The Strange Connection
to the Murder of Martin Luther King
One of the persistent problems in researching Jonestown is that it seems to lead to so many other criminal activities, each with its own complex history and cast of characters. Perhaps the most disturbing of these is the connection that appears repeatedly between the characters in the Jonestown story and the key people involved in the murder and investigating of Martin Luther King.
The first clue to this link appeared in the personal histories of the members of the Ryan investigation team who were so selectively and deliberately killed at Port Kaituma. Don Harris, a veteran NBC reporter, had been the only network newsman on the scene to cover Martin Luther King's activity in Memphis at the time of King's assassination. He had interviewed key witnesses at the site. His coverage of the urban riots that followed won him an Emmy award. Gregory Robinson, a "fearless" journalist from the San Francisco Examiner, had photographed the same riots in Washington, D.C. When he was approached for copies of the films by Justice Department officials, he threw the negatives into the Potomac river.
The role of Mark Lane, who served as attorney for Jim Jones, is even more clearly intertwined. Lane had co-authored a book with Dick Gregory, claiming FBI complicity in the King murder. He was hired as the attorney for James Earl Ray, accused assassin, when Ray testified before the House Select Committee on Assassinations about King. Prior to this testimony, Ray was involved in an unusual escape plot at Brushy Mountain State Prison. The prisoner who had helped engineer the escape plot was later inexplicably offered an early, parole by members of the Tennessee Governor's office. These officials, and Governor Blanton himself, were to come under close public scrutiny and face legal charges in regard to bribes taken to arrange illegal early pardons for prisoners.
One of the people living at Jonestown was ex-FBI agent Wesley Swearington, who at least publicly condemned the COINTELPRO operations and other abuses, based on stolen classified documents, at the Jonestown site. Lane had reportedly met with him there at least a year before the massacre. Terri Buford said the documents were passed on to Charles Garry. Lane used information from Swearingen in his thesis on the FBI and King's murder. Swearingen later served as a key witness in suits against the Justice Department brought by the Socialist Workers Party. When Larry Flynt, the flamboyant publisher of Hustler magazine, offered a, $1 million reward leading to the capture and conviction of the John F. Kennedy killers, the long distance number listed to collect information and leads was being answered by Mark Lane and Wesley Swearingen.
With help from officials in Tennessee, Governor Blanton's office, Lane managed to get legal custody of a woman who had been incarcerated in the Tennessee state psychiatric system for nearly eight years. This woman, Grace Walden Stephens, had been a witness in the King murder. She was living at the time in Memphis in a rooming house across from the hotel when Martin Luther King was shot. The official version of events had Ray located in the common bathroom of the rooming house, and claimed he used a rifle to murder King from that window. Grace Stephens did, indeed, see a man run from the bathroom, past her door and down to the street below. A rifle, later linked circumstantially to James Earl Ray, was found inside a bundle at the base of the rooming house stairs, and identified as the murder weapon. But Grace, who saw the man clearly, refused to identify him as Ray when shown photographs by the FBI. Her testimony was never introduced at the trial. The FBI relied, instead, on the word of her common law husband, Charles Stephens, who was drunk and unconscious at the time of the incident. Her persistence in saying that it was not James Earl Ray was used at her mental competency hearings as evidence against her, and she disappeared into the psychiatric system.
Grace Walden Stephens took up residence in Memphis with Lane, her custodian, and Terri Buford, a key Temple member who had returned to the U.S. before the killings to live with Lane. While arranging for her to testify before the Select Committee on Ray's behalf, Lane and Buford were plotting another fate for Grace Stephens. Notes from Buford to Jones, found in the aftermath of the killings, discussed arrangements with Lane to move Grace Stephens to Jonestown. The problem that remained was lack of a passport, but Buford suggested either getting a passport on the black market, or using the passport of former Temple member Maxine Swaney. Swaney, dead for nearly 2-1/2 years since her departure from the Ukiah camp, was in no position to argue and Jones apparently kept her passport with him. Whether Grace ever arrived at Jonestown is unclear.
Lane was also forced to leave Ray in the midst of testimony to the Select Committee when he got word that Ryan was planning to visit. Lane had attempted to discourage the trip earlier in a vaguely threatening letter. Now he rushed to be sure he arrived with the group. At the scene, he failed to warn Ryan and others, knowing that the sandwiches and other food might be drugged, but refrained from eating it himself. Later, claiming that he and Charles Garry would write the official history of the "revolutionary suicide," Lane was allowed to leave the pieces of underwear to mark their way back to Georgetown. If true, it seems an unlikely method if they were in any fear of pursuit. They had heard gunfire and screams back at the camp. Lane was reportedly well aware of the forced drugging and suicide drills at Jonestown before Ryan arrived.
Another important figure in the murder of Martin Luther King was his mother, Alberta. A few weeks after the first public announcement by Coretta Scott King that she believed her husband's murder was part of a conspiracy, Mrs. Alberta King was brutally shot to death in Atlanta, while attending church services. Anyone who had seen the physical wounds suffered by King might have been an adverse witness to the official version, since the Wound angles did not match the ballistic direction of a shot from the rooming house. Her death also closely coincided with the reopening of the Tennessee state court review of Ray's conviction based on a guilty plea, required by a 6th Circuit decision. The judge in that case reportedly refused to allow witnesses from beyond a 100-mile radius from the courtroom.
The man convicted of shooting King's mother was Marcus Wayne Chenault. His emotional affect following the murder was unusual. Grinning, he asked if he had hit anyone. He had reportedly been dropped off at the church by people he knew in Ohio. While at Ohio State University, he was part of a group known as "the Troop," run by a Black minister and gun collector who used the name Rabbi Emmanuel Israel. This man, described in the press as a "mentor" for Chenault, left the area immediately after the shooting. In the same period, Rabbi Hill traveled from Ohio to Guyana and set up Hilltown, using similar aliases, and preaching the same message of a "black Hebrew elite." Chenault confided to SCLC leaders that he was one of many killers who were working to assassinate a long list of Black leadership. The names he said were on this list coincided with similar "death lists" distributed by the KKK, and linked to the COINTELPRO operations in the 60s.
The real backgrounds and identities of Marcus Wayne Chenault and Rabbi Hill may never be discovered. But one thing is certain: Martin Luther King Would never had countenanced the preachings of Jim Jones, had he lived to hear them.