The wedding day, Friday the 13th, was bleak and rainy, and the setting—the visiting gallery at Tennessee’s grim Brushy Mountain state prison—was an incongruous one for festivity. The groom, in a borrowed sportcoat, trembled visibly. Afterward the bride, freelance artist Anna Sailing Sandhu, 31, celebrated with friends at a quiet restaurant in Knoxville. Her new husband, James Earl Ray, 50, spent his wedding night in his cell, where he is serving a 99-year sentence for the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Why should Sandhu, an educated (University of Tennessee), strong-willed divorcee, choose to link her future with that of a convicted assassin? Perhaps part of the answer may be found in her past. Years ago her father disinherited her after her marriage to an Indian student. “He told me I needn’t come home anymore,” recalls Sandhu. “The challenge seemed to turn me on. I felt I had enough strength to do anything I wanted. And I had something to prove.” Recently Sandhu spoke movingly of her new marriage with PEOPLE correspondent Joyce Leviton.
How did you meet your husband?
I was doing the drawings for a TV interview just after James’ escape trial in 1977. The reporter was asking things like, “Are you intending to escape and, if so, where?” and James and I were smiling at each other because the questions were so silly. Later he sat down beside me. He has the most direct gaze of any man I’ve ever known. I’ve seen men look at me and turn their eyes away, but James will look right into your eyes and won’t flinch. The first thing he said to me was, “Do you know anything about Picasso?”
What happened then?
Before the interview the reporter had bought a lot of copies of the book about James, Code Name Zorro. He threw them on the table in front of him and said, “Sign these. They’re for your fans in the newsroom.” James turned red in the face, and later I said, “You didn’t like that, did you?” He said it made him feel like a baseball player who had hit a home run or something. And he said, “I’m not proud of what I’m accused of.” People think James is unfeeling and they don’t take the time to get to know him. But I go to court a lot and I read people’s faces. I feel their pain and I know what they’re going through. I felt this with James. It was just as though I could read his mind.
When did you arrange to see him again?
I made some money from the interview, and I used it to buy James some books. Then I wrote him and said, “I’d like to be your friend. I know you don’t have any visitors, but I’d like to talk to you, and I won’t tell anyone what you say to me.” He wrote back, saying, “I’d be happy to have you visit me.” So I did. I was so nervous the first day I tripped going into the visiting room. He smiled and said, “You probably believe all those things you’ve read about me, and if you do you’re convinced I’m going to jump across this table.” Actually, he’s a very romantic man. He writes beautiful love letters.
When did you decide to get married?
Two months ago I was talking with James, and I said, “I really love you.” He said, “I’m glad.” I asked if he would consider getting married, and he said, “No”—just like that. He was very emphatic. “Somebody might hurt you,” he said. “They might say bad things about you.” I said, “I can handle whatever they dish out, but I can’t keep coming here this way and I don’t know how to give you up. Should I just quit?” He couldn’t have stood that, and I couldn’t.
Don’t you expect to be ridiculed?
I don’t want trouble, I don’t like to hurt people and I hate suffering and pain. But some things are more important than doing what’s expected of you. This may not be the easiest road to take, but at least I know it’s the right one. I can tell that James’ love is sincere. He’s not a saint, and I’ve even called him a penny-ante crook. But that was because I didn’t want people to say, “She’s a nut. She’s fantasizing. Prisons must be her thing.” I’m not like that. And I didn’t get married for publicity. I am a very private person, and I don’t like people watching me.
Some people suspect that you’re merely gathering material for a book.
Once I didn’t want people to know I cared about James. I was afraid they would stop me from seeing him. So when they asked I’d tell them I was stringing him along on the chance that he would tell me something. But I turned down more than $15,000 from the Enquirer for an exclusive interview and pictures, and I have told James I would sacrifice any amount of money to get the truth about him across to the public. That’s our only hope.
Aren’t you frustrated being separated?
Obviously there will be no sex. I wish there would. But I like to paint, and I sublimate my emotions. I have very intense feelings, and when they come out in my work my paintings are much better. Really, it helps. What James gives me emotionally is just terrific.
Do you believe in his innocence?
I don’t think James killed Martin Luther King. I’m sure he was a part of it in some way, but it was without his knowledge of what was going on. I’m sure that James thought he was smuggling guns or something like that. I know that James would never be party to a murder because, as he said, he could have gotten the same kind of money by robbing a supermarket. I know a lot more about this than I’m telling you now, but I know James is innocent.