Media coverage for the life and death of James Earl Ray has received almost as much attention as Lee Harvey Oswald. His accused involvement with the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was yet another black eye for our country. King was died of a single gunshot wound at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis on April 4, 1968.
With evidence pointing to Ray, he was captured at the Heathrow Airport in London, three weeks later, on June 8, 1968.
During the next decades, Ray’s trials, appeals, confessions and recants became the subject of widespread media attention. He was finally convicted and began serving his prison sentence in Brushy Mountain Prison in Petros, Tennessee. On June 10, 1977, he returned to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, as he escaped with six other inmates. The group was recaptured three days later, and returned to prison. He had an additional year added to his sentencing, extending his time to serve at an even 100 years!
James Earl Ray died at Brush Mountain on April 23, 1998, at the age of 70, from kidney and liver disease, complicated with hepatitis C. He had been stabbed by another inmate, and had received some blood transfusions while in prison. Ray had insisted on being buried ‘anywhere outside the U.S. because of the way the government had treated him.”
On April 24, 1998, I received a telephone call from our then medical examiner in Nashville. It seems that Ray’s body had been brought to Nashville for a forensic autopsy to be conducted, since he had been a prisoner of the federal government. They were requesting a full dental postmortem examination of the body. This would be the first dental ID I would have ever done, where the facial structures of the body were completely recognizable by visual means. Questions began going through my head. ‘Why would they want me to do this? There was no about who he is! I was determined to figure this out!
When I arrived at the medical examiner’s office that bright and sunny morning, I was bombarded with media. Satellite tv trucks and towers were everywhere. Security was at a level I had not before experienced. The morgue attendant met me at the car, and told me to stay with her, enter straight to the front door of our then antiquated buildings, stopping to talk with no one. It was a weird feeling, since I had never experienced any group of people so desperately wanting to talk to me or anyone heading into that building.
Once inside, I was familiar with my territory. It would be a routine dental ID, right? Wrong. After suiting up in my traditional scrubs and barrier apparel, I entered the autopsy suite. Whoa! Was I in for a surprise! What was normally a room of stainless steel, ceramic tile and autopsy equipment had been morphed into a television studio. It looked like we were about ready to “Take One”.
“What’s going on?” I asked my morgue assistant.
“No big deal!” she explained with a quick smile and a calm voice. “We’re just gonna do a dental ID and have it broadcast on TV I guess. But we’ll just do it the same way we always do it. By the way, Dr. Tabor, please meet Dr. Cyril Wecht, of the Alleghany County Medical Examiner’s Office. Dr. Wecht is a forensic pathologist, as well as an attorney. He has been employed by the Ray family to oversee all autopsy protocol today. Not questioning anybody, just to have a second set of eyes.
“The family is requesting the body to be cremated following autopsy, and it has been decided to film the autopsy and ID procedures in case any information needs to be reviewed in the future.” She further explained, “Dr. Wecht is particularly interested in watching you work, since he usually is not present when dental ID’s are done.”
I introduced myself to Dr. Wecht, who was most courteous, helpful, eager to learn, and most of all, non threatening. He was an elderly, distinguished professional, very articulate, with a warm and genuine personality. “It’s my pleasure to meet you, Dr. Wecht. Your name seems familiar. We may have met at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting.” He smiled graciously.
My morgue attendant added. “You’ve probably seen Dr. Wecht on TV before, Dr. Tabor. Dr. Wecht did President Kennedy’s autopsy at Walter Reed in 1963.” I think I swallowed my tongue at that moment, but hoped that no one noticed. I think I failed!!
Just like the attendant had advised, it was a ‘routine dental ID’, complete with wireless mike’s on our scrubs, studio spotlights that heated the room up to unbearable temperatures. I kept telling myself, “Act like you’ve done this before, dummie. This ain’t your first rodeo!” The body was ashen gray, just as expected. It had experienced no trauma, no burns, no decomposition. It really looked just like a body ready for prep at a funeral home. Strange for me. All dental ID’s usually smell to high heaven, crispy critters, or have had their heads blown off. I wasn’t used to seeing a ‘normal’ dead body.
The dental ID confirmation process turned out to be relatively routine. We had been asked to narrate each and every action we performed to accompany the video footage that was taken.
One thing I will always remember as interesting about the clinical aspects of Ray’s exam was the extensive crown and bridge restorations in his mouth. There were several porcelain fused to gold crowns in the posterior, with a 3 unit bridge replacing #19. This type work looked to have been recently done and the quality was exceptional. I couldn’t help but wonder why, as this type of medical/dental services is normally not offered to prisoners and convicted felons. I remembered the mike was ‘on’ and the cameras were rolling. I kept my mouth shut.
As I completed my exam, along with comparison of his prison dental records to my records, it was nice to be able to explain the details of a dental exam to Dr. Wecht. When we were completed, the lights and sound were cut.
“We might not have done a dental ID, Mike, but the family wants to cremate tomorrow. Anything of evidentiary value will be nonexistent tomorrow. We’re not taking any chances that next week or next year, somebody comes up with a claim, that this was his stand in. You remember all the controversy about whether Lee Harvey Oswald was really buried in his grave?”
“That’s not happening again!”
P.S. to the story. I saw on the internet a while back that evidently the family was either short on money, or they decided there would be not false claims. The autopsy video was sold on April 4, 2005 on Ebay!!! I hope my hair was combed for the purchaser! And NO, I didn’t bid on it!! Did you?!