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Wherever James Cooper Green Jr. goes in Caruthersville, his reputation precedes him. They know his name at the courthouse and at City Hall, at the liquor store and the café. In casual conversation, he tends to reminisce about the town's violent past, when Caruthersville, Mo., was known as "Little Chicago." He broaches the subject in the same way other people talk about the weather.
At his prompting, a woman at the Tigers Hut Café recalls how a bullet flew through her bedroom window when she was a child. The county prosecutor, its intended target, lived next door. Later, a 73-year-old man who once worked for Green's father recounts how he shot and killed a fellow with a .38-caliber pistol. The boys at a local package-liquor store brag about smuggling machine guns over the state line.
They're not lying so much as telling Green what he wants to hear. He revels in the old stories most residents would prefer to forget, tales of bygone days when Caruthersville was the capital of vice in the Missouri Bootheel, times when bootlegging, prostitution and illegal-gambling interests controlled Pemiscot County. It was not so long ago, really. The Climax bar and the Seawall whorehouse have been razed. But other haunts remain: the shady businesses, the former sites of murder and mayhem. Though he left here decades ago, no one knows these places better than Green. When he returns, as he often does, respectable members of the community -- the elder lawyer, the current circuit judge, the retired newspaper publisher -- shun him. His mere presence stirs apprehension, if not fear. Rumors shadow him: Green is a drug trafficker in Florida. Green is an FBI informant. Green is a Mafia associate.
"They're scared to death of me in this town," he says. "They always wonder what I'm up to. They'll tell you I belong to the mob. They'll tell you I work for the federal government. They don't know." Green is an enigma. Reviled by many and trusted by few, he trades in uncertainty as if his life depends on it.
For more than 20 years now, Green has maintained that he has knowledge of the plot to murder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He testified behind closed doors before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978; the testimony has been sealed by law until 2029. In 1997, he told his story to Dexter King, son of the slain civil-rights leader, in a private meeting.
The next time Green set out to tell this story, he ended up in jail. He was on his way to meet a senior producer for CBS News in Memphis on Feb. 25, 1998, when he and his wife were pulled over in their Dodge pickup by the Shelby County (Tenn.) Sheriff's Department narcotics unit. Green had ostensibly come under suspicion because police were investigating whether a methamphetamine lab was being run at the hotel where he had spent the night. The narcotics squad found no drugs, but Green was held in police custody for three days before he was released. Because of the arrest, Green missed a scheduled interview with Dan Rather for 48 Hours.
The news program, which preceded the 30th anniversary of the assassination, focused renewed attention -- based on theories promulgated by the late James Earl Ray's last attorney, William F. Pepper -- on a possible conspiracy to kill King. At the time, Pepper was peddling his own conspiracy theory, based on the claims of Loyd Jowers, former owner of Jim's Grill, who said he had paid a Memphis police officer to kill King at the behest of a local mob figure. Rather dismissed Green's involvement in one sentence, telling viewers that Green's prison record showed him to have been in custody on the day of the assassination.
But Green says that his prison record is wrong and that his 1998 arrest and subsequent discrediting are part of a continuing government disinformation campaign promoting the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's "lone gunman" theory. Claims by Green that he possesses what may have been the murder weapon and one of the getaway vehicles make his assertions seem all the more preposterous. Prosecutors from the Memphis district attorney's office to the U.S. Justice Department label him a convicted felon and an unreliable source.
Yet there are untold elements that lend some credibility to Green's far-fetched story. Despite his criminal record, Green has served as a local law-enforcement official and a federal undercover agent for years. Police officers and sheriffs have provided him with reference letters. More telling are Green's FBI files, which provide a partial chronicle of his life over the last 35 years and corroborate many details of his account.
"I just wanted to tell the story and disappear," Green says. He is sitting bare-chested at a table in Room 16 at Pic's Motel on Truman Boulevard in Caruthersville. The motel once served as a location for illicit high-stakes poker games. It no longer holds that cachet. The room smells of mildew and cigarette smoke. Outside, a rusty window-unit air conditioner sits beside the door. Other household debris litters the parking lot.
"I'm serious. I've got a place in Colorado," he says. "They'd never find me. I got several IDs I can use that I've had for years that they don't know about -- Social Security cards, voting cards, everything. And they're legal; they're not fake. I know how to do it. It's the oldest trick in the book, how to disappear."
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