AS a thief, James Earl Ray's specialty was botching his getaway. After heisting $190 from a St. Louis supermarket in 1959, Ray left tracks that the most flat-footed cop could follow: he even parked a car used in the stickup outside his lodgings. That was characteristic of Ray, whose most profitable known caper, grossing only $2,200, was bungled when the escape car crashed. The cruelest of his convictions was for the $11 stickup of a Chicago cab driver in 1952.

After he escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967, Ray's style changed; he...

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