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    James Earl Ray couldn’t outsmart Brushy Mountain’s warden

    by | May 13, 2010

    While I can’t say I was ever a “Hellhound On His Trail,” the title of a newly published book about James Earl Ray, I did watch the exhausted killer of Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after he was flushed from under a pile of leaves in woods near a Tennessee prison and herded past me and a few score other skeptical hacks lined up to witness the warden prove a point.

    To be sure, the delightfully named Stonney (pronounced stony) Lane was a warden who knew his territory.

    There were many in the press corps  that late June night in 1977 — judging from the banter and speculation while  we all waited and the barbed questions at  briefings as the search went well into a second day and night — who would have bet money that  Ray by then was far away. Or dead. Maybe both.

    As usually happens, the conventional wisdom was wrong. And  Ray is long dead. He  died of  hepatitis  and kidney failure — behind bars — in 1998 at age 70.   And Stonney Lane, in a conversation I witnessed, had the perfect last word.

    Ray and six other convicts had escaped over the wall on a weekend afternoon at  Brushy Mountain Prison — built in 1896,  some 18 miles west of Oak Ridge — as guards scrambled to break up a fight in the yard cooked up by other inmates as a diversion.

    The afternoon Atlanta Journal and morning Constitution had separate staffs at that time, and as I remember Journal city editor Bob Johnson contacted Tom Baxter with orders that he and I go there. Tom drove, and we reached the prison around midday on  Sunday.

    The late Gary Hendricks, and Jim Stewart, who later covered the  Pentagon for CBS News, were already there,  for what we Journal folks called “the morning rag.” (In that long ago time,  Journal and Constitution reporters considered the other paper our real competition, not TV. That changed when the two staffs merged in 1982.)

    There was little for Baxter and me to do at first, except catch up on what we had missed, and trade gossip;  we heard idle speculation  that Ray’s escape was a   planned conspiracy, and that he was already in Rhodesia or South Africa (this was 1977, remember), South America,  or maybe at the bottom of the Atlantic, rubbed out by the CIA or the Military Industrial Complex to cover up “who really” killed Dr. King.

    At one of the  press briefings, I remember a skeptic from a large northeastern   newspaper with a loud , memorable voice, grilling Lane with “have you quit beating your wife” type  questions for details of the  escape, and why should we  believe the warden’s insistence that Ray didn’t have outside help.

    “He’s in those woods, and we’ll find him. I’m confident of that, ” Lane replied. “My guards know the area.”

    As the long wait  dragged on into the evening, I recall that a helicopter hired by the TV networks landed on the ball field outside the prison with hot food from a restaurant in Oak Ridge for  their crews. It looked like the rest of us were SOL; the little store in the adjacent small town of Petros, which could have provided print grunts like Baxter and me with crackers, candy bars and potato chips, was closed on  Sunday.

    Around dusk, at just the right moment, like the cavalry in an old western,  a middle aged woman and her daughters showed up in a car or van — I forget which — with hot, home cooked food. I can’t recall exactly where we were all served, I believe it was some building outside the prison. I remember fried chicken for sure, even dessert — all of it very good.

    A long time later, a colleague offered the theory that the warden, or maybe the local  sheriff, called the woman and asked for her assistance, saying something like, “It will help if we can keep these people happy. You know what to do.”

    Anticipating that if Ray wasn’t caught by midnight, some editor would   demand a small sidebar on the  “food lady”   to fill space in the Monday Journal first edition with a “Ray Still At Large” story, I asked her to tell about herself. Nothing doing. “I love to cook, and I like to watch people eat”, she said.

    As it turned out, close to midnight and deep in the woods about three miles from the prison, a bloodhound bitch named Sandy sniffed a clump of wet leaves, and made real news.

    Back at the prison, a loud speaker shattered the monotony: “Ray has been captured. You have ten minutes.” We were told  to gather at a spot about a hundred yards away, up a slight incline.

    We stood in a  line as guards, in front and behind,   led the captured assassin slowly past us; his head was bowed but  he was   close enough to satisfy anyone  but an incurable conspiracy theorist that it was indeed James Earl Ray.

    “He’s the kind (of prisoner) I call a ‘rabbit’ ,” Lane told me for   an anniversary story in the Journal a year later. “We have several like him. If they get a chance, they’re going to run.” The other six escapees were also captured, the last after sunup hours after Ray was caught.

    Shortly before Tom Baxter and I left for Atlanta Monday morning, I stopped to say goodbye to Stonney Lane as he chatted outside the prison   with Sonny Rawls, at the time a regional reporter for the New York Times who a decade later was my boss as assistant managing editor at the AJC.

    “How were you sure  where Ray was?”, he asked the warden. “It made no sense, no  sense at all, for him to escape  into those woods unless he had a way  to get out of them.”

    “Well,” said Lane, gesturing toward the prison, “none of the inmates are in here for using good judgment.”

    ###
    Bill Montgomery

    Bill Montgomery

    Bill Montgomery, aka "Monty," packed it in a few years back after 38 years as a reporter with the AJC, covering mostly crime and other forms of public insanity, such as political campaigns, strip club crackdowns, and the Georgia legislature. His career includes coverage of zanies that run the gamut from Lester Maddox and J.B. Stoner to Larry Flynt, and crime reporting that followed the 1973 Alday family killings in South Georgia to the execution of ringleader Carl Isaacs 30 years later, and the 20-year saga of Palm Beach millionaire James V. Sullivan, who hired the murder of his estranged wife at her Buckhead condo by a gunman packing a pistol in a box of roses. Montgomery lives in a Decatur condo with his wife Linda and their Boston terrier.

     

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    • Gita

      Thanks for this wonderful piece, Monty.
      You are, as always, one of the best storytellers.
      What I would like to know is, what did that prison, built in 1896, look like on the inside. I am imagining a hell hole like the set of “Shutter Island.”

    • Kay Powell

      And that’s the way good newspapers report and good reporters write. Thanks for this back story on a piece of history, Monty.

    • Tom Baxter

      Thanks for the memories. I remember that brief glimpse of Ray being led past the reporters back into the prison. He was the picture of a downhearted man.
      I believe Rawls later took personal credit for capturing him.

      TB

    • http://likethedew.com Dallas

      Great story, and good to see your byline still in circulation, Bill. I think it was Charlie Hayslett who told me when I arrived in the Journal newsroom that Bill Montgomery is always good to go — keeps his shoes & toothbrush by the phone so if you call in the middle of the night, he’s simultaneously dressing and packing as he answers the phone.

    • Joey Ledford

      I have a framed FBI wanted poster of Ray stemming from that escape. He was quite the escape artist, springing himself from another prison before he killed King. He tried one more time after the famous 1977 breakout — and almost got away again. I covered that one. He and a couple of other prisoners made dummies for their beds and got as far as the last fence before being caught.

      As for Brushy Mountain itself, I don’t know what it looked like from the inside, but from the outside it was a formidable sight. You drive around a bend in the two-lane country road at Petros and there it is, a grey-stone maximum-security fortress sitting in a valley that seems to link the two mountains on either side ot it. It has since been closed, but when I conjure up a mental image of a prison, I don’t even consider Alcatraz and other famous lockups. Brushy was one of a kind.

      • cory

        Joey are you talking about the wanted poster from the Jefferson City Missouri escape? If so I too have that poster and have looked everywhere for the same one and can’t find any pictures anywhere I have tried looking ( for the past year) I sure would like to find out some way to value this.

    • Judy McCarthy

      INSIDE BRUSHY
      I was at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary several times from 1983 until it closed. The first time I went there I was a fledgling attorney, hardly a year out of law school. My assignment was to interview a male prisoner, a key witness in a car accident. I scheduled a visit on a Sunday afternoon, not wanting to waste a business day driving back and forth from Knoxville, where I practiced law, to Petros, where Brushy Mountain is located.

      In 1983, female lawyers were rare in East Tennessee. I had worked on a death penalty case my last year in law school, however, and during my first year as an attorney I worked on the appeal of that case. I had thus been in several jails and to Death Row at the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville and considered myself knowledgeable about prison procedures.

      When I reached Brushy Mountain, I parked in a gravel lot and walked to a guard shack wearing a silk blouse, bespoke suit, and pumps. A guard directed me to the visitor’s entrance. When I walked inside, the prison’s interior was as bleak as its exterior. All surfaces were covered in thickly applied institutional paint and the lighting was dim. The light fixtures looked like they had not been replaced since the 1930s or 40s. I felt like I had walked onto the set of Grade B crime flick. A guard received me and placed me alone in a windowless room. It was July and the prison had no air conditioning. After three sweltering hours in a room where the thermometer, the only thing available to read, rested at 101 degrees, the guard finally returned. He escorted me through three sets of cage doors, each set locking behind us as we stepped into the next set. As the third set locked, I had a moment of panic. “I should have brought someone with me,” I thought.

      Based on prior experience, I hadn’t worn a belt or any jewelry. I left my purse in the trunk of my car and carried only a legal pad, pen, business card, and driver’s license. The guard led me to a table where a male and female guard sat doing nothing. The male guard at the table took my pad, pen, and identification to inspect. When he didn’t give them back, I began to feel even more uncomfortable.

      “Go with her,” the male guard said, nodding at the female guard and holding my get-out-of-jail-free belongings. I followed her into a huge lavatory. The windowless room was tiled—floor, walls and ceiling. Twenty sinks of 1930s vintage stood along one wall. Twenty stalls with no doors stood across from the sinks. There were no mirrors.

      “Take off your clothes,” the female guard demanded.

      “No,” I answered.

      “You have to be strip- and cavity-searched to visit an inmate here,” she said.

      “No, I don’t!” I said. “You don’t strip- and cavity-search male attorneys, and you’re not going to strip- and cavity-search me.”

      I hoped I sounded emphatic enough, but I was terrified. “I want to speak to the warden,” I said. “Immediately!”

      “You can’t talk to him. It’s Sunday. He’s at home.”

      “I will talk to him,” I said. “He’s on the grounds. I know where his home is. I made my appointment to be here with him personally. He knows I’m here. Be prepared to explain to him why you’ve kept me in a waiting room for three hours and why you now think you can strip-search me.”

      I knew the guards had to think someone knew where I was. I couldn’t think of anyone better to allude to. I was bluffing, of course. The only person who knew I was at Brushy, my husband, was an hour away in Knoxville, and I’d made the appointment through the warden’s secretary.

      The guard seemed hesitant. “Call the warden,” I said again. “Go ahead, call him! And I want to talk to him first.”

      “Just a minute,” the guard said, stepping into the hall.

      I don’t know how long it was before she came back, but it was one of the longest waits of my life—emotionally longer than awaiting the birth of my son who arrived three weeks late.

      Finally, the door opened and the female guard returned. “I talked to the warden. You don’t have to be searched,” she said.

      I walked out to the table, the male guard handed me my belongings, and the escort took me back through the three lock-ups to the door where I originally entered. We moved down a different hallway and he opened the door to a visiting room. My witness sat on one side of a counter on a stool and I sat on the other. A wall of glass separated us; we spoke through a round, metal ventilator. The witness, a passenger in a car involved in my lawsuit accident, remembered nothing about the car wreck.

      I drove back to Knoxville, never to return to Brushy Mountain alone again.

    • BubbaPicasso

      Outstanding piece, Monty, and Judy provided the perfect sidebar!

    • http://www.thisis50.com/ Fifty Cent

      I’m just glad they got the sucka!

    • Jon Sinton

      As a second grader in 1962 in Oak Ridge, I got a terrifying look inside Brushy Mountain. I’m sure the foreboding nature of it was enhanced by my size relative to the institution. It was Spring. The place was hot as blazes, and so incredibly humid the bars seemed to sweat. We did not tour the cell blocks, but were allowed to see the cafeteria (grim) and some kind of occupational space where we bought leather crafts fashioned by the inmates. I just asked my brother in Dallas if he still has the wallet he bought. The idea of a gift shop, and tours seemed perfectly natural then.

    • Rocky Leonhardt

      I was a guard @ Brushy when J E Ray escaped. I have a letter from, then gov. Ray Blanton congratulating me in helping in his capture. As a junior guard, the only thing I did was man a tower for 16 hrs a day, while the “heroes” went out and beat the bushes. We were so proud that our own guards found the escapees. The feds came in and treated us like a bunch of shoeless hillbillies, with no teeth. They were totally obnoxious and arrogant and didn’t know their butt from a hole in the ground. They even detained guards that had come in in their civilian clothes to help in the search.

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