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World & Nation

When James Earl Ray came to L.A., months before he killed Martin Luther King, he found a place where he fit in

These pictures of James Earl Ray, alias Eric Starvo Galt, were taken after his first arrest-in Los A
These pictures of James Earl Ray, alias Eric Starvo Galt, were taken after his first arrest, in Los Angeles, in 1949, for burglary. In 1968 he killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. These photos appeared in the April 21, 1968, edition of the Los Angeles Times.
(Los Angeles Times)

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.

For the record:
11:50 AM, Apr. 04, 2018 An earlier version of this story said Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated four months to the day after James Earl Ray met with the Rev. Xavier von Koss. The Jan. 4, 1968, meeting occurred exactly three months before the assassination

Von Koss was one of the many gurus offering enlightenment to Southern Californians as the Southland was being torn apart and reknitted by the racial, political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s.

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.”

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A hypnotist calling himself the Rev. Xavier von Koss took out this classified advertisement in the Dec. 10, 1968, issue of the Los Angeles Times. In January of that year, a man later revealed to be Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, James Earl Ray, visited Von Koss’ office.
(Los Angeles Times )

“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.

Three 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.

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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.

And if his time here did not reveal overt signs of his plot to kill King, his actions suggested a man who was preparing to be on the run and in the shadows. In Los Angeles, he found a place of reinvention that could help him shape a new identity.

June 18, 1961: The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. sits with California Gov. Pat Brown at the Sports Ar
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sits with California Gov. Pat Brown at the L.A. Sports Arena on June 18, 1961. Gov. Brown introduced King for the crowd of 25,000.
(Los Angeles Times )

RELATED: How MLK’s death affected a nation, as told by those who remember it »

Ray had arrived in Los Angeles on Nov. 19, 1967, by way of a circuitous and highly criminal route. The Illinois-born Ray was on the run from a state penitentiary in Missouri, where he had escaped serving a 20-year sentence for robbing a grocery store.

Ray first went to Illinois and to Canada, then to Birmingham, Ala., then to Mexico, and finally to Los Angeles, having picked up the alias “Eric Galt” along the way.

It was a return for Ray, of sorts. Los Angeles was the site of Ray’s first arrest, for burglary, in 1949, and he ended up serving 90 days in jail.

This time, Ray rented an apartment for $100 a month at 1535 N. Serrano Ave., a complex that still stands today, south of Hollywood Boulevard.

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The boulevard was less than reputable, filled with cheap shops, bars and some small movie houses playing what were then called “girlie movies.”

Ray was less than reputable himself. He entertained notions of going into the porn business; he had previously ordered sex books from Futura Books Inc. in Inglewood.

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.

“He had the old power idea of hypnotism,” Freeman told investigators, according to “Killing the Dream,” an account of King’s assassination by Gerald Posner. “That is, that you can go around looking people in the eye and can hypnotize them and make them do what you want them to do.”

Ray embarked on a dizzying array of self-improvement projects, signing up for dance lessons at the National Dance Studio in Long Beach and classes at the International School of Bartending at 2125 Sunset Blvd. in Echo Park.

“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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“We have no record of any previous contacts with this individual at any time and have seen no evidence supporting it in the past 50 years,” the church said in a statement to The Times. “One thing agreed upon by all of the biographers who have attempted to get into the mind of this person is that he has not told the truth about a great many things.”

Ray also visited Dr. Russell Hadley to get plastic surgery for his nose, probably to avoid recognition by authorities. But, according to Huie’s account, Ray said that he “told the doctor I was going to get a job [doing] T.V. commercials was why I wanted plastic surgery.”

The St. Louis Police Department released this picture of James Earl Ray, April 19, 1968. It was made
James Earl Ray in St. Louis, Mo., in 1959.
(Associated Press )

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.”

Ray’s arguments may have been out of place at the Rabbit’s Foot, but such sentiments had gained traction across the state, where far-right forces had grown energized.

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.

Ray was a supporter. At one point, when his drinking friends wanted him to take them on a road trip to New Orleans, Ray required them to join Wallace’s party first.

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.”

RELATED: 1968: How a year of tumultuous events continues to shape our world »

“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.”

Ray had been arrested in London, which he was able to reach with a fake passport. From there he had hoped to go on to Rhodesia. He pleaded guilty to King’s murder and quickly recanted, but remained in prison the rest of his life.

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.

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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