TORONTO – Amid the known facts, mythology, questions and conspiracy theories that surround the man convicted of assassinating civil rights leader Martin Luther King 40 years ago, one thing is certain: as a fugitive, James Earl Ray spent time in Toronto.
Far less certain, however, is how exactly Ray spent his time in the city before fleeing on a fraudulently obtained Canadian passport to England, where he was nabbed by police.
Ray, a career petty criminal, arrived in Toronto on April 6, 1968 – days after King was shot. He had crossed into Windsor, Ont., from Detroit and took a train or bus to Toronto – a city he had not visited before.
As the story goes, he stayed at the Waverly Hotel on Spadina Avenue and drank next-door at the Silver Dollar, a landmark saloon and strip club that now hosts blues music.
“It’s sort of like well known,” Paul Wynn, owner of the hotel and club, which he bought in 1984, said of Ray’s stay.
“I don’t know if there’s any record. The Waverly is a by-the-hour kind of place, so when people are dealing with that kind of business, they don’t really keep records.”
Still, Wynn said, there were people at the time who remembered Ray as having haunted the club, which still flaunts the alleged connection.
“Rumour holds that the infamous James Earl Ray hid out at the Waverly, frequenting the club while on the lam,” the Silver Dollar’s website proclaims.
However, Ray himself told the Ottawa Sun from prison in 1993 that he had never heard of the club.
Instead, he would testify, that he spent several weeks floating between two west-end rooming houses – renting one at 102 Ossington Ave., for $10 a week from Fela Szpakowsky, and the other at $9 a week from Yee Sun Loo at 962 Dundas St. W.
The two places are about one kilometre apart, putting them within easy walking distance. To avoid arousing suspicion, he would tell each landlady he was going to work, then head to the other room.
Loo would later say a “fat man” delivered an envelope to Ray – fuelling more conspiracy chat because the next day, he went to a travel agent a few blocks north on Bloor Street, applied for a passport and bought a plane ticket to London.
Fifteen years ago, a couple of men in suits – apparently from the U.S. government – showed up at Wynn’s office. They said they were investigating the various conspiracy theories and wanted to ask about Ray’s connection to the hotel, he said.
“They explained to me that Ray had stayed there for a week,” said Wynn, who put them in touch with the former owner. He wanted nothing to do with them.
Asking about Ray at the front desk at the Waverly this past weekend elicited a furrowed brow and a question about whether he was the one who had caused trouble a week ago at the Comfort Zone, another club adjacent to the hotel.
Ray had been in Canada before – in Montreal in 1967 – after escaping from a penitentiary in Missouri. It was in Montreal that he claimed to have met a mysterious character called “Raoul” with whom he was staying at a rooming house in Memphis, Tenn., when King was gunned down.
Another certainty is that Canadian passport authorities, stung by the ease with which Ray had been able to obtain the document under false pretences, tightened the rules substantially.
Ray, it appears, assumed various identities by scanning birth notices or death notices – or perhaps the phone book – and was able to get the passport under the name Ramon George Sneyd, a Toronto police officer.
Use of that alias and three others from the Toronto area helped fuel the conspiracy theories – among them that the CIA had been involved in King’s murder.
Ray initially confessed to the crime, apparently to avoid the death penalty, but recanted within days, swearing until his death he had nothing to do with the shooting that rocked the United States.
He died of liver disease in 1998 while serving a 99-year term.