John Ray used to own a tavern in Benton Park. Now he lives in Quincy and dabbles in conspiracy theory.

The brother of the man most people believe killed Martin Luther King Jr. lives in a miniature brick house near the languishing downtown of Quincy, Illinois. Inside, the brown carpet is mottled, and the place smells of mildew and unfinished TV dinners. It is teeth-chatteringly cold, mainly because John Larry Ray barely has two nickels to rub together after he pays the $300 monthly rent.

The assassin's brother has lived quietly here, eight blocks from the banks of the Mississippi River, at the intersection of College Avenue and — of all things — Martin Luther King Drive, for the past four years. He goes unrecognized on his sporadic visits to the library and the senior center, and that's the way John Ray likes it. No one knows of his fractured past when he drives his beat-up GMC van two miles down Broadway to sip a cup of black coffee in a back booth at Hardee's.

The anonymity he prefers will likely end this week when 50,000 copies of his book, Truth At Last: The Untold Story Behind James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., turn up in bookstores on the 40th anniversary of King's murder.

John Larry Ray: "I care about clearing my brother's name."
Jennifer Silverberg
John Larry Ray: "I care about clearing my brother's name."
James Earl Ray always said it was the army that led him down the path to ruin.
Courtesy John Larry Ray
James Earl Ray always said it was the army that led him down the path to ruin.

"I don't care about that. I care about clearing my brother's name," Ray says of his motivation to write the book, which is coauthored by Lyndon Barsten, a lay historian who lives in Minneapolis. "I've come back here from St. Louis to die," he adds. "And when I die, there'll be no more Rays in Quincy."

In an upstairs room of Ray's house, a four-by-six-inch photograph of James Earl Ray sits atop a chest of drawers. The man in the photo looks to be in his early 50s, which would put him a decade or more into his 99-year sentence as Tennessee State Prisoner #95477. James Earl looks handsome, his wavy dark hair gone silver at the temples. It's the only photo John Ray has of his brother. Their younger sister Carol Ray Pepper, a former schoolteacher who now lives in Mehlville and whose phone number is unpublished, has most of the rest.

Ray says nothing as he stares at the picture. The silence is broken when he's asked what it's like to be James Earl Ray's little brother. What, my God, must that be like?

"I never tell anybody," he replies, his tone flat and matter-of-fact. "I don't want anyone to know. Nobody. When I was in jail, fellow prisoners used to gawk at me. They knew who I was. I didn't like it. No, I don't like the gawking."

Childless and never married, John Larry Ray turned 75 on Valentine's Day. Thirty-five of those hard years were spent behind bars for a litany of crimes as long as your arm — burglary, bank robbery, fraud, tax evasion, jury tampering. Oddly, Ray has prepared for this interview a freshly typed list of the 52 jails and prisons that have kept a light on for him. No, the harsh memories have not yet dimmed.

"Leavenworth was the worst. When I was there, these guys tried to cremate me alive with a Molotov cocktail," Ray recalls, animated now, almost happy to bring it all back. "But I had this crazy cellmate who was knitting in the middle of the night. These guys would've burned me alive, but my cellmate, he started screaming so loud that they took off."

He goes on.

"You got to mind your own business in prison. In the federal pen in Marion, I saw a man put a homemade butcher knife clear through another man's chest — right through him." He snaps his finger and adds, "Killed 'im right there: Just like that."

The health gods have not been kind to John Ray. There was the heart attack in 1990, the ongoing battle with diabetes, frequent dizziness, and a series of strokes that have left him with a serious speech impediment. That last disability, says Ray, took root during his birth in Alton: "My dad says the doc was drunk and that he left an imprint on the roof of my mouth while pulling me out."

The three Baudelaire orphans in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events have nothing on John Larry Ray. His grandfather was a bootlegger, his father a career criminal who spent ten years in Iowa State Prison at Fort Madison for stealing cows. While incarcerated, in fact, George Ellis Ray got himself hung from his thumbs as he stood on tiptoes because the warden was so mad that he wouldn't do any prison work.

Aunt Mabel was involved in organized crime. Uncle Earl was a drunk, a perennial check forger and woman-beater, who, says Ray, once threw acid in the face of his own teenage wife. Ray's younger brother, Franklin, died in a car accident. His little sister Marjorie was badly burned at age six when she set her dress on fire while playing with matches and died a few weeks later of infection. Ray's mother never really recovered and in 1961, Ray recounts, "her liver had walked its last mile."

Then there was James Earl Ray, eighth-grade dropout, petty thief, drifter and perpetrator of the most unfortunate event of all.

Next Page »