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VOL. 121 | NO. 73 | Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Sound Files of King Assassination on Register's Web Site

Besides viewing property transactions, visitors also can experience history

By Andy Meek

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DEAD OR ALIVE: This wanted poster for James Earl Ray is one of several images and other types of historical files now available on the Shelby County register's Web site. Ray was arrested about two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death on the balcony of Memphis' Lorraine Motel April 4, 1968. Authorities captured Ray at London's Heathrow Airport, where he was trying to use a false passport to get to Belgium. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for the King slaying the following spring, and died in prison in 1998 from complications of kidney disease. -- Image Courtesy Of The Shelby County Register Of Deeds

The Memphis Police Department dispatcher is calm, barking out orders even as the city outside begins to descend into chaos. It's shortly after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, and unconfirmed reports have begun trickling in over the radio that something terrible has happened at the Lorraine Motel in Downtown Memphis.

"Reverend King has been shot ... confirm ... Rev. King has been shot," the dispatcher bellows on an excerpt from a police dispatch tape.

The recording, part of a trove of archival records that Shelby County Register Tom Leatherwood recently combed through, now is available on the Register's Web site, http://www.register.shelby.tn.us/mlk/audio/mpdtapes.mp3.

And the tape is one of the most dramatic, chilling exhibits in a collection about the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, which includes crime scene photos, court evidence and extensive police reports. The civil rights leader was slain 38 years ago today.

"Form a ring around the hotel ... have information that King was shot from a brick building directly east of the Lorraine Motel ... TAC units seal that location off," the dispatcher continues, his words broken by static and police jargon.

Extreme makeover

It's a vivid slice of history that now stands alongside the mundane deeds and other property records people usually log on to Leatherwood's site to check. And it's a dream come true for the soft-spoken register, who's dreamed of modernizing his office ever since he was elected in 2000.

"Last summer, we had legislation passed that let my office assume the responsibility for public records and archives," he said, "so I modernized the register's duties, then last summer I started expanding them."

ROOM AT THE INN: This 1960s-era photo of a Downtown rooming house also is one of several the register's office has posted to its site. -- Photograph Courtesy Of The Shelby County Register Of Deeds

One of the results: an "Extreme Makeover" for his Web site, which now splits up three search features by whether someone wants to find property records, geographic information or archival material, like the King Assassination exhibit.

Other new features include a GIS (Geographic Information System) search option, which lets visitors type in an address for any piece of property in Shelby County and get a bird's-eye view of the site.

Elected to a four-year-term, the register is, for all intents and purposes, the official record keeper for Shelby County, as he describes himself. The office is funded by customer fees, as opposed to property taxes.

Records most commonly filed by the Register include tax liens, property titles, mortgages, bankruptcy documents and a host of others.

"When I came onboard in 2000, we didn't even have the Internet coming into the Register's office," Leatherwood said. "I'd joke with people when they'd ask me if they could send me an e-mail.

"I'd say, 'Yeah, you can send me one, but you'll have to print it off on your computer and fax it over to me.' And they'd just look at me, like 'What?'"

Peek at the past

The Web site makeover, which wrapped up about two weeks ago, includes access to death and marriage records and two other historical gems - a survey of conditions at hundreds of Memphis dairy farms in the 1920s, and a digitized scrapbook of photos and images of Shelby County Schools at the turn of the 20th century.

The Memphis Milk Supply exhibit uses scores of photos to show the hardscrabble conditions that once existed on farms across the region. The schools exhibit is a digitized scrapbook of photos and inscriptions that capture snapshots-in-time at schools like Nicholas Blackwell High School, which was later renamed Bartlett High School.

Leatherwood reckons there are plenty more buried treasures left for his staff to find.

"What I've done here is digitize our public documents and put them out for the public, and that's what I want to do in archives, too," he said. "I think there are a lot of treasures over there that have been sitting on a shelf, and it's been a fun project to go through and find them."

Collaboration, cooperation

It's not all a local history lesson. Leatherwood has spent years dragging his office into the electronic age, beefing up its operation and relationship with other public officials, like the county trustee and property assessor.

The data that flows between those offices starts with the register, which records property transfers between buyers and sellers.

"The relationship has grown stronger, as both offices have very useful, excellent public resources for real estate information," said Patrick Lafferty, who works in Shelby County Property Assessor Rita Clark's office.

Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson said Leatherwood's office is a model of efficiency.

"We take down the deeds filed from him every day and use them to keep our Web site up to date," he said. "It's a good relationship. And if he has a need, all he does is give me a call, and if we can help him we do."

In the meantime, Leatherwood said he plans to continue scouring every inch of the county's archives, which he said are especially useful as teaching tools.

"When I first found out that archives had this information on the assassination investigation, for example - that always intrigued me, so I was very curious and interested to look at it.

"And once I saw it, I thought, 'This is so interesting to me, I believe it would be very interesting to others as well, and we need to put it out there.'"

PROPERTY SALES 41 308 2,265
MORTGAGES 47 379 2,607
BUILDING PERMITS 128 1,018 6,068
BANKRUPTCIES 53 255 1,787