Months Before James Earl Ray Killed King, He Found a Place Where He Fit In

Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2018

The hypnotist called himself the Rev. Xavier von Koss, and advertised courses in “MASTER HYPNOTISM.” He would probably be forgotten now, but his name appears briefly in investigators’ files on the death of Martin Luther King Jr., an accidental witness to history.

On Jan. 4, 1968, at his South Bay office, Von Koss met a man named Eric S. Galt.

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Galt appeared to be one of Southern California’s many drifters, in search of personal reinvention. Von Koss’ $20 courses, as advertised in The Times, promised the “Innermost Hidden Secrets of HYPNOTIC MIND-POWER.”

“He told me he was considering taking a course in bartending.… But when I emphasized that he must complete his course in bartending, that he must work hard, that he must go to night school, that he must construct a settled-down life, I could feel a wall rising between us,” Von Koss recalled later to a journalist. “I lost him. His mind moved far away from what I was saying to him.”

The drifter left after a 45-minute session and never came back.

Four months later to the day, the man in Von Koss’ office — whose actual name was James Earl Ray — fatally shot King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. In time the world would know Ray as a small-time crook and racist and mistakenly associated him with the South, where he picked up a fake identity. He was from the Midwest.

But he also spent time in Southern California, a region that wasn’t just a home to liberal attitudes and protests. Back then, far-right activism was on the rise too. Ray fit right in. Looking back on Ray’s time in Los Angeles shows a region where, 50 years ago, he could blend in — politically, demographically, culturally.

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Now that he was an Angeleno, Ray, like many other Southern Californians, proceeded to embrace a program of self-reinvention. He first saw Mark O. Freeman, a clinical psychologist who specialized in hypnosis, hoping to overcome his “shyness” and to remember things better, though Freeman had another suspicion.

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“While he was trying to get a job, and to learn to dance, and to tend bar, he consulted no fewer than eight different psychiatrists, hypnotists and Scientologists, trying to find relief from his depressions and feelings of inadequacy,” the journalist William Bradford Huie wrote in his book on Ray, “He Slew the Dreamer.”

Huie’s assertion that Ray consulted with Scientologists during his time in Los Angeles — possibly drawn from Huie’s own correspondence with Ray, whom Huie paid for his account of King’s assassination — has received little attention by historians and investigators.

The Church of Scientology today denies any such encounter with Ray, and it contends that Huie’s checkbook methods tainted his journalism.

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On Jan. 21, 1968, Ray moved to Room 403 of St. Francis Hotel at 5533 Hollywood Blvd. One FBI special agent later called the area “a racially integrated ‘den of iniquity,’ alive with prostitution and drug trafficking,” but noted that most of St. Francis’ residents were white.

The bars in the area were racially integrated, and Ray got in a fight outside the Rabbit’s Foot Club at 5623 Hollywood Blvd. after having an argument in support of George Wallace, the Alabama governor and fervent segregationist.

Ray heatedly told one woman at the bar, “I’ll drop you off in Watts and we’ll see if you like it there.”

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The John Birch Society was one pillar of the right-wing insurgency. Ray had contacted the archconservative group when he was seeking information about immigrating to Rhodesia, an African nation ruled by whites in present-day Zimbabwe. He also contacted a chapter of the Friends of Rhodesia in Orange County, a hotbed of right-wing activism.

Wallace was another pillar of California’s far-right insurgency, campaigning up and down the coast as part of his rogue 1968 presidential campaign. Wallace went on to win 7% of California’s votes.

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The implications of the right-wing insurgency — the signs of a white backlash — were not lost among civil rights activists. In a sermon at the Second Baptist Church in South Los Angeles on March 16, King said he saw the same hatred on the faces of Southern sheriffs as on those of John Birch Society members in California.

The next day, March 17, Ray left Los Angeles. Less than three weeks later, he killed King. Experts and journalists plumbed his psyche to see whether there was some motive more sophisticated than racism.

Perhaps what was even more disturbing were the letters that poured in from Californians as Ray sat in jail, awaiting trial.

“King stirred up violence and caused many to lose their lives,” a supporter from Loma Linda wrote to Ray, according to letters Huie excerpted in an appendix to his book. “The FBI classified him as a trouble-maker. If you killed King, you did a good job, for he had it coming to him.”

“Many people out here are in your corner rooting for you,” a supporter from Goleta told Ray. “We will send you money for cigarettes, candy and magazines. We’re sure you will be acquitted.”

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His time in Southern California had one odd postscript. He graduated from the bartender school in March, and a photograph at his graduation shows him posing with the owner. He closed his eyes, as if to avoid being recognized by anyone who saw his picture.

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