At 11 o’clock in the morning on Saturday, June 8th 1968 an immigration officer at Heathrow Airport took a look at a passenger’s Canadian passport and said;
“Would you please step into our office for some routine questions, Mr Sneyd”.
The man he called Mr Sneyd entered the office but when he saw a policeman standing there, all he could say was “Oh God, I feel so trapped” and allowed himself to be arrested.
The bespectacled Mr Sneyd was found to have a .38 caliber revolver in his back pocket and he also, rather suspiciously, had another passport on him under another name.
Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Superintendent Tommy Butler, a man not particularly shy of publicity, soon arrived at Heathrow to make the arrest. Butler had become well known to the British public after the arrest of the Great Train Robbers four years earlier. The observant immigration official’s initial suspicions were confirmed by the senior policeman and fingerprints proved that Sneyd was, in reality, Illinois-born 40 year old James Earl Ray – the escaped convict accused of assassinating Martin Luther King on April 4 in Memphis Tennessee.
Four days after he had left his fingerprints on the Remington rifle that had killed Dr King, Ray drove across the Canadian border and rented a room in Toronto. It was well-known amongst American prisoners (Ray had been an habitual but unsuccessful criminal pretty well all his adult life), that it was ludicrously easy to get a Canadian passport.
Essentially all you really had to do was swear that you were Canadian and ask for one. Ray asked for a passport under the name of Ramon George Sneyd – a Toronto policeman whose name was probably picked at random from a city directory. On May 6 he flew on a BOAC plane to London, and the next day he flew on to Portugal.
The FBI, meanwhile, launched their biggest manhunt in its history but there seemed to be almost no leads at all. However, on June 1, there came a big break. At the FBI’s request (they were also aware of Canada’s lax passport rules), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had been checking hundreds of thousands of passport photos and eventually they came across a picture that closely resembled the escaped convict and the only real suspect for Martin Luther King’s murder – James Earl Ray
While all this was going on, Ray was in Lisbon working out his next move. He apparently attempted to change his fake passport, but only got as far as changing the ‘d’ in Sneyd to an ‘a’. He told the Canadian consul: “My name has been misspelled,” and he was issued with a new passport on May 16.
The next day Ray flew back to London and anonymously stayed in one of the hundreds of back-street seedy hostels around the Victoria, Pimilico and Earls Court areas of London. On May 28 he checked into the New Earl’s Court Hotel situated at 35-37 Penywern Road – a pretty seedy and run-down street in those days. Jane Nassau the receptionist at the hotel apparently helped Ray with the confusing 5p and 10p coins that had been introduced a month or so before. She later stated that: “I recognised his southern drawl and wondered why he had a Canadian passport.”
On June 5 Ray moved again, this time staying at the Pax Hotel at 126 Warwick Way (equally seedy in the late sixties) which was run by Swedish-born Mrs. Anna Thomas. She later stated that for the next three days, Ray never left his room for more than 20 minutes, even refusing to to emerge for four telephone calls, two of them from an airline. When she brought breakfast to Ray’s door:
“He was always fully dressed. I had the idea that he never got undressed for bed.”
Although it isn’t really known how he got the number, on June 6 Ray, while he was staying at the Pax Hotel, mysteriously telephoned Ian Colvin, a senior journalist at the Daily Telegraph and asked him for a contact who could help him to become a mercenary. Colvin offered an address in Brussels and it was to there Ray was heading when he was arrested at Heathrow two days later.
He was initially charged at Cannon Row police station with possessing a forged passport and having a firearm without a certificate but on June 14th James Earl Ray entered the witness box at Bow Street Magistrates Court for his extradition hearing. He flatly denied that he had killed Martin Luther King. Roger Frisby, his British lawyer asked him these questions:
“Are you the man who was arrested at London Airport?
“Did you know Dr. Martin Luther King?
“Had you ever met him personally in your life?”
“Have you ever had any grudge of any kind against him?”
“Did you kill Dr. Martin Luther King?”
However, Ray almost certainly did kill him and he was quickly extradited to the States and charged with King’s murder. He confessed to the assassination on March 10, 1969, (though three days later he wrote a letter to the court asking that his plea be set aside – the judge refused the request) and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
He died in 1998 at age 70 from complications related to kidney disease, caused by hepatitis C probably contracted as a result of a blood transfusion given after a stabbing while at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.