After killing Martin Luther King Jr., the veteran thief planned to use the Big Smoke as his path to freedom, author explains
June 06, 2010, Geoff Pevere
James Earl Ray was a veteran thief and accomplished jailboard who had previously obtained a false identity in Toronto. Now he was back in town.
It was early in the evening of April 6, 1968, that there was a knock on the door of 102 Ossington Ave. It was answered by Feliksa Szpakowski, who had a room on the second floor for $8 a week.
According to author Hampton Sides, the man on the other side of the screen probably struck the middle-aged Polish woman like this: “He’s hard to read. He mumbles. He’s kind of hard to understand. He averts his gaze, but he looks fairly innocuous. He dresses well and he is usually wearing a suit. I think he was wearing a suit that day. Kind of average height, average weight, very difficult face to remember. He didn’t look like an assassin.”
But he was. Two days earlier, in Memphis, Tenn., the man on Szapkowski’s doorstep — who was calling himself Paul Bridgman and claimed he worked in real estate — had fired a fatal bullet through the face and neck of Martin Luther King Jr.
Although Szapkowski thought it odd that a real estate agent would be seeking a cheap room in one of Toronto’s more rundown ethnic neighbourhoods — 102 Ossington was just north of the Queen St. mental hospital and across from the gym where Cassius Clay, now know as Muhammad Ali, had trained for his bout against George Chuvalo — she took the money and left her new tenant be.
James Earl Ray was back in Toronto.
As Sides, Memphis-born author of Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King and the International Hunt for His Assassin, explains over the phone from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., Toronto was a city the killer knew. It was in Toronto that he’d acquired his false identity as Eric Galt, and it was largely for that purpose that he returned.
A couple weeks shy of a year before, the man who would soon be calling himself Paul Bridgman — also known as Eric Galt, but born James Earl Ray Jr. — had escaped from the Jefferson City Penitentiary in Missouri. A veteran thief and experienced jailbird, he’d hidden himself in a large metal box beneath dozens of loaves of bread. He’d been on the run ever since, scheming how he might make his mark. He’d considered a career as a pornography director, had taken a course in bartending, and thought he might join a mercenary army in Rhodesia. At some point, he also decided he’d rid the world of the civil rights leader named Martin Luther King Jr.
Only one of these plans worked out.
It led him back to Toronto.
Sides explains. “It was a city he knew. He had gotten his earlier identification from Toronto. Eric Galt was actually someone who lived in Toronto. So I think he had gone there expressly to get identification in a city that he knew. He probably had some criminal contacts there, and he was trying to get to London and ultimately to Rhodesia. I guess he figured with good reason that there’d be lots of flights and being part of the Commonwealth, it would be a fairly direct way to get there.”
Ray was no stranger to cheap rooming houses. Indeed it was from the shared bathroom of one of them, which backed onto the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, that he fired the shot that killed King. After fleeing that building and that city in his white Mustang, he’d driven to Atlanta — King’s home — and hopped a Greyhound bound for Detroit. Mexico was an option, but he settled on Canada as an easier escape route to Rhodesia, where he anticipated both haven and a hero’s welcome for what he’d done.
Says Sides: “He had taken a bus all the way up there from Atlanta and was desperately trying to find some new ID for himself, because he knew it was only a matter of time before they would figure out, they were looking for this guy Eric Galt. I don’t think he thought they would figure out they were looking for James Earl Ray for a while, but the name Eric Galt was bound to turn up pretty soon. So he had to scramble and get some more ID. Which he did pretty quickly.”
And dedicatedly. Szapkowski barely saw her new tenant, who left the television on all the time and only seemed to emerge to buy cheap food supplies and newspapers. Dozens of newspapers. Once, she came upon him with a bundle of them under his arm. As she later told police investigators, “I noticed how worried he looked. I thought maybe he was worried about his family. I really thought he might be from the mental hospital down the street.”
One of his local destinations was the office of The Telegram. From the newspaper’s microfilm archive, he acquired names of people born roughly when he was — the early 1930s. Following a procedure he’d once read was practised by Soviet spies in Canada, he wrote down about 10 names — one of which was Ramon George Sneyd — and headed back to Ossington Ave. If the names corresponded with a number in the Toronto telephone book, he’d write down the address and then surreptitiously hang around the person’s home until he was satisfied they looked enough like him to qualify as an alias. In Scarborough, he scoped out two candidates — Bridgman and Sneyd — then went back downtown and, brazenly, called them up.
Posing as “a registrar with the Passport Office in Canada,” he’d ask if they’d recently filed for a passport. If they hadn’t, or if their old one had expired, James Earl Ray would attempt to seek one out in their names. It was easy and it worked. He eventually acquired one in the name of Ramon George Sneyd — in real life, of all things, a cop — and in the process bore out what was once the unofficial motto of the Canadian customs and immigration office, and the title of one of Sides’ chapters: “Canada Believes You.”
Worrying, however, that his landlady or the police might not, Ray as Bridgman left the newpaper-strewn room at 102 Ossington and moved around the corner to 962 Dundas St. W. There he rented a room under the name Ramon Sneyd and awaited the processing of the new passport. It took longer than he liked. By now the world was focused on the manhunt for Martin Luther King’s killer, and it would only be a matter of time before the trail to Toronto was tracked. Although Ray didn’t know it at the time, apprehending King’s killer had been made a No. 1 priority by the FBI, in no small part because J. Edgar Hoover was worried his own agency, which had long stalked and harassed King as a potential enemy of the state, might be tagged with the murder.
One day, a distracted Ray walked out into a busy Toronto street. A cop spotted him jaywalking and asked the man if he knew he’d broken the law. A ticket was in order, and the cop asked Ray for his name and address.
From his past he pulled both: another phony name and the address of a brothel he’d once patronized at 6 Condor Ave.
Ray took the ticket, paid the $3 fine, and headed back to 962 Dundas Ave. His time in Toronto was clearly coming to and end.
By the time James Earl Ray boarded a plane bound for London, a month to the day after his arrival, Toronto had lost its dull sheen as a good place to hide. This newspaper had plastered his photograph on the front page (under the headline: “FBI SAYS THERE WAS CONSPIRACY — MYSTERIOUS SEAMAN SOUGHT IN KING DEATH”) and his ex-landlady attempted, unsuccessfully, to convince her husband that the man in the picture was her former tenant Paul Bridgman. “You’re crazy in the head,” Szpakowski’s husband apparently replied.
After Ray was caught trying to board yet another plane in London, authorities would retrace his steps back to 102 Ossington, and they’d come knocking at the same door. Suddenly, Szpakowski didn’t seem so crazy.
When, 40 years later, Hampton Sides came to Toronto to research Ray’s month here, he was astounded by the discrepancy between the Dundas-Ossington neighbourhood he’d read about in his research and the shiny, bustling, cafe-strewn strip he encountered.
“It didn’t seem down at the heels at all,” he told me.
And so it isn’t. Forty-two years after Martin Luther King’s assassin quietly stalked these streets in search of newspapers and new identities, they have been transformed into a model of upscale urban renewal, sprinkled with shops, boutiques and restaurants largely patronized by people not even born when the killer came to town. Even the old “mental hospital” has experienced a multimillion-dollar facelift.
The effect was jarring, but it amused Hampton Sides. After all, the same thing had happened to two other “down at the heels” neighbourhoods where Ray had hid out: the once-grotty Memphis neighbourhood that housed the Lorraine Motel, and the part of London “Ramon Sneyd” had tucked himself into after fleeing Toronto. Both are hipster havens.
“It makes you wonder,” Sides speculates, “if he had some kind of strange radar for urban renewal. Maybe he really should have been a real estate agent.”
Toronto house that hid James Earl Ray up for sale
By Steve Darley, National Post
For sale: Two-bedroom detached home in Riverdale, with upstairs office, parking, and a notorious history.
The house, a former brothel at 6 Condor Ave. near Pape and Danforth, briefly housed a fugitive James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King. The American civil rights leader was gunned down on April 4, 1968.
According to a CBC report, Ray used the house for at least one night shortly after he arrived in Toronto, on either April 6 or April 8, 1968, and gave it as his address after Toronto police stopped him for jaywalking.
The house goes on the market today at $550,000. The listing agent, Gary Sylvester, didn’t appear yesterday to see the house’s history as a selling point.
“My understanding is there is nothing factual to prove those allegations at this address,” Mr. Sylvester said.
“I would say that properties at different times have different stigmas associated with them, for different reasons, where something factually has transpired in the property, maybe someone was murdered. Things like that are going to affect the value of the property. There is nothing on this property that we feel is a stigma, per se.”
According to the CBC, Ray stayed in a number of rooming houses around the city until May 6, when he flew to London, England.
The report said Ray travelled under a number of aliases as he tried to evade a worldwide manhunt. Toronto police stopped Ray for jaywalking on Monday, April 8; he told them his name was Eric S. Galt and his address was 6 Condor St. There is no Condor Street in Toronto, only a Condor Avenue.
The CBC said the Condor Avenue address was known to police at the time as a brothel, owned by George Kapakos and Jeannine Roberts, who was also the madam. During testimony in 1977, Ray said he got the address from a Lonely Hearts Club advertisement in an adult magazine. According to the CBC report, neighbours said Mr. Kapakos was always armed and that the “place got shot up one night,” which led to undercover police surveillance becoming a regular occurrence.
Police also found a Toronto map, belonging to Ray with 6 Condor Ave. circled, along with two other rooming houses. Ray was finally arrested on June 8, 1968, at Heathrow Airport in London. In March, 1969, he pleaded guilty to murdering Mr. King.
Kim Denyer, a daughter-in-law of the current owners, said they had been there for more than 20 years and were unaware of the property’s colourful history when they bought the house.