How a Reporter’s “Scoop” in the King Assassination Turned Into a Prime-time Embarrassment
by John Branston
It is the fantasy of many a newspaper reporter: Being interviewed on prime-time national television about your big story.
Steve Tompkins, a former reporter for The Commercial Appeal, found himself in that position last month on the ABC program Turning Point. The subject matter was nothing less than the biggest Memphis news story of the century. The segment was titled “Who Killed Martin Luther King?”
Tompkins talked with correspondent and Nightline host Forrest Sawyer about his 1993 story about the Army spying on King, and the newspaper itself was displayed for millions of viewers across the country.
Trouble is, Sawyer and ABC proceeded to blast holes in a conspiracy theory founded on Tompkins’ reporting, and raise serious doubts about the accuracy of key — and unattributed — assertions in the CA‘s story: to wit, that the Army’s intelligence system was “desperately searching for a way to stop [King]” and that eight Green Berets were in Memphis “carrying out an unknown mission” when King was killed.
Tompkins wound up backpedaling from his conspiracy collaborator, Dr. William Pepper, attorney for James Earl Ray and author of the now discredited Orders to Kill: The Truth Behind the Murder of Martin Luther King. He also disavowed an affidavit he signed vouching for the accuracy of sections of Pepper’s book.
The fiasco has infuriated Green Berets who are fighting mad and determined to defend their reputation. It has left the CA doing some fancy footwork and fresh reporting of the King “conspiracy,” although the newspaper and Tompkins stand by their story.
“We still stand by it,” said CA managing editor Henry Stokes. “I thought it was a good story, and it got a lot of attention nationally.”
To be sure, the CA stopped short of Pepper’s sensational claims. He alleges that Ray is innocent and that Green Beret snipers with the 20th Special Forces Group were literally peering down the barrels of their rifles at King and Andrew Young when King was shot, although the fatal shot came from someone else. Pepper also claims the Army officer who ordered the King hit was dead or killed. Turning Point produced the man, very much alive and ornery, on camera, and icily refusing to shake Pepper’s hand.
Other Green Berets and Army officers connected to the 20th Special Forces Group, including a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, also deny that Green Berets were even in Memphis when King was killed, as both Pepper and the CA claim.
“Steve just played with the wrong guys, and so did Mr. Pepper,” says Rudi Gresham, an advisory board member of an organization of Green Berets called the Special Forces Association. Gresham has made it a personal two-year crusade to defend the reputation of the Green Berets against the allegations. He helped arrange the ABC interview by rounding up military records and former members of the 20th Special Forces Group, including the “dead” alleged hit team leader, a former supply sergeant named Billy Ray Eidson.
The lone sources for the allegations about the 20th Special Forces Group are Tompkins and two unidentified men he says were among eight Green Berets in Memphis when King was killed. Pepper hired Tompkins to reinterview his sources, but did not talk to them himself.
Tompkins, who left The Commercial Appeal shortly after his King story was published and is now working for Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, collaborated with Pepper on Orders to Kill. Now that the story is unraveling, they are pointing fingers at each other.
“Pepper took my series and embellished the hell out of it,” Tompkins told the Flyer.
The same charge can be made about Tompkins’ series. It took solidly sourced reporting about the Army’s spying on three generations of King’s family and embellished it with a farrago of innuendo, intrigue, and unattributed charges. Its ambiguity invited speculation by readers and conspiracy theorists prepared to make claims the newspaper only hinted at. And foremost among them were Dr. William Pepper and the family of Martin Luther King.
The Green Berets’ “Unknown Mission”
ON MARCH 21, 1993, THE CA PUBlished Tompkins’ 6,274-word story across the top of the front page, headlined “Army Feared King, Secretly Watched Him.” The story stopped short of flatly stating that the Army took part in the King assassination.
“This newspaper’s investigation uncovered no hard evidence that Army Intelligence played any role in King’s assassination, although Army agents were in Memphis the day he was killed,” the story said.
But there were sinister implications in the seventh and eighth paragraphs of the story and much of the subsequent 6,000 words.
“By then [March of 1968] the Army’s intelligence system was keenly focused on King and desperately searching for a way to stop him,” the story said. “On April 4, 1968, King was killed by a sniper’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.”
From the story’s placement and length to the credit lines for the copy editor and project editor as well as the reporter, the CA made it plain that it considered the copyrighted story a very big deal. It boasted of its “16-month investigation,” interviews with “several dozen Army agents” and “first-time look inside” domestic Army intelligence (in his book, Pepper makes it an 18-month investigation).
Actually it was not such big news that King had been spied upon by all kinds of people. King’s friend, Memphis minister Samuel “Billy” Kyles, has often told interviewers, including this newspaper, that spies around King were so common that “we used to ask them to stand up and introduce themselves” at rallies in the 1960s.
Despite the CA‘s touting of its reporting, the most shocking assertions and sinister quotations in Tompkins’ story were unattributed and, in newspaper parlance, “buried” near the end of the story.
For example, Tompkins described “murky clandestine operations” involving Vietnam veterans in this unattributed quotation:
“They couldn’t let a lot of these crazy guys back into the states because they couldn’t forget their training. Birmingham (20th Special Forces Group headquarters) became Saigon. The rural South was in-country, and at times things got out of hand.”
Citing its unnamed sources, the CA claimed the 20th Special Forces Group used “Klan guys who hated niggers” as its intelligence network and that “Green Berets from the 20th often spied on King and other black Americans during the 1960s.”
Finally, five paragraphs from the end of the story came this sensational, tantalizingly ambiguous claim, spiced with fresh military jargon: “Eight Green Beret soldiers from an `Operation Detachment Alpha 184 Team’ were also in Memphis carrying out an unknown mission” on April 4, 1968, the day King was killed.
The nature of the “unknown mission” was not explained. The statement was not confirmed, denied, or commented upon by any of the “several dozen” Army personnel the newspaper said were interviewed.
Had they been contacted, any number of them could have, at the least, pointed out that Alpha 184 did not exist in 1968, Gresham said. It was part of a 1960 Louisiana company.
The story simply ended with the fatal bullet “from a 30.06 rifle equipped with a scope,” the arrest and guilty plea of “the man whose fingerprints were found on that type gun, James Earl Ray,” and the White House heaving a sigh of relief at the “clear and significant decline in the number and severity of riots and disorders” in the summer of 1968.
The murder weapon, of course, has been a prime focus of Pepper and other conspiracy theorists for almost 30 years. They allege that the rifle that was recovered was a “throwdown” used to frame Ray. Curiously, the CA story accepts as fact that the murder rifle was equipped with a scope, but leaves doubt that it was recovered or that Ray fired it.
Tompkins and Stokes stand by the claim that Green Berets were in Memphis April 3rd and 4th on what Tompkins calls a “reconnaissance” mission.
“We didn’t know anything beyond that,” says Tompkins.
Stokes points out that “everything a unit like that does is secretive” and says, “Steve interviewed some people that would lead us to believe some people from that unit were here.”
Stokes added, “There is a large difference between surveillance and murder. I don’t think we were ever able to bridge that. We may have added some more circumstances to the factual buffet that is out there.”
While newspapers normally avoid reference to unsubstantiated conclusions, Stokes said the CA “felt we had to make a statement that alluded to what else someone might conclude from what we said.”
COL. LEE MIZE WAS SENIOR MILItary adviser to the 20th SFG in April, 1968. He is a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient (1953) for action in the Korean War and, Gresham says, “a legend among legends” in the military.
He told ABC it was “impossible” that Green Berets from 20th SFG were in Memphis. He repeated that in an interview with the Flyer in more depth and with considerable heat. He called Tompkins and Pepper “two con men, they’re both conning each other.”
Mize said he has known Eidson since they were boys, and that Pepper “better hope he don’t really feel like killing somebody.”
Gen. Henry Cobb, former commander of the 20th SFG, said there was “no way” they could have been in Memphis without his knowledge.
Gresham called the claims about Green Berets “total nonsense.”
It is their word and documentation, including rosters and morning reports, against Tompkins’ unnamed sources. Pepper’s affidavit which Tompkins signed says:
“I have read the material in Dr. Pepper’s book about these interviews conducted by me, in which he refers to these soldiers who now live outside the United States as “Warren” and “Murphy” and confirm its accuracy.”
Tompkins told The Flyer that Pepper sent him Chapter 30 of the book “which I understood was the only part where I was mentioned.”
The chapter titled “Orders to Kill” is the climax of the book and includes the information from “Murphy” and “Warren,” the two anonymous sources.
Tompkins says he “skimmed” the book material, signed the affidavit, and told Pepper to “make sure you send me the final version of the book, which he never did.”
The CA did not mention Eidson or Mize, nor did it print an apparently bogus set of Army orders sending Green Berets to Memphis which Pepper reprints in his book. Tompkins said he knew the orders were bogus the first time he saw them because the date was April 30, 1968, which was after the assassination.
“We didn’t print it because we didn’t believe it,” he said.
Despite that red flag, however, the newspaper had enough confidence in the unnamed sources to trust their claims about the Green Berets in the 20th Special Forces Group.
The story drew a prompt and scathing response from Gen. William Yarborough, who was interviewed in it and described as “the Army’s top spy.” His long letter to the editor was printed in full under the headline “Army’s `spy’ story mixes few facts with lots of fiction.”
Yarborough wrote: “The end product is a piece of journalism that seems to fulfill the basic requirements for what is known to psychological warfare experts as “agit-prop” — propaganda aimed at the creation of discord, divisiveness and disharmony.”
He added that “even a column inch or so saying maybe we were wrong” would be a “welcome discovery.” But he didn’t get it.
Tompkins resigned from the newspaper shortly thereafter. Publication of a big story often brings a reporter a sense of elation, but Tompkins was “burned out with journalism.”
Stokes was supportive and sympathetic.
“The kind of stuff he was doing is terrifically difficult to maintain year after year,” he said. “It eats on you.”
A Career of Controversy
THE AMBIGUITY IN THE CA‘S REport may have stemmed partly from a leadership transition at the newspaper. The “16-month investigation” began and the bulk of its work was done under editor Lionel Linder, who died when his car was struck by a drunk driver on New Year’s Eve, 1992. Linder was succeeded by Angus McEachran, a stickler for carefully attributed reporting who led The Pittsburgh Press to two Pulitzer Prizes as editor and, nearly 30 years ago, covered the capture of James Earl Ray as a reporter for the CA.
“Lionel’s death affected me,” said Tompkins. “Lionel was the driving force behind the series.”
In 1984, Tompkins was at the center of another controversy at the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. The newspaper asked for and received his resignation after an internal investigation of a discrepancy in a critical date in a story Tompkins wrote about a nuclear power plant.
In a story in the Eagle-Beacon, Tompkins said he did not alter any documents and reported all information as it was received. “A reporter’s integrity is his stock in trade,” he said. He said a “bond of trust” was broken and he could no longer work for the newspaper.
Tompkins joined the CA in the mid-1980s. He was hired to do investigative reports by former executive editor David Wayne Brown, who was himself relatively new to Memphis.
Tompkins, nicknamed “Pancho,” was proud of his investigative skills and sometimes flaunted them by including in his stories the number of people interviewed and time spent reporting. One of his specialties was obtaining military records. Tompkins was in the Navy, although he says he was not in Naval Intelligence as Pepper states in his book.
His first big Memphis project was coauthoring the controversial “People of Charity” series about ALSAC, the Arab-American fundraising arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 1986. The stories were criticized both inside and outside the newsroom for general fuzziness and for making alleged links between ALSAC and Moammar Khadafy.
“The articles were full of innuendos and lies,” ALSAC chairman Richard Shadyac told Memphis magazine in 1995.
As in the King story, the allegations were blunted, so much so that people wondered what the stories meant. The Sunday after the series ran, the newspaper published a long editorial explanation, memorable for the line, “It [the story] means, basically, what it says.”
What the story said, as summarized in the editorial, was equally obtuse. The main contention was that ALSAC board members “probably bear more burdens from their personal lives than the board members of most major charitable organizations.”
Tompkins continued to do special reports, and coauthor Bob Hetherington was promoted to business editor. Likeable, even gregarious, Tompkins was rarely deskbound. He did in-depth stories on a number of prominent people, including Ned McWherter, Jack Owens, and Don Sundquist. He went to work for McWherter in the governor’s office after leaving the newspaper.
Tompkins and Pepper crossed paths in 1993.
“Bill came to see me in the fall of 1993,” says Tompkins. “He wanted to talk to my sources in Washington, and later he asked me to take questions to members of the Green Beret team. I agreed to take some questions to one of my principle sources.”
Pepper paid Tompkins. But both Tompkins and Stokes say the CA did not pay any sources. On Turning Point, Eidson angrily suggests that someone was paid to malign him.
“I’d like to ask him who sold him this story,” Eidson says. “Somebody’s telling some lies.”
“We never paid anybody,” said Stokes.
Tompkins concurs, although he said “in a number of cases we had people come forward and say we will give you information if you pay for it.”
In 1993, Pepper was in Memphis for the filming of a made-for-television mock trial of James Earl Ray. At a news conference then, Pepper said he had represented Ray for free since 1986. The prosecutor in the mock trial was former U.S. Attorney Hickman Ewing Jr. The mock jury acquitted Ray.
Pepper’s book was published in 1995. In it, Tompkins is nothing less than a hero.
“I reserve a special note of thanks for former Memphis journalist Steve Tompkins, whose earlier work opened the door to the most sensitive, deeply hidden area of my investigation,” Pepper wrote in his acknowledgements. “For me Steve epitomizes the very best of a dying breed in America — the investigative journalist who is only restricted in the pursuit of truth by his conscience.”
Last week Pepper told the Flyer “I continue to have absolute confidence in him.”
Mr. Pepper’s Worst Nightmare
TO JIMMY DEAN, ADMINISTRAtor of the Special Forces Association in Fayetteville, N.C., the CA‘s 1993 story had been an annoyance, but he did not get overly exercised about it. No Green Berets were named, the allegations were blunted, and it is difficult and time-consuming to disprove something by establishing the whereabouts of a lot of people 25 years ago. And there was Yarborough’s letter.
Pepper’s book was another matter. Dean directed an investigation of its charges beginning in 1995, with Gresham as his investigator.
“We weren’t going to respond unless the national media picked it up or something else happened,” Dean said.
Sales were slow, but the book was advertised prominently in The New York Times under the blurb “Did The U.S. Army Order King’s Death?” Later, Pepper was interviewed on CNN by Larry King. And the Martin Luther King family embraced the book. That put Gresham and other Green Berets into overdrive.
“I never lighten up,” said Gresham. “I became Mr. Pepper’s worst nightmare.”
He contacted Mize in Alabama, who told him Billy Ray Eidson was alive and well and came to see him two or three times a year. He reached Cobb, who had never heard of the book or Pepper. Meanwhile, ABC was working on a story about Pepper’s book and urging Gresham to cooperate.
“But I knew that first I had to find Billy Eidson,” says Gresham.
With the help of Mize and Eidson’s daughter, he reached Eidson in Costa Rica. After introducing himself as a Green Beret and Yarborough’s aide, he said, “Look, I’m about to tell you a story you won’t believe.”
It was, says Gresham, all news to Eidson, who said he had never been to Memphis in his life.
“He laughed the first day,” said Gresham. “The second day he was mad. And the third day it really sunk in that the King family believes he was involved in killing their daddy.”
Eidson agreed to go to New York with Gresham, Mize, Cobb, and Dean to appear on Turning Point.
Tompkins says he no longer works for Pepper but they remain friends.
“We have some serious disagreements about his book but I admire Bill Pepper for what he’s done for 15 years on the Ray case,” he said.
Since the Turning Point program aired, The CA has been coy in its own pages about the Tompkins-Pepper connection. In a front-page story it reported that the program “exposes flaws in Pepper’s assertion that an Army Special Forces unit was stalking King in Memphis the day of the assassination.” A later Metro section story more fully reported the denials that Green Berets were in Memphis at all. But there was no editorial retraction.
“Stalking” is not the same as “watching.” Pepper clearly went farther than the CA did with Tompkins’ reporting. But they agree about this crucial point: Decorated Army officers directly involved with the Green Berets and the 20th Special Forces Group were and still are lying or ignorant about their colleagues’ surveillance of Martin Luther King on several different dates and places including Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Nearer to the Hearts Desire
Aided by an unconventional judge, the MLK conspiracy theorists make legal headway.
by Jackson Baker
In something less than a year, it will have been 30 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — having come here to demonstrate solidarity with striking sanitation workers — was assassinated in Memphis. The 30.06 rifle bullet that ended the civil rights leader’s knife also effectively brought to an end what Dr. King had intended to be an assault on the citadels of economic privilege; his Poor People’s March would go ahead under his second-in-command, Dr. Ralph Abernathy, but it — and the martyr’s intended crusade against entrenched wealth — would bog down in the absence of King’s charisma.
As much as anything else, that circumstance — of a frustrated social movement — seems to have motivated various researchers and conspiracy theorists, who refuse to believe that redneck hoodlum James Earl Ray committed the murder all by himself and have kept looking for accomplices — or, alternatively, for the “real killers” — ever since King collapsed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel that fateful afternoon of April 4, 1968. Several things distinguish this hunt from such others as the undying search for the putative JFK conspirators, however:
(1) Unlike the alleged assassin of President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, King’s presumed killer, is still alive. (Just barely, however: Ray suffers from an apparently terminal liver disease and is in active quest of a liver transplant.) And, though Ray copped a guilty plea to the murder in 1969, he has ever since been maintaining that he was the innocent patsy of a far-reaching conspiracy.
(2) There is no controversy over multiple bullets; nobody disputes that a single round took the life of Dr. King. The argument of William Pepper, who is simultaneously Ray’s chief attorney in the quest for a new trial and the leading MLK conspiracy theorist, is that the fatal 30.06 round issued from some weapon other than the one which Ray admittedly left near the scene of the killing.
Pepper insists that Ray’s rifle — which the convicted assassin claims to have bought several days before the assassination at the behest of a shadowy character named “Raoul” — was a “throw-down” weapon, designed to incriminate Ray and mislead pursuers.
(3) Finally, what distinguishes the case of the King assassination from others (including the killing of Robert Kennedy and the attempt on the life of former Alabama governor George Wallace) is that the conspiracy theorists have got (a) high-profile support for their position; and (b) an ongoing legal process which gives them a chance to succeed.
Back In February, personages no less than Coretta Scott King and Dexter King — the assassinated civil rights leader’s widow and son, respectively — came to Memphis to testify on behalf of a new trial for Ray. Subsequently, Dexter King publicly shook hands with the ailing prisoner, and he and the other members of the King family have declared their belief in Ray’s innocence.
Pointedly, too, the Kings have embraced Pepper’s theory (see “Double Exposure,” p. 14) of a conspiracy involving the U.S. Army and the highest officials of the U.S. government. (Dexter King — whose good looks may be as much of a reason as any other for his recent emergence, rather than his mother or Martin Luther King Jr., as the family’s spokesman — has in fact attributed complicity in the murder to the late Lyndon B. Johnson, who was president at the time of King’s assassination.)
Even more important from the viewpoint of MLK revisionists is that real progress has attended the legal efforts whose newest chapter began in February when Pepper’s legal team petitioned for new and more sophisticated electronic tests of Ray’s rifle — which had been previously test-fired for FBI ballistic examiners in 1968 and as part of the U.S. House of Representatives’ assassination inquiry in 1978.
Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown not only granted that petition back then, but in a follow-up hearing held last Friday — in the full glare of a national media spotlight — lent moral support to the cause of the petitioners. “Dr. King is dead. In his grave. A national hero. A world hero. A national holiday named after him. And I’m not going to allow the vicissitudes of somebody’s artful cross-examination to keep me, as the trier of fact from getting to the bottom of this,” he said, overruling one objection from the state. Vicissitudes? Never mind: everybody got the point.
Judge Brown, who had waged procedural warfare within criminal court to secure and maintain control of the case for his own Division 9, had opened up the door for Pepper and company, ordering ballistics tests that were carried out in a Rhode Island lab in May. And, even though those — like all previous tests — proved to be inconclusive, he opened the door a little wider Friday when the defense team petitioned for even more tests, maintaining that a previous cloth cleaning of the 30.06 had been insufficient to get accurate results.
In an atmosphere that frequently turned circus-like, Brown was a veritable ringmaster — examining witnesses so relentlessly that, at one point, assistant District Attorney Tom Henderson rose to object: “Your Honor, your cross-examination has already lasted four times longer than my own!” (It would go on to last even four times longer than that.)
Something of a judicial role-reversal seemed to take place, with Henderson and John Campbell, another member of the District Attorney General’s office, frequently rising to state “objections” that sounded more like judicial scoldings from the bench. On one occasion, Henderson stood up and shook his head in visible disbelief. “Your Honor, I object to that question on the grounds that it’s –” He struggled to find the right word, “incomprehensible!”
Brown not only conducted lengthy interrogations of the ballistics experts, he frequently elaborated on what appeared to be his own extensive knowledge of firearms and ballistics. (In his ruling, he would speak dismissively about one of the state experts as “not knowing much about all this.” An old friend who once lawyered in the same firm as Brown put it this way: “You have to remember that this is a brilliant man. He knows aviation, firearms, a bunch of different subjects.” Pause. “He can put you to sleep with some of that.”)
After one extended cross-examination, of state witness Kelly Fite, Judge Brown closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair, and said, after a pause, “Any more questions?” Until he opened his eyes, long moments later, and looked out at the tables where defense and state lawyers sat in baffled expectancy, it was a fair bet that most people in the courtroom thought he was directing the question at himself.
The zaniness was catching. At one point, Robert Hathaway, the defense witness on ballistics, was trying his sheepish best to score points for his side. Having had to admit that the tests in May were inconclusive, he put his points in the most palatable possible English, at one point referring to the test weapon as “the alleged rifle.”
The media’s response to all of this was revealing. As they sat in the jury box of Judge Brown’s courtroom or out in the audience seats, several representatives of noted national news outlets passed notes back and forth and seemed, on occasion, to have a hard time suppressing laughter. (In this, they were more successful than the state’s lawyers, who often made a point of flaunting broad smiles.)
But, by and large, the next-day coverage reflected these reporters’ (or their editors’) sober-sided and even respectful view of the proceedings. This owed much to traditional journalistic form and something as well, undoubtedly, to Political Correctness. (It has become an unspoken fact of legal life that, in cases with racial overtones, respect for diversity means a wide latitude in approaches — for participants and observers alike.)
Judge Brown, as most local folks and the viewers of several national TV magazine shows know, is an innovative judge, famous for his alternative sentencing and his in-the-streets approach to jurisprudence. “He knows what we know — that traditional law has ceased to work against crime,” is how one defender puts it.
This is a man who occasionally orders victims to rob something back from burglars, and he plainly won’t confine himself to textbook law in the King case. “This is not an adversarial proceeding, but an exercise of the court’s plenary authority,” he said Friday, and in one of those rambling free-associated judgments he has become famous for, Joe Brown proved it again, instructing both sides to try to pry loose from the federal government the 1968 ballistic tests that were presumably sealed a decade later.
Pending that, he ordered everybody back in court for another hearing this Friday, when he would announce his decision whether to permit yet another rifle test after the new cleaning — by wire or nylon brush this time — which the defense says could make a difference in the results.
Having sworn to “get to the bottom” of the King assassination, Brown — who could well end up being the trial judge — was clearly likely to keep the process moving.
He was not, of course, the only unconventional personage associated with the quest for a legal reprise of the MLK affair. There was also lawyer Jack McNeil, a former city councilman and state legislator who was rescued from semi-obscurity when his then ailing friend, attorney Wayne Chastain, asked him to join the defense team in January. (“Never mind the cheese. Let me out of the trap!” McNeil jests of his pro bono efforts.)
McNeil is a sometime poet and writer of historical plays, and, like Brown, is given to rhetorical flights.
In the aftermath of Friday’s hearing, McNeil offered up a free-handed and putatively relevant snatch from Edward Fitzgerald’s “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:”
“Ah could you and I conspire/
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,/
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then/
Remold it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!”