The Rockwell Files

Steven Spielberg's stolen painting, a St. Louis art thief, and a plot to kill Martin Luther King. It could make a helluva movie.

Based on Byers' testimony, the House committee launched what it described as a "full-scale investigation" of Byers, Kauffmann and Sutherland. The committee discovered that Byers had told two St. Louis attorneys the same story in 1968 and again in 1974. Both attorneys corroborated Byers' story under questioning.

Further, an unpaid informant for the Jefferson County sheriff's office in the 1960s testified to hearing the same "standing offer to murder Dr. King" among guests who frequented Kauffmann's Buff Acres motel, which at the time was a known haven for prostitutes, drug dealers and petty criminals.

Kauffmann died in April 1974. John Sutherland had passed away four years earlier. But in 1968 both men were active in the American Independent Party, which backed segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace for president. Also heavily involved in local efforts to elect Wallace was James Earl Ray's brother, John Larry Ray.

Robin Eley
Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom.
Norman Rockwell
Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom.

The House committee described John Ray's now-shuttered Grapevine Tavern across from Benton Park in south St. Louis as a "distribution point for American Party campaign literature." John Ray was even known to drive voters to the election office to register with the party.

Also active in the American Independent Party was James Earl Ray, who was serving a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery when he broke out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in April 1967. While on the lam, Ray worked briefly for the Wallace campaign in California.

The committee believed Ray's brothers, John and Jerry Ray, assisted him during his flight from justice. And while the congressional investigators could find no "direct link" between the principals of the St. Louis conspiracy and King's killer, they believed there was a likelihood that word of the standing offer on Dr. King's life reached James Earl prior to the assassination.

"James Earl Ray may simply have been aware of the offer and acted with a general expectation of payment after the assassination," the House committee reported. "Or he may have acted, not only with an awareness of the offer, but also after reaching a specific agreement, either directly or through one or both brothers, with Kauffmann or Sutherland."

The committee concluded its investigation into Byers' claims of a St. Louis conspiracy by opining: "It is unfortunate that this information was not developed in 1968, when it could have been pursued by law enforcement agencies. It is a matter on which reasonable people may legitimately differ, but the committee believes that the conspiracy that eventuated in Dr. King's death in 1968 could have been brought to justice in 1968."

Today Byers shies away from discussing what he told the congressional committee in 1978. He says journalists and conspiracy theorists still knock on his door, trying to get him to share his story. None, apparently, have forked over enough cash to hear his tale.

Byers, meanwhile, says he remains confused by the testimony of at least one individual from the congressional hearings. Murray Randall was one of the St. Louis lawyers who testified to hearing Byers discuss the offer to assassinate King in 1968 and again in 1974. Later Randall went on to become a judge in St. Louis.

"The judge told the FBI that I was the most notoriously dangerous criminal in St. Louis," says Byers. "I don't know where that came from. We were friends."

Byers says he never cut a deal with the feds to avoid prosecution for the Saint Louis Art Museum burglaries in 1978 and takes issue with allegations that he killed or arranged for the murder of accomplices Charlie Gunn and Sam White. "I didn't have anything to do with it," says Byers. "Black guys were always killing each other back then. What can I say?

"Don't make me out to be a bad guy," Byers tells me. "The media always makes me out to be a bad guy. I'm no murderer. I've never killed anyone."

I'm not saying you killed anyone, I tell him. I simply want to discuss what — if anything — he knows about the Russian Schoolroom painting. When he again brings up the subject of money, I suggest I might have the wrong person — that someone else probably stole the painting.

As I walk down the driveway to my car, Byers coyly responds, "You know, you're right. I'm sure art thieves all over the world were targeting that little gallery in Clayton. Come back later," he adds, "when you have your pocketbook."

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