As noted in my prior blog, we can learn a lot from perhaps the greatest fingerprint sleuthing effort in recent American history. That would be how the FBI used fingerprints to nab MLK’s assassin in 1968, two months after the history-changing event.
Besides budding criminalists, criminology students, and the general public, crime writers may be interested in how a talented writer utilized his knowledge of fingerprint ID tactics. Thus, much of this blog showcases paragraphs from Hampton Sides’ Hellhound on his Trail.
How exactly did the FBI manage to catch MLK’s assassin?
As noted in part I of this tutorial, the FBI came under great pressure to solve King’s murder quickly as many American cities burned and politicians called for swift justice.
Consequently, the FBI intensely analyzed the few fingerprint fragments left by the assassin – soon to be ID’d as one ‘Eric Galt.’ At the same time, the FBI interviewed tons of witnesses to the event and to the mysterious man who seemed to change aliases every time he jumped to another country. And the FBI analyzed other evidence Galt left behind, including
– hair fibers,
– ballistics from the discarded rifle,
– gun receipts, and even
– laundry tags from dry cleaners.
Leading the investigation at the FBI was Deke DeLoach, third in command after Clyde Tolson and formidable Director J.Edgar Hoover.
DeLoach thrust a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the FBI’s star fingerprint analyst, George Bonebrake. After studying the fingerprints found on the Galt’s weapon and at the boarding house where Galt fired his single lethal shot, Bonebrake enlisted a large crew to sort through 3 million fingerprint cards.
It soon became clear that the effort was too time consuming, given that computers had not yet replaced manual searches.
According to author Sides, “DeLoach got some top officials together to review all the evidence and brainstorm. They decided that Galt “seemed to be acting like a man on the run.’
‘All the signs were there,’ DeLoach said. ‘The aliases, the movement from one place to another, the reluctance to make friends, the caution, the restraint. Galt was behaving like an escaped convict trying to avoid detection.’
Thus an idea was born. DeLoach picked up the phone and called Bonebrake’s boss, Les Trotter, director of the FBI’s Identification Division for fingerprints. DeLoach later recalled the conversation in his memoirs –
‘Les, we have pretty good evidence that Galt is an escapee,’ DeLoach said. ‘How many Wanted notices do we currently have in our, files?’
‘About 53,000,’ Trotter said.
DeLoach grimaced, ‘Well,’ he said,’ at least that’s better than 3 million.’
The task before them was clear: DeLoach wanted Bonebrake’s men to compare the ‘Galt’ prints with the prints of all 53,000 wanted fugitives. ‘You’ve got to put all your people on this,’ DeLoach said.
‘When do you want us to begin?’ Trotter asked.
‘How about today?’
The examiners began working in the late afternoon of April 18, exactly two weeks after the assassination. Additional experts from Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Richmond hastened to Washington to assist in the round‐the‐clock effort. DeLoach said he didn’t need to remind them that ‘we’re under tremendous pressure, and that our cities are powder kegs.’
Bonebrake zeroed in on Galt’s left thumbprint found on both the rifle and the binoculars. It was their highest‐quality print, the one that manifested a clear loop pattern with twelve ridge counts. To his pleasant surprise, Bonebrake learned that the FBI files of known fugitives held only 1,900 thumb prints with loops of between 10 and 14 ridge counts. This was encouraging.
Suddenly the monumentality of Bonebrake’s project had shrunk by several orders of magnitude. The teams of experts ranged around a table, facing a blowup poster of Galt’s thumbprint. They got out their magnifying glasses and went to work.
‘We’re getting there,’ Trotter said, noting that Bonebrake and his team hadn’t slept a wink and that they’d already plowed through more than five hundred sets of cards. ‘Give us just a little more time.’
‘OK,’ DeLoach said, and then ducked into a weekly meeting of FBI muckety‐mucks led by Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right‐hand man. DeLoach was reluctant to tell Tolson the truth ‐ that although countless specialists were hard at work and making progress, the investigation seemed to be momentarily stymied.
Several hours later, as the meeting was adjourning and DeLoach was gathering up his papers, the phone rang. It was Les Trotter on the line.
‘Deke,’ he said, and already DeLoach thought he could detect a ‘note of triumph’ in Trotter’s voice. There was a long pause, and then Trotter gloatingly said: ‘Tell the Director. We’ve got your man!’
‘Are you sure?’
‘No doubt about it. Bonebrake’s experts found an exact match just a few minutes ago, on the 702nd card.’
‘I take it he’s not really Eric Galt. Or Lowmeyer. Or Willard.’
‘Nope,’ Trotter said. ‘His card number is 405,942G. The guy’s a habitual offender. Escaped last year from the state pen at Jeff City, Missouri. His name is James Earl Ray.’
Your reaction to how the FBI managed to catch MLK’s Assassin?
Please tell me your thoughts and feelings about this amazing story of fingerprint analysis and sleuthing?To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.