As I’ve done from time to time, I’m starting another tutorial series. This one’s for everyone, but specifically for crime writers and students of criminology, crim justice, and forensics. For writers, it’s intended to help them incorporate fingerprint ID tactics in their novels. And, as they – and the teachers of students like you – know, it’s a good way to introduce a topic is via a story.
So I’m starting off this series with a story. It’s about how the FBI processed the fingerprints and other meager clues left behind by James Earl Ray, the shadowy and crafty assassin who changed U.S, history.
I’ll be quoting liberally from Hampton Sides’ book, Hellhound On His Trail. It’s the electrifying account of the largest manhunt ever in America. Namely, the hunt for the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr.while King stood on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee April 4, 1968.
“At the FBI Crime Lab in Washington, the fingerprint expert George Bonebrake spent the early-morning hours of April 5 poring over the contents of the package that had been couriered up from Memphis.
A slight fastidious man, Bonebrake was one of the world’s foremost authorities on dactyloscopy, the study and classification of finger and palm prints.
Bonebrake had worked as a fingerprint examiner for the FBI since 1941. His was an esoteric profession within the crime-fighting universe ‐more art, it was said, than science, a closed world of forensic analysis predicated on a foundation of facts so incredible that a thousand bad TV detective shows over the decades had done little to diminish the essential mystery
- that the complex friction-ridge patterns on human fingertips and palms, unique to every individual on earth, carry trace amounts of an oily residue excreted from pores that, when impressed upon certain kinds of surfaces can be” raised” through the use of special dusting powders or chemicals; and then photographed and viewed on cards.
As far-fetched as the discipline seemed to most laymen, fingerprint analysis by 1968 had been the standard technique of criminal identification for more than half a century.
It replaced a bizarre and not terribly accurate method of French origin called the Bertillon system, which required the careful measuring of a criminal’s earlobes and other anatomical parts.
Fingerprinting wasn’t perfect, but it was the best system in existence for narrowing the pool of potential culprits in many situations. In many cases, fingerprinting was a godsend, providing the breakthrough that solved the crime.
In 1968 [after King’s death,] the FBI categorized fingerprints according to the Henry classification system, which was developed by Britain in the late nineteenth century.
Loops and Whorls
The system recognizes three primary friction-ridge patterns, arches, loops, and whorls.
Loops, the most common pattern, are assigned a numerical value according to the number of ridges contained within each pattern found on each digit. Loop patterns can be further described as “radial” or “ulnar,” depending on which direction their microscopic tails point.
Bonebrake got started with his meticulous work shortly after dawn. Most of the prints that he found were fragments or smudges that contained little or no information of value.
The twenty‐dollar bills that [Ray’s landlady] Mrs. Bessie Brewer had provided yielded no usable prints whatsoever.
Eventually, however, Bonebrake was able to lift six high‐quality specimens from the Remington rifle, the Redfield scope, the Bushnell binoculars, the front section of the [Memphis newspaper] Commercial Appeal, the bottle of Mennen Afta aftershave lotion, and one of the Schlitz beer cans [Ray had discarded].
Most of these prints appeared to come from different fingers, but already Bonebrake could tell that two of the prints – those taken from the rifle and the binoculars ‐ were from the same digit of the same individual.
Both seemed to have been deposited by a left thumb, and, upon further study, the print pattern would turn out to be unmistakable: an ulnar loop of twelve ridge counts.
A big break for FBI fingerprint analysts
This was an important find. The FBI had the fingerprints of more than eighty-two million individuals on file ‐ a number obviously too large to work with as fingerprint examiners had to do all matching the old‐fashioned way, by hand, eyeball, and magnifying glass.
This tiny little detail, however, narrowed the search considerably: an ulnar loop of twelve ridge counts on the left thumb. Bonebrake’s task was still formidable, but now he had something definite on which to draw comparisons. He made large black-and-white blowups of all six of the latent prints, and then he and his team got started.[p.238-9]”
Sadness and anger pressure the FBI to ID the killer
Meanwhile, the already sputtering movement led by King is demoralized and struggling to carry on. Sadness by movement leaders at their profound loss is matched by anger in the streets. Blacks protest and riot across the country.
President Lyndon B. Johnson watched from a White House window as smoke billowed from fires set in Washington, DC. What do you expect, he said to advisors “when you put your foot on a man’s nec and hold hi down for 300 years?” Continuing on with author Sides brilliant use of forensic detail in his narrative nonfiction work:
“A few hundred yards away, at FBI headquarters in the Justice Department building, the crime lab technicians remained burrowed in their work.
While fingerprint experts combed through hundreds of thousands of stored print cards, other analysts sifted through the physical evidence that had been flown up from Memphis. Taken together, these dozens of objects formed a vast puzzle. The significant and the random, the potentially crucial and the probably meaningless, were all assembled in a forensic riddle on a well-lit table in the crime lab.
The search for the man in 5b [the assassin’s boardinghouse room] was moving not only outward into the country but downward into the close realm of slides and tiny threads teased from artifacts, and downward into the swimming lenses of laboratory microscopes.
Quite apart from fingerprints, the assailant had left faint trails that he was not aware of ‐ traces of his physiology, hints of his movements, windows into the habits of his mind.”
Wily suspect no match for fingerprint ID tactics
Eventually, fingerprint analysts found a positive match with one James Earl Ray, who’d used several aliases since 1967 which slowed down the massive hunt for him. He passed using different first names and last names varying from Gault, Lowmeyer, and Willard to even Snyed.
According to Tennessee records from Ray’s plea bargain to escape the death penalty, Ray fired one shot from the second-floor bathroom of a boardinghouse.
He then wrapped some belongings in a blanket, stashed the rifle in it, left the building, and then dropped the bundle in the doorway of a nearby building.
He drove away in a white Ford Mustang before the Memphis escape routes were barricaded, went to Atlanta and then to Canada, Portugal, and England before being arrested in July 1968.
Do you think catching Ray justified J. Edgar Hoover’s decades-long effort to move the FBI from a crony-driven, ad hoc organization to a modern law enforcement organization utilizing science and other professional tactics and strategies?
Other reactions to this story?
*King’s immediate family and others in the Civil Rights movement believe – despite at least five inquires and Side’s conclusions – that Ray was framed.
In 2018, a Washington Post reporter wrote, “And so after 50 years, the King assassination seems destined to remain mired in controversy, the subject of infinite debate over whether Ray was a lone gunman inspired by racism, a hired assassin aided by secret government forces, or simply a patsy manipulated to kill a civil rights hero.”
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