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Retracing the hunt for MLK's killer  February 5, 2017 – 10:02 am
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Forty-three years ago tomorrow, the FBI launched a world-wide manhunt ... a full-scale pursuit of an assassin whose single shot had just brought down a man who held no office but whose vision and courage changed the course of American history. Mark Strassmann will look back at a crime that shocked the nation:

The year 1968 remains a turning point in the story of America: A time when the country seemed to be spinning out of control.

We found ourselves divided by race, by generation, by politics ... and so much of that turmoil can be traced back to a single day: April 4, 1968, when a sniper's bullet took the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

For the next 48 hours, the nation burned ... riots swept 168 cities - federal troops were even called in to guard the U.S. Capitol. At least 19 persons had been killed. The annual Academy Awards was postponed, as were the opening games of the American League & National League.

Yet as the firestorm raged, the man at the center of it all was making a quiet getaway.

It took two months and the largest manhunt in U.S. history to track down the killer - a man named James Earl Ray.

Yet, even now, the motives - and the man - behind the assassination remain very much a mystery, which is probably just how James Earl Ray would have wanted it.

Author Hampton Sides has spent more than two years compiling a detailed portrait of Ray - untangling the web of false identities and conflicting claims spun by a man who spent most of his adult life behind prison bars.

"I describe Ray a little bit like a squid, " said Sides. "You know, he puts up this ink cloud around him of all this complexity of personality. And by the time you figure out where he is, he's actually gone."

Although he plead guilty to King's murder, hoping to avoid the death penalty, Ray changed his story almost immediately. For the rest of his life, he professed his innocence, as he did in a 1977 interview with Dan Rather:

"Someone would have to be insane killing someone for publicity, " Ray said. "To me, it is - I can't conceive of anyone. There is people like that, but I can't imagine anyone wanting that type of publicity."

"You didn't do it?" Rather asked.

"No, I didn't do it."

Sides has "no doubt whatsoever" that Ray killed Dr. King.

"It was all a big game to him, " he said. "And he went to his grave [with] a lot of of secrets and half-secrets and lies and half-lies all muddled up together."

James Earl Ray was born and raised in poverty along the banks of the Mississippi River. He was considered the brightest among nine siblings, but devoted himself to a life of petty crime - winding up in Missouri State Prison for armed robbery.

That is, until early one morning in 1967 when Ray made a daring escape - hiding in a shipment of bread from the prison bakery.

He embarked on a restless journey across Mexico and the United States.

"There's a sense of almost desperation when he's out of prison, " said Sides. "He gets into self-help books, hypnosis. He takes a locksmithing class, dancing lessons. He thinks he might want to become a porn director. He's all these different people.

"But, you know, he's still the same guy underneath it all. A very disturbed and very lost soul trying to figure out his place in the world."


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