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Saturday, October 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Slain prosecutor targeted

Seattle Times staff reporter

Investigators say a respected federal prosecutor and gun-control activist who was shot to death in the basement of his Queen Anne Hill home was the target of a hit that sent detectives and FBI agents scouring his private and professional life for a motive and suspects.

The calculated slaying of Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas C. Wales late Thursday night stunned the Seattle legal and law-enforcement communities, where he was known as a tireless and exceptionally fair prosecutor of white-collar crime.

Gun-control advocates at Washington CeaseFire, where Wales was president, mourned the death of an articulate spokesman whose position as a prosecutor only buttressed his credibility on the volatile issue.

The motive for the slaying, described by several law-enforcement sources as an "assassination," remained elusive, although several sources said FBI agents and Seattle police homicide detectives were interested in at least one fraud case Wales had recently prosecuted, as well as a road-rage incident in which Wales had been cited for hit-and-run. The citation was dismissed last week, according to Seattle Municipal Court records.

No arrests had been made as of late yesterday, and the FBI announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the slaying.

Wales, 49, was found shot to death in the basement of his tidy two-story Queen Anne Hill home. Law-enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several shots were fired through a window as Wales sat working at a computer in a basement office that is frequently used by his ex-wife, Elizabeth Wales, a prominent Seattle literary agent.

One source said the first rounds apparently struck him in the neck. He was hit several more times in the torso as he attempted to crawl out of the line of fire. The source said Wales was able to make it to a telephone and dial 9-1-1.

"Evidence at the scene suggests this was not a random act of violence and that the victim was intentionally targeted," said Seattle police Capt. Brent Wingstrand, commander of the department's violent-crimes section.

The shooter would have had to get to the back of the home through a narrow side yard. Flood lights in back would have required the suspect to stay close to the house to avoid being seen.

"It is certainly possible the shooter cased the place beforehand," the source said.

Several neighbors called police dispatchers to report a series of gunshots shortly after 10:30 p.m. One neighbor, Emily Holt, told police she saw a man walk away quickly and get into a car parked about a block away.

"He took off like a bat out of hell" in the car, Holt told The Associated Press.

Police, joined later by FBI agents, cordoned off the home. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also was called into to gather and evaluate ballistic evidence at the scene. ATF Special Agent April Carroll said the bureau would employ its high-tech computerized Integrated Ballistic Identification System to try to identify, and possibly match, the weapon used to kill Wales.

Wales's office in the U.S. Attorney's Office was sealed yesterday and FBI agents asked his colleagues about cases he may have worked on that could have led to the shooting.

Wales mostly handled bank fraud and white-collar crimes, some of the most complex and long-term cases handled by the office, according to interim U.S. Attorney Jerry Diskin.

Few cases stood out, although one recent aviation-fraud case was brought to the attention of agents. It involved allegations that a local company had illegal altered military-surplus aircraft. Charges against the individuals were dropped in exchange for guilty pleas from the company. Some of the defendants alleged malicious prosecution.

Wales also was involved in a hit-and-run accident in July. The driver of the other vehicle was reportedly so angry over the accident that Wales, after offering to exchange insurance information, just drove off.

He was issued a citation, but it was dismissed by city prosecutors, who said in court papers that they had encountered "proof problems."

The shooting investigation, however, remained wide open and investigators also were focusing on Wales' involvement in gun-control issues.

Wales was willing to be a public face on a hot-button issue that frequently put him at odds with the National Rifle Association, an organization he has repeatedly referred to as "anti-government," "anti-Constitution" and "essentially, an anarchist institution."

"The NRA is no longer the NRA of our parents and grandparents," he said at a public forum last October. "It refuses to accept the legitimate authority of the U.S. government."

He was quoted often in newspapers and magazines across the country on the issue of gun-control, and was a regular speaker representing the gun-control point of view at community forums and rallies.

In April, as talks broke down over legislation requiring criminal-background checks on people who buy firearms at gun shows, Wales warned that a more restrictive citizens' initiative would be launched unless the legislation was not adopted.

"That's not a threat," he said at the time, "that's a reality."

Yesterday, several of Wales' grieving friends found painful irony in the fact that Wales, who had fought so hard against gun violence, would fall victim to it.

The death was felt as far away as Washington, D.C., where Attorney General John Ashcroft opened his daily press briefing with remarks about the killing.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to Tom's family and to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Western District of Washington," Ashcroft said.

Wales, had worked at the U.S. Attorney's Office since 1983, serving in a variety of jobs in the criminal division and administration, including as executive assistant U.S. attorney to former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer.

"This is very scary and shocking," said Pflaumer, who was reached in Pennsylvania yesterday. "Tom was everything you would want in a federal prosecutor — he was fair and smart and careful and thorough. He was a wonderful human being, a wonderful prosecutor and a wonderful citizen."

Tom Hillier, the federal public defender in Seattle whose attorneys often found themselves on the other side of the courtroom aisle from Wales, said he and his lawyers "were stunned and sad beyond words."

"He was a very balanced prosecutor who understood that our clients frequently come from difficult backgrounds that contributed to the mistakes they made," Hillier said. "As a result, his dealings with our clients almost uniformly reflected a degree of compassion and forgiveness."

At the Federal Courthouse in Seattle, the flag flew at half-staff on the order of chief U.S. District Judge John Coughenour.

Mike Carter can be reached at 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times staff reporters Susan Kelleher, Peter Lewis, Peyton Whitely and Steve Miletich contributed to this report.

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