By Richard Jerome
May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had come to Memphis on a familiar mission: to support a strike, this one by the city’s sanitation workers. But late in the afternoon, on April 4, 1968, the nation’s foremost civil rights leader was in a room of the Lorraine Motel having a pillow fight with fellow activists Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. “Pillow fights were something we did all the time,” recalls Young, 66, later the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “They relieved the tension.” Less than an hour later, a little after 6 p.m., King, 39, lay dying on the motel balcony, shot once by a sniper.

The killing of one of America’s most eloquent advocates of nonviolence rocked a country already torn apart by the Vietnam war and urban race riots. It also spawned one of the late 20th century’s most troubling mysteries—one that now may never be solved. On April 23, almost three weeks after the nation marked the 30th anniversary of King’s murder, James Earl Ray, 70, the confessed assassin who later insisted he was innocent, died at Columbia Nashville Memorial Hospital in Tennessee, after a long bout with liver disease.

Most historians and law enforcement officials regard Ray as one of history’s clear-cut villains. Lee Coffee, a Shelby County prosecutor involved in a recent four-year reexamination of the case, insists, “It is abundantly clear and indisputable that James Earl Ray is the man who pulled the trigger.”

But Ray, who recanted his confession three days after drawing a 99-year sentence, had pressed in recent years for a trial that he insisted would vindicate him. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he told the Today show April 3 in his last interview. Along the way he gained some unlikely allies, including King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, who believes Ray either did not act alone or had no role at all. As recently as April 8, King asked U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to reopen the investigation—a request still under consideration. “We presented new evidence that has come to our attention,” King told reporters without elaborating.

Certainly most Americans hate to think that their giants can be brought down by the likes of Ray. One of nine children, he was born in Alton, Ill., to factory worker James Gerald Ray, a convicted robber, and his wife, Lucille, a cleaning woman. He quit school at 16 to work in a shoe factory and enlisted in the Army in 1946 but was discharged after missing guard duty, going AWOL and serving three months in the stockade. Over the next two decades, Ray spent almost 14 years behind bars for robbery, vagrancy and forgery.

In April 1967 he escaped from the Missouri state penitentiary in Jefferson City, where he was doing 20 years for armed robbery. A year later, on April 4, Ray checked into room 5-B of a Memphis rooming house across from the Lorraine Motel. Though he vanished after the shooting, he was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport on June 8, 1968.

Ray’s incarceration was not uneventful. In 1977 he escaped from Brushy Mountain state prison but was recaptured in three days. In 1978 he married courtroom artist Anna Sandhu (they divorced 14 years later), and in 1981, Ray was stabbed by three black inmates. Doctors later theorized that a blood transfusion he received for the treatment of those wounds contained the hepatitis-C virus that destroyed his liver.

Ray lived his last days in an 8-foot-square cell. Though widely characterized as racist, he got along “with everybody, young or old, black or white,” says his brother Jerry Ray, 63, a retired security guard. Twenty days before his death, Ray seemed indifferent to history’s verdict. “I don’t care,” he told Today. “I have no interest in how I’m remembered now.”

Richard Jerome

Kate Klise and Beverly Keel in Nashville and Gail Wescott in Atlanta