. It suggests that the operation was well past the planning stage and that the objective, King’s murder, was a top priority. In 1967 most white supremacist organizations were strapped for cash, devoid of dues-paying members and on the hook for legal fees, none more so than the White Knights in Mississippi. Yet nothing in the available record shows that Bowers ever attempted to use cash from the $100,000 pot for legal fees, assuming that he could even access the money or that he would even dare if the money was promised to a group as ruthless as the Dixie Mafia.
The narrative suggests that Sybil Eure, given her role as a conduit for the bounty money, somehow found herself in a critical position inside the omega plot, at the junction between the Dixie Mafia and the White Knights. If the money remained in her hands, Eure would be the person to pay Dixie Mafia hit men once King had been killed. Her relationship with McManaman establishes her connection to the criminal element. Her family ties may provide the connection to the White Knights. One of Eure’s associates was Robert C. Thomas, a clerk for the federal district courts in Mississippi. Before assuming that position, Thomas worked as a lead investigator for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a group formed by the Mississippi State Legislature to help public officials oppose integration. The commission spied upon and developed informants inside civil rights groups and collected dossiers on activists. If his work with the commission suggests that Thomas was a southern nationalist, his malfeasance as a federal court clerk reinforces that impression. The records show that Thomas secretly helped Sam Bowers rig juries to win court cases, a criminal offense in its own right.
Thomas also fits the description that Donald Nissen gave for the first cutout mentioned by Leroy McManaman. Nissen told the FBI that the first go-between, per McManaman, was a federal law enforcement official from Mississippi, but he could not remember his name. In interviews with the author after 2009, Nissen recalled another important detail: The official worked for the marshal’s office. In fact, McManaman had said that this man was the last person to assume the role of deputy marshal in Mississippi.
On the surface, this information would suggest that the individual was Charlie Sutherland, who by coincidence was also a cousin of Sybil Eure. But this seems very unlikely, based on interviews with Sutherland and with several people who knew him. Photographs show that in 1964, Robert C. Thomas was temporarily deputized as a federal marshal to help stop civil rights protests at the Jackson courthouse steps. Everything, including the fact that Thomas helped rig juries to benefit Dixie Mafia members in Mississippi, points to Thomas as the federal law enforcement officer who participated in the omega plot. As a federal court clerk, Thomas would have been in a convenient position to help McManaman in 1964, when he was violating his federal appeal bond as part of the alpha plot with Donald Sparks. But one is forced to speculate, in large part because the FBI failed to adequately follow up on leads provided by Nissen.
The FBI did interview Nissen’s friend and Leavenworth cell mate, John May, who confirmed that Nissen had once discussed the $100,000 bounty from McManaman. But if agents placed any stock in May’s report, their confidence in Nissen’s story evaporated in a fog of male chauvinism once they found and interviewed Sybil Eure.
Agents from the Jackson FBI field office visited Eure in August 1967—not long after Donald Nissen left the package of bounty money as a favor to Floyd Ayers. By all accounts, the real estate woman maintained her composure. She denied ever hearing about any bounty offer on Martin Luther King Jr. She admitted knowing Leroy McManaman; in the spring of 1964, friends had introduced the two, and McManaman had stayed at Eure’s home for several weeks. The married woman insisted that her relationship with McManaman was strictly professional and that McManaman, whose only previous experience with property management consisted of running an illegal gambling operation out of a motel in Colorado, was some sort of authority on real estate.
The Jackson FBI agents did not ask any follow-up questions. They did not inquire as to why Eure shared mutual acquaintances with a lifelong criminal or why her friends would suggest that she allow a dangerous felon to stay with her. They did not challenge her characterization of McManaman as a real estate expert. They did not ask Eure about the contents and context of her ongoing correspondence and visits with McManaman. Instead, convinced that the White Knights would never use a woman in any operational capacity, especially a respectable businesswoman like Eure, the FBI closed the book on the Nissen investigation. Agents did not even interview Leroy McManaman until several months after King’s assassination.15
Of course, the record now shows that at the very moment the FBI dismissed Eure as a suspect because of her gender and social status, Sam Bowers intended to use a woman to help bomb Jewish and black targets in Mississippi. The FBI can be forgiven for its oversight, as it would not discover Kathy Ainsworth’s role in Bowers’s hit squad until late June 1968, when police officers shot her dead in a sting operation that also nearly killed Tommy Tarrants. Bowers chose Ainsworth and Tarrants for his terrorist operations precisely because neither party was known to or scrutinized by the local FBI. The wave of violence would begin in earnest one month after the FBI interviewed Eure.
One might expect that the FBI’s visit to Eure would deter the Dixie Mafia from pursuing the King contract. But members of the Dixie Mafia were no ordinary criminals. They took enormous risks for money. Donald Sparks, for instance, once robbed the home of the mayor of Payne, Alabama, and then escaped in a police car when he was arrested at the scene. (It turned out that the local sheriff and an officer were in on the robbery scheme.)16 Some suspect that Sparks participated in the murder attempt on Sheriff Buford Pusser, whose one-man war against the Dixie Mafia was immortalized in the movie Walking Tall. A long-range shot missed Pusser but killed his wife. The very fact that a Dixie Mafia gang even tried to kill a law enforcement officer placed them outside of the informal code of ethics honored by other violent groups, such as the Sicilian Mafia. Many believe that a Dixie Mafia gang assassinated Attorney General Albert Patterson in Phenix City, Alabama, in 1954, after the prosecutor tried to bring law and order to a town beset by vice and violence. Decades later, in 1987, Dixie Mafia members with connections to Oklahoma and Mississippi assassinated a federal judge, Vincent Sherry, and his wife, Margaret. Pusser, Patterson, and Sherry had all put themselves between the Dixie Mafia and its money, and the Dixie Mafia criminals remained undaunted.
August 1967 could have represented a turning point for the omega plot had the FBI done more to prod Sybil Eure. In one key respect, the path of the operation did change, in a way that ultimately contributed to Martin Luther King’s murder. In Canada James Earl Ray failed in his mission to obtain false travel documentation that would allow him to flee North America. In reality, Ray simply misunderstood the process involved in acquiring a fake passport. Living under the alias Eric Galt, Ray mistakenly assumed that a Canadian citizen would have to vouch for his credentials before he could acquire the papers to leave. To that end, he began dating an attractive Canadian woman, in hopes of convincing her to help him. The woman grew very fond of Ray, but Ray soon learned that she worked for the Canadian government. Fearing that she might soon discover who he was and turn him into Canadian authorities for extradition to the United States, Ray abruptly abandoned the relationship. For reasons that are still unclear, Ray decided to risk recapture and return to the United States. More perplexingly, he decided to visit a city completely unfamiliar to him: Birmingham, Alabama.17
In 1969, after he agreed to plead guilty to avoid a death sentence for the King murder, Ray retracted his confession and insisted that he had met the Machiavellian figure Raul in Montreal and that Raul had convinced him to participate in a drug-smuggling scheme based in Birmingham. In Ray’s telling, Raul spent the fall of 1967 through the spring of 1968 involving Ray in various drug-running and arms-trafficking schemes, stringing Ray along with the promise that he would soon provide Ray with the false documentation that he needed to flee North America. In reality, according to Ray and to those who favor Ray’s total innocence, Raul simply manipulated Ray like a puppet, in ways that implicated the fugitive in the King murder several months later.
But there are many problems with the Raul story. For one thing, Ray’s physical description of Raul changed with almost every retelling. In various narratives, Raul appears as a “blonde Latin,” as a “red-haired French Canadian,” as an “auburn-haired Latin,” and as a “sandy-haired Latin.”18 In the early 1970s, Ray said that Raul bore a “striking resemblance” to one of the suspicious-looking hobos seen in pictures of Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who reopened an investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination from 1966 to 1969, showed images of these tramps on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, highlighting the vagrants’ uncharacteristically fashionable attire and insisting that the hobos were really presidential assassins in disguise. In making the comparison, Ray was thus connecting the King assassination to the JFK assassination at a time when Americans became increasingly convinced that the latter was a conspiracy.19
Yet two decades later, Ray positively identified Raul as a Portuguese immigrant to America, selecting his picture from a poorly constructed photo array.20 The problem is that the hobo in Dealey Plaza looks nothing like the Portuguese native in the photo array; in both cases, Ray simply told sympathetic investigators what they wanted to hear and then watched as these individuals worked tirelessly to clear him of involvement in MLK’s murder. Inventing fake individuals to deflect blame away from himself was nothing new to Ray. When under arrest for an earlier crime, Ray had invented a figure named Walter McBride, whom he had blamed for masterminding the crime in question.
For the most part, one must rely on Ray himself to piece together his movements and associations after his escape from MSP, and Ray’s tendency to dissemble and prevaricate for his own self-interest clouds any hope of fully understanding what—and who—motivated his decisions. Some researchers, such as Dartmouth professor Philip Melanson, argue that Ray fabricated the Raul character as a composite of individuals who really did assist or guide him into a conspiracy. One of the main investigators on Ray’s early defense team, Harold Weisberg, became convinced that the convicted assassin had offered false leads (or withheld legitimate leads) to protect actual conspirators. Weisberg postulated that Ray did this for fear of retaliation in prison and that he did not play a major role in the King murder. Whatever his motives, and whatever conspirators may have influenced those motives, one is forced to speculate on Ray’s choices.21
Ray’s choice to return to the United States from Montreal, risking recapture, lends itself to much speculation, especially when one considers that the risk is amplified if a criminal goes to a city with which he is unfamiliar and where he lacks any support network, as Ray did when he visited Birmingham. The money-obsessed Ray may have frequented bars in Montreal, just as he said he did, hoping to find more information about the King bounty referenced at MSP. Canada was not short on white supremacists who could have pointed Ray in the right direction. Some evidence suggests that that’s what happened.
One woman in Quebec told investigators that her boyfriend, whom she knew as Rollie and whose real name was Jules Ricco Kimble, had associated with Ray in Canada. She said that Kimble carried guns and monitored police radio broadcasts in Montreal. Records show that Kimble frequently went back and forth from his native United States to Canada, including during the relevant time period in the summer of 1967. Moreover, Kimble enjoyed close working relationships with the Ku Klux Klan in his home state of Louisiana and had engaged in various acts of Klan-inspired violence. Kimble himself claimed to be involved in the King murder, but his stories of intrigue worthy of a Robert Ludlum novel are difficult to believe or corroborate.22
Records of the congressional reinvestigation of the King murder in the late 1970s show that the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) developed two other possible contacts for Ray in Canada. House investigators asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to provide information on two Americans, both connected to the NSRP, who had moved to Canada sometime after 1963. Unfortunately, records that explain why the committee became suspicious of these two men, and more importantly what it learned about the two individuals, are still sealed. What is known is that both of these men once worked closely with Stoner and Fields in Birmingham.23
Perhaps this is why Ray, when he moved to Birmingham in September 1967, chose to stay (under the alias Galt) at a rooming house not far from NSRP headquarters on Bessemer Road. None of the other boarders saw Ray interact with anyone at the rooming house (or with anyone resembling Raul, for that matter). And we know only some of what Ray did when he was outside of the rooming house.
He purchased a white Ford Mustang, the vehicle that would become famous as the getaway car after the King murder. We also know that he took dance classes and purchased photographic equipment, the latter almost definitely with the intent of producing amateur pornography. He rented a safety deposit box at the Birmingham branch of Trust National Bank, the first and only time he is known to have done so.
The safety deposit box may be more significant than previously thought. Researcher Charles Faulkner discovered that in 1966, government investigators identified the Trust banks as the primary banks for the United Klans of America.24 Information obtained from the investigation of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church indicates that several notable NSRP members, including J.B. Stoner, used the Birmingham branch. When, decades later, researcher Gerald Posner asked Edward Fields if he had any direct contact with Ray—if Ray had ever visited NSRP headquarters on Bessemer Road—Fields said no. But the longtime Identity radical qualified his answer, saying that while he personally never interacted with Ray, he could not discount the possibility that other NSRP members had engaged with the fugitive that September.25
It seems clear that if Ray pursued a King bounty in Birmingham, he failed to immediately introduce himself into such a conspiracy. Within weeks he would be in Mexico, where he stayed for almost two months, possibly engaging in low-level drug dealing but most definitely pursuing a career as a pornographic film producer, even enticing two Mexican women into salacious photo sessions. Ray’s Mexican jaunt and his initial efforts to produce pornographic films ended in the middle of October 1967, with little to show for them. There is no sign of any direct connection of Ray to a King plot during his time in Mexico. Restless, Ray moved to Los Angeles in November. There, in the spiritual capital of the Christian Identity world, Ray appears to have continued exploring a possible bounty on Martin Luther King Jr. As will become clear, the evidence suggests that in December, Ray finally began to make progress in entering the omega plot.
While Ray moved from Birmingham to Mexico to Los Angeles, Sam Bowers’s activities in Mississippi suggest that the omega plot may have been on hold. One could expect this if word of the FBI’s visit to Sybil Eure had reached the paranoid Imperial Wizard. Always cautious, Bowers may have waited to see if Eure was under surveillance or if the FBI continued to investigate the bounty. Of course, Bowers also listened to the sermons of Wesley Swift and discussed them with his newest acolyte, Tommy Tarrants. Back in February of 1967, Swift had spoken about the reaping of tares, the weeds that resemble wheat but that rob genuine wheat of its nourishment. During the end-times, God has these tares harvested for destruction. But in Swift’s rendition, the metaphorical weeds are satanic Jews. If Bowers paused the omega plot, he still initiated his plan to target Jewish Mississippians and their subhuman minions (blacks) at a never-before-seen rate.
Tommy Tarrants and his colleagues in the Swift Underground began their reign of terror on September 18, 1967. The target: the Temple Beth Israel in Jackson. Two dynamite bombs caused $25,000 worth of damage to the Mississippi capital’s only synagogue. Within a few weeks, the same crew bombed the home of Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, who had for years associated himself with the cause of civil rights, creating much controversy even within Mississippi’s small Jewish community. The next target on the list was William T. Bush, dean of the all-black Tougaloo College. The attacks continued: the rectory of black minister Allen Johnson in Laurel, Mississippi, on November 15; the home of civil rights activist Robert Kochitzky on November 19.
The bombings shocked southern Mississippi and deflated some of the hope that law enforcement entertained in light of recent federal prosecutions of key violent racists. In October 1967, seven men, including Grand Wizard Sam Bowers, were convicted of civil rights violations in the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney (the MIBURN killings) and were sentenced to three to ten years in prison. In November trials began for thirteen men, again including Bowers, accused of killing activist Vernon Dahmer. The White Knights began to make arrangements for a transfer of power from Bowers to L.E. Matthews, a bomb maker from Forrest County, Mississippi. Yet the plan Bowers hatched for using outsiders like Tarrants and Ainsworth worked to perfection, baffling Mississippi police and special agents of the FBI’s Jackson field office even as law enforcement maintained constant surveillance of Bowers and his remaining loyalists.
For Tarrants, soon to be known by the FBI as simply The Man, times were good. He reached out directly to Swift, impressing the racist theologian so much that Swift invited Tarrants to California to serve as his understudy.
In December 1967, life was also going fine for Donald Nissen. He was making a good living selling books. He had remarried, and his new wife was pregnant. He dutifully maintained his parole requirements and avoided criminal activity. The concern he had over the McManaman offer and the package delivery for Floyd Ayers was a distant memory—or so it seemed. Everything changed when Nissen visited his probation officer. Nissen cannot recall if it was the first or second of December, but when he left his parole officer at the Atlanta Federal Building, a man accosted him outside. “Are you Donald Nissen?” he asked. When Nissen answered in the affirmative, the man made a vague reference to Leroy McManaman and then issued a veiled threat to Nissen about “talking too much.” At that moment, the man who had driven Nissen to the building called for him, and the mysterious figure quickly left.
Nissen was convinced that the incident involved his decision to tell the FBI about the White Knight bounty offer on King. As he has related in a series of interviews since 2009, his fears intensified when the windows of his car were shot out in the days that followed. Equally scary was something he remembered from McManaman’s initial offer: A federal marshal was one of the cutouts in the plot. To Nissen, this opened the possibility that his own probation officer, or someone connected to him, might be involved in the King plot. Paranoid, Nissen resolved that he could not go to federal law enforcement again. Even with a new marriage, a pregnant wife, and a well-paying job, Nissen jumped parole—a crime that would send him back to federal prison if he were to be caught.26 Luckily for Nissen, officials did not discover his absence until April 2, 1968, two days before King’s assassination.
The threat to Nissen suggests that conspirators had resumed the omega plot by December of 1967. Perhaps not coincidentally, that December marks the first instance when James Earl Ray’s behavior became indicative of someone making serious inroads into a King murder conspiracy.
Ray used money, most likely from minor drug dealing in Mexico, to settle in a residential Los Angeles neighborhood. He stayed there for several weeks and would later claim that he wanted to find a job with the merchant marine, more or less giving up on Raul as a source for immigration papers. He continued to pursue dance lessons, in efforts to meet potential performers for his films, and he began to see a hypnotist, purportedly to overcome his problem with shyness.
He also continued to frequent bars, where he met Marie Martin, who eventually introduced him to her two cousins, Charles Stein and his sister, Rita. The family originated in New Orleans and had relatives in the area, notably Rita Stein’s children. Charles Stein asked Ray to drive him to New Orleans to pick up Rita’s children. Ray agreed, although Stein was convinced that Ray had a separate agenda. If so, Ray’s next act offers a hint at what he might have been up to.
In a very strange series of events, Ray insisted that as a condition of the trip, Marie Martin and her cousins register for onetime Alabama governor and arch-segregationist George Wallace’s American Independent Party (AIP). He took them to campaign headquarters, where they completed the forms. Ray was never known to be motivated by politics; money was his inspiration.
Ray’s own explanation for the visit contradicts the account of Martin and the Stein siblings. Unlike Ray, who for a number of reasons wanted to avoid associating himself with racists like those in the AIP after his arrest for King’s murder, Marie Martin, Rita Stein, and Charles Stein had no reason to lie. Ray may have seen the AIP as the safest avenue to ingratiate him with would-be plotters without attracting the attention of law enforcement.
But Ray himself did not register for the AIP, suggesting that he either did not think it was safe enough or that he had another purpose in visiting that building; one possibility is that Ray was looking for a particular individual who worked for the Wallace campaign. While the AIP avoided the violence associated with more radical groups, it was still known to attract radical supporters. One such individual was James P. Thornton, a California native nurtured in his racism by Stoner and Fields in Alabama in the early 1960s; Thornton also belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ–Christian. Thornton’s life as a white supremacist had been interrupted by a brief stint in the military. Following his service, Thornton returned to California to start the state’s chapter of the NSRP. When Ray visited Birmingham in 1967, Thornton had already left the city. Perhaps members of the Birmingham NSRP suggested that Ray find Thornton in Los Angeles at AIP headquarters. If so, Ray was late again, as Thornton had moved to Atlanta a few months earlier, after being fired by the AIP for his radicalism. Whatever Ray’s interest was in the AIP, he and Charles Stein began their road trip to New Orleans on December 15, 1967.
If Ray wanted to find a gateway to a King bounty plot, New Orleans was a hub for both racist and criminal activity. Indeed, according to a senior WKKKKOM official, New Orleans was where his group obtained guns and weapons for its criminal activities. The Dixie Mafia had connections to New Orleans through several former members of Sicilian Mafia kingpin Carlos Marcello’s criminal enterprise—some of whom shifted their allegiance to the less formal Dixie Mafia after Marcello faced federal prosecution in 1967. Dixie Mafia members also used New Orleans to sell weapons to the Klan. But no direct evidence confirms any contacts between criminals, be they members of the Dixie Mafia or the Sicilian Mafia, and Ray. Again, Ray’s own dissembling renders any definitive understanding of his preassassination connections and associations all but inscrutable.
It does appear likely, however, that Ray met someone in New Orleans who provided him with access to additional money—either in the form of a cash advance or, more likely, drugs to sell in Los Angeles. An analysis by government investigators showed a clear and unusual spike in Ray’s spending habits immediately after he returned to Los Angeles. Ray’s actions became increasingly suspicious as the weeks proceeded, suggesting his recruitment into a very real conspiracy. Ray ultimately claimed that he was framed for the King killing, an assertion that does not stand up to scrutiny. But concurrent events in Mississippi in December suggest the possibility that Sam Bowers may have been testing Tommy Tarrants, with an eye toward setting up the young terrorist as a patsy.
On December 22, 1967, Sam Bowers did something highly unusual: He convinced Tommy Tarrants to join him on a trip to Collins, Mississippi. The purpose was to machine-gun the home of Ancie McLaurin, a black man accused of shooting a white police officer. This represented a major departure from Bowers’s usual cautious behavior. Bowers ordered crimes but rarely participated in them in any direct way. What’s more, federal prosecutors had already convicted Bowers for his role in ordering the Mississippi Burning killings that October, although Bowers had escaped with a relatively minor sentence. Out on appeal, Bowers was now risking a capital sentence by going on this mission. Indeed, he was risking not only himself but also his secret operative, Tarrants, to potential exposure.
Bowers may have been testing Tarrants’s willingness to participate in a crime. For Bowers to have accepted Tarrants into his fold without suspicion is odd to begin with, as Bowers came to suspect even his closest allies of snitching to federal law enforcement. The fact that no one died in any of Tarrants’s many bombings may have raised alarms with Bowers, and now he had the opportunity to see firsthand if Tarrants would kill for the cause. Bowers never got the chance to implement this test, however, as Collins police officers, suspicious of the Alabama license plates on Tarrants’s car, approached the men when they pulled into a gas station. The car was stolen, and the men were arrested; police found an unlicensed machine gun in the vehicle.
Whether Bowers was testing Tarrants or not, the arrest had the effect of suspending the recent wave of violence in Mississippi. If the pause was due to caution, the charges did little to raise alarms about Tarrants among law enforcement figures. Bowers escaped conviction for the gun charges that following January, and Tarrants’s arraignment was set for later in 1968. Yet the subsequent lull in activity in Mississippi suggested that Bowers was exercising caution. If events on the ground had delayed the plot against King in the fall, then this most recent brush with the law likely had the same impact. James Earl Ray’s activity after his suspicious trip to New Orleans suggests just that.
Not long after Tarrants and Bowers encountered law enforcement in Collins, Ray returned to Los Angeles after his sojourn to New Orleans. His activities in the weeks immediately following his return hint that he was more entwined in a King murder conspiracy, but he was far from operational. It is as if Ray expected that he might be used in the crime but was ignorant of when and how. On December 28, 1967, Ray wrote to several groups connected with countries such as Rhodesia and South Africa for information about immigrating to those nations. Both were English-speaking countries that lacked extradition treaties with the United States; they were also highly segregated countries with a well-publicized record of apartheid against native blacks. To burnish his résumé, Ray specifically referenced the John Birch Society, a right-wing, antigovernment organization but one that distanced itself from racist violence. Of course, Ray had been trying to flee North America for months. But his financial expenditures suggest that he was delaying that escape, something with no innocent explanation. Something like the high-money bounty offer on King’s life was probably keeping him stateside.
By the end of January, whatever extra money he had obtained in New Orleans seemed to have vanished for Ray. Sticking with the Galt alias, he moved from more comfortable surroundings on North Serrano Street to a room at the St. Francis Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. One person described Ray’s new community as a “den of iniquity, teeming with prostitution and drug trafficking.” Ray had prepaid for a number of side activities, such as dance lessons and bartending classes, so for a while money issues weren’t pressing. Now they were. Through February at least, Ray still looked like someone on the periphery of the omega plot. He continued his mundane life, posing as Eric Galt. This lull coincided with a similar break in activity from the people we believe were organizing the plot in Mississippi. Both with the White Knights and Ray, this appears to have been the calm before the storm
As Ray continued to elude federal authorities in California, Tarrants found himself in law enforcement’s crosshairs for the first time since 1965, when he was arrested, as a teenager, for carrying an illegal firearm. Two years later, no one knew of his terrorist bombings and shootings in Mississippi, but his arrest with Sam Bowers meant that for the second time he was facing federal firearms charges.
On his attorney’s advice, Tarrants returned to his family in Mobile and registered for classes at a community college, ostensibly to clean up his image in anticipation of a court date. But records show that Tarrants was not much of a student. His mind was still dedicated to fighting the “Jewish–communist conspiracy” against white America.
For his part, Bowers escaped conviction for the firearms charges in mid-January. While the Justice Department convicted other White Knights for their roles in the 1966 Dahmer murder, Bowers was acquitted due to a mistrial. But in January 1968, Bowers’s luck with the law ran out. He was free but on appeal bond for his conviction for the MIBURN murders. Arrangements were already being made to transfer Grand Wizard power to L.E. Matthews once Bowers went to prison. By early 1968, almost every major player in the White Knights faced or would face some kind of criminal charges. Many, including Bowers, temporarily kept a low profile. Increasingly, they worked through a front organization, Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, to raise money for legal costs. Through that same front, senior WKKKKOM members continued to actively promote Stoner’s National States Rights Party in Meridian and Jackson, mailing out the NSRP’s radical newspaper, The Thunderbolt.
The lull in Mississippi Klan violence came to an end on February 20, 1968, when the White Knights burned down a grocery store belonging to Wallace Miller, a onetime KKK member who had become an FBI informant and testified in the Neshoba prosecution. Two weeks later, the White Knights bombed the Blackwell Realty Company in Jackson for selling homes to blacks in white neighborhoods. Having endured months of bombings, local and federal law enforcement fought back in unprecedented ways. Unable to secure convictions in local cases, Meridian police formed a special squad under Sergeant Lester Joyner. According to historian Michael Newton, “Joyner’s guerillas,” as they were known, “fired into Klansmen’s homes and detonated explosives on their lawns.”27 As noted earlier, the Jackson field office of the FBI was already experienced with fighting dirty against the local Klan. Clueless as to the perpetrators of the recent bombings, the office doubled down on its efforts to, in the words of Special Agent Jim Ingram, catch the “mad dog” bombing Mississippi’s black and Jewish institutions.
No one in federal law enforcement appeared to be paying much attention to the escaped fugitive from Missouri State Penitentiary, James Earl Ray. But Ray began to behave like the notorious figure he would soon become: the most wanted fugitive in the United States. On March 2, 1968, the man known to his classmates as Eric Galt graduated from bartending school in Los Angeles. In the graduation photo, James Earl Ray deliberately closed his eyes to make future identification more difficult. On March 3, 7, and 11, Ray spent a sizable amount of his remaining money on plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Ray later said that the surgery was done to make a future identification more difficult, claiming that he expected his operations with Raul—specifically a gunrunning operation that had started in New Orleans—to become more serious. To believe this, one would have to believe that Ray, a career criminal who had escaped from a federal penitentiary, thought that being an accomplice to a minor gunrunning operation would earn him the same respect from J. Edgar Hoover as John Dillinger had in 1934. Ray was not as foolish as he pretended to be or as others have assumed. If helping a fictional gunrunner wouldn’t get Ray on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, conspiring to kill Martin Luther King Jr. certainly would.
Ray’s recruitment into a King conspiracy was further suggested by Allan O. Thompson, manager of the St. Francis Hotel, where Ray had been staying since late January. Thompson told investigators that he remembered his switchboard operator reporting a series of phone calls to Eric Galt sometime in March, possibly as early as March 1. The calls came from either New Orleans or Atlanta or both, and the caller left the name J.C. Hardin. Sometime in the middle of the month, a stranger who Thompson presumed was Hardin actually visited the St. Francis looking for Galt/Ray.
The likely identity of J.C. Hardin emerged after reexamination of the FBI’s investigation into Thompson’s claims. Having mined its national files for individuals who used the alias J.C. Hardin, the FBI presented Thompson with a number of pictures. Thompson noted a striking overall similarity between the man who had visited the hotel and a man in one of the FBI photographs. Inexplicably, the FBI dismissed the match because the hair in the photo was different, ignoring the fact that the J.C. Hardin photo had been taken more than a decade before the King murder. Newly released files make clear that Thompson identified James Wilbourne Ashmore from Texas as J.C. Hardin. Ashmore had a steady history of criminal offenses, mostly for theft and forgery, and had served more than one stint in prison. Nothing directly indicated that he was connected to a group like the Dixie Mafia, but such information does not appear in the FBI files of either Donald Sparks or Leroy McManaman, two known Dixie mobsters. Law enforcement only was just beginning to understand the phenomenon that was the Dixie Mafia in the late 1960s.
A truck driver by trade, Ashmore was exactly the kind of individual the Dixie Mafia liked to recruit for its missions: someone who could routinely cross state lines without drawing the attention of law enforcement. More work needs to be done to develop the case that Ashmore, who died in 1973 in California, was possibly an accessory in the King conspiracy.28 But it seems probable that he was another go-between in the Dixie Mafia/White Knights bounty plot and, quite importantly, the one who finally integrated James Earl Ray into the scheme. Newly discovered information makes this idea even more tantalizing. The FBI originally located the Hardin alias for Ashmore in files that connected him to the 1962 Ole Miss race riots.29 Those riots not only incited many future members of the WKKKKOM but also drew the attention of radicals from around the nation, notably Identity radical Oren Potito, southeastern leader of the National States Rights Party.
And as of March 17, 1968, James Earl Ray was leaving Los Angeles for good and heading to the Southeast. He promised Marie Martin that he would stop in New Orleans on his way and drop off a package for her family. It was only a detour on his intended destination: Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown of Atlanta. In a pattern that would repeat itself, King also left Los Angeles on March 17, en route to Memphis.
At approximately the same time Ray was making arrangements to move to Atlanta, Tommy Tarrants took a pilgrimage to the home of his hero, the Reverend Wesley Swift, in Lancaster, California. According to Tarrants’s autobiography, he had made contact with Swift some months earlier and, as mentioned previously, had impressed the reverend enough to be invited to become his understudy. Tarrants’s interaction with Swift has enormous implications for the King assassination. In writing his excellent 1993 book on anti-Jewish violence in Mississippi, Terror in the Night, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Jack Nelson used Tarrants as a major source. Nelson quotes a 1991 interview with Tarrants, in which Tarrants admitted buying a rifle from Swift for the purpose of shooting Martin Luther King Jr. “That was my ambition,” Nelson quoted Tarrants as saying, “to shoot Dr. King. I hated Dr. King.”30 In a 2007 interview with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Tarrants seemingly backed off from such comments. By this time he had undergone a dramatic religious conversion to mainstream, evangelical Christianity, a process that he began in the 1970s and that resulted in an early release from prison. (He was convicted in 1969 for his role in the 1967–1968 Mississippi bombing spree and had been sentenced to thirty years behind bars.) To reporter Jerry Mitchell, Tarrants acknowledged that he bought the rifle from Swift in March 1968, but he insisted that he did so to “get acquainted with Swift. I thought a lot of him and listened to his recordings, was under that influence.” As to the other quote in Nelson’s book about his “ambition” to shoot King, Tarrants acknowledged “having those views,” but he said, “A lot of people in the south hated Martin Luther King.”31 Tarrants gave Mitchell’s readers the impression that the Swift visit had little to do with a King murder plot.
Newly uncovered information brings this matter into sharper focus. Audio files that Nelson’s wife, Barbara Matuszow, donated to Emory University, contain the original Nelson interviews with Tarrants. Nelson first asked Tarrants if the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had interviewed him. It is likely that Nelson confused HUAC—which did not exist after 1975 but which at one time investigated the KKK—with the HSCA. The HSCA had run concurrent reinvestigations of the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King murders from 1976 to 1979. Indeed, Tarrants told Mitchell in 2007 that HSCA investigators did see him in the late 1970s. For reasons that are still unclear, Nelson then turned directly to the issue of the rifle purchase:
NELSON: They must have quoted your testimony at some point in their report or something. Did you say anything about buying a rifle to assassinate King?
TARRANTS: Yeah . . . yeah I told them that.
NELSON: When did you do that?
TARRANTS: I think I bought that from Wesley Swift as a matter of fact.
NELSON: Is he still around?
TARRANTS: No, he died of cancer years ago. [chatter]
TARRANTS: That was my ambition, to shoot Martin Luther King. Oh yeah, I hated him worse than any of the blacks.32
Tarrants went on to give vivid detail on the weapon, a .243 Mannlicher (likely a Mannlicher-Schoenauer). His memory was fuzzy, however, as to when exactly he purchased the weapon, although it is fairly clear from the record that it was during his trip to California in March of 1968. Similar to his 2007 interview with Jerry Mitchell, when he denied any involvement in King’s murder, Tarrants told Nelson and Matuszow that he never tracked or got close to King. But in the interview with Mitchell, without ever directly commenting on buying the rifle to try to kill King, Tarrants again asserted that he had gotten the weapon simply to impress Swift. Taken in conjunction with the “that was my ambition, to shoot Martin Luther King” statement, the matter at least deserves further clarification from Tarrants. He has chosen not to speak on the matter since his 2007 interview with Mitchell. The immediate temptation is to see the 1991 quote and its timing as evidence that Tarrants was involved in King’s murder. But a more likely possibility is that Tarrants’s later claim to Mitchell that he had no role in King’s murder is likely true. As will become more obvious in the next chapter, what appears to be a suggestive circumstantial case against Tarrants for some kind of involvement in King’s murder looks more like the result of a carefully orchestrated effort to frame him for the crime.
The idea of a frame-up is well worn in theories on the King assassination. For decades, the only man convicted in the crime, James Earl Ray, insisted that he was a patsy in the murder. But Ray’s actions from the end of March through the beginning of April substantively contradict this assertion. Instead they strongly suggest that he played a conscious role in the crime.
Having dropped off Marie Martin’s package in New Orleans on March 21, James Earl Ray ventured to Atlanta, but not before making a highly suspicious stop that took him directly to the vicinity of Dr. King. Almost three years after civil rights marchers in pursuit of voting rights had stood their ground against club-carrying Alabama policemen on horses, King returned to Selma. He was there to give a speech on March 22, one that newspapers had publicized in advance. Any logical route to Atlanta would have taken Ray through Birmingham and not Selma, but Ray found his way to Selma at the same time as King, staying at the Flamingo Hotel. Confronted with this coincidence, Ray claimed that he had made a wrong turn. But Selma is completely out of the way, and maps from the time show that the “wrong turn” described by Ray wasn’t even possible given the available exits. As it turned out, at the last minute, weather prevented King from coming to Selma.33
King returned to his hometown of Atlanta, and Ray followed, traveling through Montgomery and Birmingham. Ray had never spent any time in Atlanta before. On March 23, he rented a room at a cheap rooming house known to accommodate drunks and vagrants in the Peachtree section of the city. Again, he used the alias Eric Galt. There is little to account for Ray’s precise behavior while he was in Atlanta. But evidence suggests that he made contact with someone. Investigators found a receipt for a dinner for two at Mammy’s Shanty, a local dive that, according to researcher Lamar Waldron (an Atlanta native and lifelong resident), was frequented by racists.34 When one of Ray’s earliest chroniclers, William Bradford Huie, confronted him about this dinner receipt, Ray was unable to explain it.
Also suspiciously, Ray obtained a commercial map of Atlanta and, as was often his custom, marked areas that were relevant to him. On this map, Ray circled his rooming house but also Martin Luther King Jr.’s home. The FBI claimed that Ray also marked King’s church and SCLC headquarters on the map, but this appears to be mistaken or an outright fabrication. Interestingly, diligent efforts by researcher Jerry Shinley offer a different possibility for Ray’s markings: They appear very close to a restaurant that served as a front operation for Cliff Fuller, a Dixie Mafia criminal who later turned federal informant. Another mark appears very close to a nightclub frequented by Fuller’s partner-in-crime, Harold Pruett. Ray never offered an adequate explanation for why these areas were marked on the map, but the possible connection to Fuller—a man with contacts in the Dixie Mafia in Mississippi, among other places—is tantalizing. Certainly, the double circle around King’s home clearly suggests that Ray stalked King not only in Selma but on through Atlanta. For this reason, the offer extended by Leroy McManaman to Donald Nissen takes on new significance. McManaman told Nissen that he could have a stake in the bounty in one of two ways. Nissen could participate in the actual killing or he could case King’s movements and report them to the would-be killers. Specifically, McManaman mentioned casing King’s movements in Atlanta—Nissen’s destination following his immediate release.
It makes sense that any conspiracy involving Ray would use him in the stalker role, as he had no background as a professional killer or sniper. But one could safely assume that as this secondary role was far less risky, it promised much less of the bounty. Whether that would sit well with Ray as he proceeded on through the mission is another matter.
Tarrants says he decided to leave Swift and visit his uncle in San Diego. After that, he and a cousin returned to Mobile. There, Tarrants says, he spotted FBI agents in round-the-clock surveillance of his residence. In going to California, Tarrants had jumped bond for his upcoming trial for the firearms charge. Already upset with the government, Tarrants decided to pursue an even more serious form of resistance against the enemies of white Christians. Robert DePugh, the hard-core leader of the Minutemen group, wanted on firearms and robbery charges, was then singlehandedly leading the FBI on a weeks-long manhunt. Inspired by this example, Tarrants decided that he, too, would become a lone-wolf terrorist. On March 28 he wrote a note that police discovered months later: “Please be advised that since 23, March, 1968, I . . . have been underground and operating guerrilla warfare.”35
Tarrants’s story in March parallels that of another radical whose account only recently became available. Eugene Mansfield at one time was a Grand Dragon in the Texas KKK. For several years, his racist activity was dormant. At least in FBI files, his only recorded offense was an assault charge from 1966. Suddenly, on March 13, 1968, Mansfield left his job on an oil rig in Louisiana, forwarded his last check to L.E. Matthews’s residence in Mississippi, and went to stay with Matthews. Documents show that Matthews, who would succeed Bowers as head of the WKKKKOM in 1969, wanted to use Mansfield in a hit or another job. Documents also indicate that in the last two weeks of March, Matthews was in and out of his normal residence, planning some kind of project out of state. Unable to account for his whereabouts in the immediate wake of King’s assassination, Mansfield became one of the earliest persons of interest in the crime.36 Tarrants also spent part of his time living underground with Matthews, but he never gave Nelson specific dates. FBI records indicate that Matthews encouraged Tarrants to visit his next location, a remote site in North Carolina where white supremacists from across the nation perfected their paramilitary skills. According to Tarrants, he stayed with Swift followers in this area for an unspecified period.
Although Tarrants was a fugitive from a weapons charge, the FBI did not yet know about his months-long bombing campaign in Mississippi, much less his promise to become a one-man guerrilla army waging war against the American government. The agency apparently did not know about his visit to Wesley Swift or the rifle purchase to “shoot King.” In short, at the end of March 1968, Tarrants should have raised none of the alarms that Mansfield raised in discussing hits with the soon-to-be Grand Wizard of the most dangerous racist organization in the country. Yet somehow Tarrants garnered just as much immediate interest from law enforcement in connection with the King murder. It seems entirely possible that as the calendar moved closer to April 4, someone was informing on Tarrants. The significance of this will be explored in the next chapter.
As Tarrants wrote his antigovernment screed, Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Memphis. His visit was originally intended for the week before, but scheduling problems forced King to come back on March 28, having promised to lead a nonviolent protest on behalf of the striking sanitation workers. Disappointed with fund-raising and mobilization efforts for the Poor People’s Campaign, King saw the Memphis sanitation workers strike, with its national profile, as an opportunity to raise public awareness on issues of economic justice while demonstrating the viability of large-scale nonviolent protest.
The day before King’s arrival in Memphis on March 28, James Earl Ray drove his white Mustang from Atlanta to Birmingham and visited a sporting goods store called The Gun Rack, looking for a hunting rifle. He spent considerable time looking at potential weapons but ultimately left without making a purchase. Two days later, on March 29, 1968, Ray visited the Aeromarine Supply Company, a sporting goods retailer that also sold rifles. Dressed in a shirt and tie, Ray looked out of place to a young hunting enthusiast, John DeShazo. The questions Ray asked confirmed DeShazo’s impressions; Ray knew nothing about rifles. But Ray purchased a .243-caliber rifle and ammunition using the alias Harvey Lowmeyer. On March 30, Ray reappeared at the Aeromarine to exchange his weapon. FBI experts later concluded that a preservative in the rifle’s breech had prevented its proper loading. But Ray made no reference to this problem, even though it would have provided him with a perfectly innocent reason to exchange the weapon. Instead, Ray said that his brother or brother-in-law had examined the .243 and concluded that they needed a better weapon to go “hunting in Wisconsin.” Ray said that his brother had told him to get a Remington GameMaster .760. One of the more highly regarded hunting weapons ever produced, it was also more expensive than the .243, meaning the normally frugal Ray was stepping out of character.37 That Ray had some guidance in choosing a weapon seems likely, not simply because he gratuitously referenced another person but also because he demonstrated little or no understanding of rifles.
Ray, of course, blamed it on Raul, claiming that he told Ray to return to the store and purchase the GameMaster. Under that scenario, Ray referred to Raul as his brother to protect his benefactor’s identity. Others who harbor doubts about Raul’s existence suggest that it was one of Ray’s actual brothers who helped him with the rifle purchase.38 This cannot be discounted, but direct evidence is lacking.
An interesting possibility for someone who might have advised Ray on the gun purchase emerged from an examination of out-of-state phone calls made from the Sambo Amusement Company, Sam Bowers’s business in Laurel, Mississippi. On March 29, 1968, the day of the original rifle purchase, someone at Sambo called a number in Birmingham. It was the only phone call to Birmingham from the fall of 1967 through the summer of 1968. Bowers and his partner, Robert Larson, operated the company with no other employees. The timing is certainly curious, but the phone record has no detail on who was called. Only recently, thanks to research by Charles Faulkner, the number has been traced to the Birmingham Army Reserve, specifically to the senior army advisor for the Army Reserve Advisor Group. Extensive research, including work done by military historians, has yet to generate an actual name for this army advisor, but both the timing and a call by Bowers or Larson to Birmingham are suggestive of a conspiratorial act.39
After the purchase of the gun, Ray returned to Atlanta. Ray always denied this, insisting instead that he was told by Raul to go straight to Memphis. The evidence to the contrary—that Ray returned and left his laundry at a dry cleaner in Atlanta—is overwhelming, however. This fact was established not only by the recollection of the manager of the Piedmont Laundry but also by a dated receipt in her files. This is one of Ray’s most important and revealing lies. Ray himself acknowledged that if investigations could confirm that he had returned to Atlanta before going to Memphis, the optics would greatly undermine his claims of innocence. This is not simply because King also returned to Atlanta at approximately the same time. Rather, it would be Ray’s subsequent trip, from Atlanta to Memphis, that would seriously damage his contention that he was an oblivious dupe for Raul. Martin Luther King Jr. did not specify his date of return to Memphis until April 1, and for Ray to return to Atlanta on March 30 and then follow King to Memphis with a gun was too much for even Ray to pass off as a coincidence. Subsequently, Ray steadfastly insisted that he never took that route. Combining the “accidental” stay in Selma during King’s visit and the Atlanta map with marks that “coincidentally” overlap King’s home, a rational observer could not escape the conclusion that Ray was stalking King.40
Yet it remains unclear exactly what Ray envisioned as his role. To earn the full bounty, Ray would have to directly participate in King’s killing. Simply handing a rifle to someone else would not be enough. Analyses of King’s murder typically treat Ray as either an unwitting dupe or the driving force behind the crime. A better approach might be to view Ray as an individual with his own agenda, but one who was forced to work within the framework of a larger conspiracy in which he was, at least initially, a peripheral player.
Ray appeared to be performing the role of a stalker, one that presumably carried a lower payday. If Ray wanted a bigger piece of the action, it’s possible that he had to create a racist profile that would allow him to directly engage the plot’s sponsors. Such a record would have to be sufficiently controversial to earn the respect of the sponsors without looking outwardly radical to law enforcement investigators. But if Ray wanted to expand his role in hopes of making more money, he was running out of time. The purchase of the rifle would be a sure sign to Ray that whatever plan was in motion, King would be killed sooner rather than later.
On April 1, 1968, having delivered his sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., King publicly announced his return to Memphis, at the same time Ray was leaving laundry at the Piedmont Laundry under the name Eric Galt. The following day, as Ray drove his Mustang from Atlanta to Memphis, something strange happened at John’s Restaurant in Laurel, Mississippi. The restaurant–bar, owned by Deavours Nix, one of Sam Bowers’s closest aides in the WKKKKOM, was a place where senior Klan leaders frequently met. According to a report filed by Myrtis Ruth Hendricks, a black waitress at the bar, Nix received an odd phone call that evening. “I got a call on the King,” Hendricks recalled Nix saying when she was interviewed by FBI agents on April 22. But she was unable to hear the rest of the conversation. Hendricks recalled additional suspicious activity on April 3, 1968. According to her report, “two men, neatly dressed, with short stocky builds, came to Nix’s place where she started to work the evening shift at three P.M. While going to the bathroom, she observed a rifle with a telescopic sight, in a case in Nix’s office. Later, the two men took the rifle and a long box, which took three men to carry out, and put them in a sixty four maroon Dodge with a fake ‘continental kit’ on the back.”41 As we shall see, Hendricks’s story did not end there.
Despite a bomb threat delaying his flight, Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Memphis on April 3. With the Poor People’s march to Washington, D.C., less than three weeks away, King returned with the goal of proving that nonviolent protest could still work. The bad blood that had developed between civil rights activists and the local police department boiled over as King’s entourage, mindful of police informants infiltrating the ranks of the sanitation protesters, refused the security detail usually provided to the minister.
King settled at the Lorraine Motel but not at first in his usual room, 306, where he and his close friend the Reverend Ralph Abernathy often stayed. Someone was temporarily staying in Room 306, so King and Abernathy waited in a second-floor room until they got a call to reclaim 306, which they called the King–Abernathy Suite. At noon that day, King attended a meeting at the Centenary Methodist Church, where he announced a plan for a mass march on April 8. But upon his return to the Lorraine that afternoon, federal marshals served him and his aides with a district court injunction, temporarily preventing them from engaging in future marches.
James Earl Ray also arrived in Memphis on April 3. He checked into the New Rebel Motor Hotel, roughly fifteen minutes from the Lorraine, using the Galt alias. He brought the newly purchased rifle and other gear. In the years that followed, Ray again attributed a number of his actions to the elusive Raul, but he could not keep his stories straight. It is possible that he was in Memphis to meet someone, perhaps to provide the newly purchased rifle to would-be conspirators. More than likely, he was debating his own next move. Would he continue to provide reconnaissance within a prearranged bounty plot against King’s life? Or would he try for a greater share of the bounty himself? Anyone wanting to observe Dr. King’s movements in Memphis did not have to work very hard—his stay there was widely covered on television and in local newspapers. Ray, who voraciously followed the news while in prison, claims he was all but oblivious to anything having to do with Martin Luther King Jr. while in Memphis.
On the evening of April 3, King delivered his last sermon, at the Mason Temple Church. Referencing both the particulars of the Memphis sanitation workers strike and the general condition of the civil rights movement on the eve of the Poor People’s Campaign, King struck an optimistic note, in what history now refers to as “The Mountaintop” speech. He described the wide arc of history from the Exodus of Egypt to the Emancipation Proclamation, marked by the common theme of mankind’s saying, “We want to be free.” Referring to the challenges to nonviolence, he reminded the crowd of the successes it had brought in places like Birmingham. King ended by extending the theme of the Exodus to its final denouement, when the liberator Moses, having led the Hebrews to the outskirts of Israel, climbed to the peak of Mount Nebo and stood in awe of the Promised Land, which he himself would never visit. King reminded the audience of the bomb threat that had delayed his flight to Memphis and of a 1957 assassination attempt in which a deranged woman had nearly murdered King with a knife. But for a sneeze, King reminded the audience, he would not be alive; but for a sneeze, he would not have seen the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Prophetically, he ended his speech with the following words:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!42