When MLK’s Killer Escaped From Prison

When MLK’s Killer Escaped From Prison

Why you should care

Because sometimes even the world’s most secure prisons can’t hold their most famous inmates.

After shooting President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald was at large for about an hour and 15 minutes before he was arrested and placed in police custody. Things went far less quickly when it came to apprehending perhaps the second most famous assassin of the 1960s: James Earl Ray. After he shot and killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Memphis motel 50 years ago today, Ray sparked a manhunt that would last more than two months and span five countries before he was finally detained at London’s Heathrow Airport.

But, believe it or not, Ray wasn’t done fleeing the law. Eight years after he was convicted of killing King, Ray escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Tennessee in 1977. And, for a breathtaking 54 hours, America’s most famous living assassin was a free man.

The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. touched off rioting in cities across the United States. “King’s death is a very traumatic, very dispiriting, very destructive event in the history of Black America,” says David J. Garrow, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Bearing the Cross. Ray, who later pleaded guilty to the crime, shot the beloved civil rights leader with a rifle through the window of a neighboring flophouse. He was, says Garrow, a white racist and ex-con who believed that he would be financially rewarded for the historic killing.

It did not take the seasoned convict long to attempt to flee Brushy Mountain.

After the two-month manhunt ended with his capture, Ray, 40, was sentenced to a 99-year prison term and later incarcerated at Brushy Mountain, a fortresslike maximum security prison nestled in the Walden Ridge mountains in east Tennessee. Ray had spent nearly half his life behind bars and had escaped from a Missouri prison not long before murdering King. And it did not take the seasoned convict long to attempt to flee Brushy Mountain.

In May 1971, Ray left a dummy in his cell bed, broke some fan blades and crawled through a ventilation shaft. He ended up in a piping-hot steam tunnel, and when he had to exit it, he found prison guards waiting for him. The following year he made another failed escape attempt. “He’s the kind [of prisoner] I call a rabbit,” Brushy Mountain warden Stonney Lane later told a reporter. “We have several like him. If they get a chance, they’re going to run.” Or, as Ray himself admitted in a May 29, 1977, interview, “I’m interested in getting out. … They wouldn’t have me in a maximum security prison if I wasn’t interested in getting out.”

And, sure enough, 12 days later he was out.

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James Earl Ray, with his clothes covered with mud, is led back into the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary by Warden Stonney Lane (left) and Deputy Warden Herman Davis (right) after his capture on June 13, 1977.

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Around 8 p.m. on the evening of June 10, Ray and two fellow inmates hooked a makeshift ladder they had built from pipe to the northeast corner of the prison wall and climbed to freedom. Several other inmates started a fight during a prison yard ball game to distract the guards while the trio made their escape. Four other inmates who had not played a part in the escape plan also climbed up the ladder. Three made it while the fourth was shot escaping.

The six inmates still at large, which included Ray and three other convicted murderers, stole out into the dark, rugged mountains. Soon, 125 correctional officers with prison bloodhounds were hot on the fugitives’ trail. “He’s in those woods, and we’ll find him. I’m confident of that,” Warden Lane told reporters. “My guards know the area.” The Brushy Mountain officers lived, hunted and fished in those mountains. “Brushy officers have been doing this job for years,” Lane later wrote in his book Building Time at Brushy. “Their ancestors had chased convicts through these mountains for 80 years.”

It seemed it would take a miracle for Ray and the other escapees to outrun their pursuers. But, as the übervillain Hans Gruber famously quipped in Die Hard, “You asked for miracles … I give you the FBI.” Soon, close to 60 FBI agents descended on Brushy Mountain and took control of the manhunt — and slowed it down, according to Lane. Hours passed and then days, as the media and some in the FBI speculated that Ray could be miles away, or even in South America.

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State Patrol Col. Richard Dawson smiles and Warden Stonney Lane is grim-faced as they lead James Earl Ray back to prison following his recapture. Ray, muddied and exhausted by his bid for freedom from a 99-year jail term, was arrested within 10 miles of the Brushy Mountain Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee.

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Finally, more than two days later, Brushy officers, acting on a tip from a local, found Ray hiding under a pile of leaves less than 10 miles from the prison. He was covered in mud and had a map and close to $300 on him. The other escapees were apprehended as well. “We could have had him in one day if [the FBI] would have left us alone,” one Brushy officer told the Nashville Scene.

Ray was returned to Brushy Mountain. “How were you sure where Ray was?” a New York Times reporter asked the warden. “It made no sense … for him to escape into those woods unless he had a way to get out of them.”

“Well,” said Lane in his thick east Tennessee accent, “none of the inmates are in here for using good judgment.”

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