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.”