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Sunday, October 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Probe into killing of prosecutor turns into game of cat-and-mouse

Seattle Times staff reporters

A year after federal prosecutor Thomas Wales was gunned down in his Queen Anne home, investigators are zeroing in on a single suspect: a commercial airline pilot who had been prosecuted by Wales in a fraud case.

But frustrated FBI agents have been unable to make their case against the Bellevue man, who has been a suspect since shortly after the Oct. 11, 2001, shooting.

Over the months, the FBI and the pilot have played an escalating game of cat-and-mouse. He knows they suspect him of the brazen murder — which, if connected to Wales' work as an assistant U.S. attorney, would be the first of its kind nationally — and they know he knows.

The agents say they have plenty of circumstantial evidence against the pilot, who has refused to be interrogated by them. But the pilot's supporters contend the investigation has been bungled from the start and he is being unfairly targeted because officials have failed to find other viable suspects.

Federal agents have searched the pilot's home, forced him to turn over a DNA sample and repeatedly called his friends and family before a federal grand jury — only to come up dry when it comes to making a case they can take to court.

Law-enforcement officials concede that the investigation, starting a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and involving one of their own, was awkwardly handled at its beginning. But they contend the evidence they have since gathered points to the pilot, and that a series of events — described as a "continuum" by one agent — pushed the man to track Wales down and kill him.

The pilot's primary motive, FBI agents believe, was that Wales had prosecuted him and others for fraud related to a business of which the pilot was part owner. The business, as a corporate entity, pleaded guilty.

The fraud charges against the pilot and the other individuals were ultimately dropped but not before the pilot's reputation had been damaged and he had accrued more than $125,000 in legal fees. The pilot sued the government for wrongful prosecution and was openly disdainful of Wales in particular.

Agents say Wales' work as a prominent anti-gun activist — he was president of an organization called Washington CeaseFire — may also have provided motive for the pilot, an avid gun owner. They see significance in the fact that Wales appeared on a television talk show two weeks before he was killed, speaking against a proposal to arm airline pilots in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. While not mentioning any by name, Wales said he knew pilots who were not qualified to carry guns in the cockpit.

The Seattle Times is not naming the pilot, nor providing some details that might reveal his identity, because it is the newspaper's general policy not to identify suspects who have not been charged.

The pilot's emergence as the prime suspect dispels a widespread public notion: that the investigation has gone nowhere. That perception grew with the offer of a $1 million reward earlier this year.

The FBI has designated the Wales killing a "major case file," on par with the decadeslong investigation that eventually led to the capture of the Unabomber. In the past 25 years, only 186 investigations nationwide have been given that status.

"This is the No. 1 priority as far as this office is concerned," said Supervisory Special Agent Greg Carl, who oversees the Seattle FBI office's criminal-investigations division. Four agents are working the case full time, and eight others and support personnel will soon be added.

Ron Bone, the agent leading the investigation, expresses little concern about the time it is taking. He headed the investigation of the "Trench Coat Robbers," who held up 27 banks over 15 years, netting nearly $4.5 million in a Tacoma heist, the biggest bank robbery in U.S. history. The two men were finally caught in 1997.

"So you see," Bone said, "a year in a case like this is nothing."

Sent dozens to prison

From the outset, the homicide investigation has been hampered by the sheer volume of Wales' professional, personal and civic activities. Wales was a man of many friends, and of many potential enemies.

At 49, he had been a federal prosecutor for 18 years. Though he hadn't prosecuted many violent criminals, he had sent dozens of people to prison in white-collar cases, often for bank fraud.

As the outspoken president of Washington CeaseFire, he had rankled gun-rights advocates as he pushed for tougher gun laws.

In both roles and in his personal life, Wales had developed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Many had visited his home in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood, hiked with him on Cascade peaks, joined him in civic meetings.

"He spent his whole life to help others make this world a better place," said former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy, who was Wales' roommate at Harvard University.

A mountaineer and gourmet cook, Wales was strong enough to build a rock shelter for his son on a Mount Adams ridge in a windstorm, gentle enough to help errant bumblebees out of the house in a cup. He was a maker of fruitcakes for family and friends, the object of good-natured ribbing for his lack of fashion sense.

The father of two adult children, Wales had been recently divorced, though the breakup was amicable. He had begun dating a woman in what appeared to friends and family to be a happy relationship.

On the night of Oct. 11, Wales was alone in his basement, working at his computer with his back to a window. The neighborhood's peace was shattered about 10:40 p.m., when at least four gunshots rang out. Wales was struck several times, including a mortal wound to the neck.

Although it was widely reported that Wales had managed a call to 911, agents now say that isn't true.

Moments after the shooting, a neighbor saw a man walking quickly through a side yard, to a parked vehicle that sped away. She didn't get a good look at the man or the vehicle.

Word of the shooting left Wales' colleagues in the U.S. Attorney's Office and in the larger legal community in shock.

Stunned that anyone would want to kill Wales, fellow prosecutors and defense attorneys recalled that he had always been sensitive to the people he was prosecuting. Wales had, for example, established a program that gave embezzlers credit for time served for teaching bank employees about the risks of stealing.

Even in the fraud case involving the airline pilot, Wales had gone out of his way to help one of the other defendants after charges were dismissed.

"That was one of the remarkable things about Tom," said Robert Chadwell, a defense attorney who represented the co-defendant. "He had an abiding sense of fairness."

'Snakebit' at the start

The Wales investigation was "snakebit" at the start, according to one federal source.

There were questions over which agency would lead the investigation, the Seattle Police Department or the FBI. If Wales was killed because he was a federal prosecutor — the first time a prosecutor was murdered as a result of his duties — then the FBI had jurisdiction. If it involved his personal life or he was killed because of his CeaseFire activities, it would be a state case.

There was also tension between the FBI and the Seattle U.S. Attorney's Office, where Wales had worked. Acting U.S. Attorney Jerry Diskin insisted the office could oversee the prosecution, despite the fact that many of the lawyers there — including Diskin himself — were close to Wales. The Seattle FBI office insisted that a special prosecutor should be appointed.

Eventually, the FBI took the lead in investigating, with a special prosecutor overseeing the case. But that special prosecutor, a Justice Department attorney in Washington, D.C., had no experience in homicide investigations. And virtually every agent in the FBI's Seattle field office was running down terrorism leads.

At that point, the investigation lacked strategic planning, according to sources close to the case. It wasn't until January that the case got on track, and that occurred only after prodding from a senior federal prosecutor in Seattle and a frustrated FBI agent.

More agents were assigned to the case and a new special prosecutor, Cornell University law professor Steven Clymer, was brought on board. Clymer was respected for his prosecution of four Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King beating case.

The investigators checked out — and eliminated — dozens of potential suspects. Agents created a long list of individuals who may have had motive or opportunity to kill Wales, and methodically ran down the leads.

The list included people Wales had prosecuted, going back early in his career. Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and the Internal Revenue Service were interviewed to see if they knew of anyone who might harbor a grudge against Wales.

"We have eliminated a lot of people that might have a perceived motive," Special Agent Bone said.

But one suspect who would not be eliminated was the Bellevue pilot.

He had recently sued in federal court, alleging that Wales and overzealous federal agents had wrongfully targeted him in the fraud investigation and had damaged his reputation. The motion asked for more than $125,000 in legal fees.

Government attorneys, in their responses, disputed the claim, pointing out that the pilot had been properly indicted by a grand jury that had heard the evidence.

In a document filed two months before Wales was shot, government lawyers expressed concerns about the pilot and the safety of witnesses who had testified against him. If the court wanted further information, they said, it should be gathered behind closed doors.

"During the course of the investigation, the government received information from at least two persons indicative of (the pilot's) violent and retributive nature," a prosecutor wrote.

The motion was pending when Wales was slain.

The pilot has consistently refused to be questioned by authorities. Others with key information about the pilot's whereabouts the night of the slaying also have refused to talk.

"What we have is a bizarre puzzle in the way all of these people are acting," said one federal source. "It could be easily cleared up if they'd simply cooperate."

A movie downtown

Although the pilot declined to be interviewed by The Times, people close to him have been interviewed, and some details about his activities that night are known.

The pilot was in downtown Seattle just hours before Wales was shot. He saw a movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey," at the Cinerama Theatre with a female friend. The two left about 9:30 p.m., going their separate ways, according to the woman's statement to the FBI.

The theater is about a 10-minute drive from Wales' home.

A friend says the pilot made a phone call from his Bellevue home about 10:30 p.m. While the friend won't provide further details about the call, he says it would be impossible for the pilot to have made the call from Bellevue — about a 25-minute drive from Queen Anne — and to have shot Wales at 10:40.

The pilot also made other calls that night, before and after Wales was shot, some on a mobile phone, according to people close to him. One call from his home to a woman in Vancouver, B.C., lasted for 1-½ hours in the early morning of Oct. 12, the sources said.

The FBI now believes the pilot's anger over the fraud case may have been accelerated by the television interview, taped Sept. 25, 2001, and broadcast several times on NorthWest Cable News, in which Wales spoke forcefully against allowing airline pilots to carry guns.

Agents have questioned witnesses who allege the pilot made threatening comments about Wales in the months before the slaying, even saying he would like to kill Wales.

People close to the pilot dismiss those allegations as the product of unreliable witnesses, including one who was a co-defendant in the fraud case and had feuded with the pilot.

The FBI used the allegations, along with other information that hasn't been made public, to obtain a warrant to search the pilot's home. The warrant and an affidavit outlining the evidence remain sealed.

The pilot's house and vehicle were searched Dec. 1. Investigators seized several firearms, including a handgun of the same caliber used in the Wales homicide. So far, sources have said, the ballistics and forensic tests have not implicated the pilot.

Shortly after the search, the pilot's airline notified him, in a letter, that he was being placed on paid leave because he was a suspect in Wales' death, a friend says.

The pilot accepted the action, except for one part that suspended his privilege to fly free on the carrier. On that aspect, he filed a union grievance, the friend says.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury in Seattle subpoenaed the pilot's work records, bank records and phone records.

The FBI lab examined human oil found on a shell casing recovered from Wales' yard. Initially, there was hope that DNA in the oil would lead to the killer. But the lab tests showed the oil came from a Seattle police detective who had picked up the shell casing.

An open clue

On April 19, Joshua Nesbitt, a federal criminal prosecutor who initially oversaw the Wales investigation for the Justice Department, filed a startling document in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The affidavit was submitted to U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, who had overseen the original fraud case involving the pilot and was considering his motion for legal fees.

Although the contents of the affidavit were sealed, the fact that it had been filed by Nesbitt — and not the government attorneys who had been handling the wrongful-prosecution case — was an open clue that the pilot was a suspect.

A source close to the case said that in the affidavit, Nesbitt asked when Lasnik would rule on the wrongful-prosecution motion. It also contained other material concerning the slaying, the source said.

The pilot's attorney objected to Nesbitt's filing and Lasnik supported the objection. In a short but harshly worded order, he wrote that "there was no basis" for the government's affidavit.

"The court did not request or authorize the submission and found it to be both improvident and unhelpful," Lasnik wrote.

Concerned about the appearance that he had been exposed to improper information, Lasnik transferred the wrongful-prosecution case to U.S. District Judge John Coughenour. On June 1, Coughenour rejected the pilot's request for attorney's fees, writing that the prosecution of him was not "vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith," the legal standard needed to prevail in such cases.

The pilot appealed the decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, he remains off work. His airline told him he could come back to work several months ago, but he opted to take a medical leave, citing his mental health.

A supporter says the pilot is depressed over the FBI's relentless pursuit of him and is worried that if he returned to work and made the slightest error, he might be fired.

The series of events has left the pilot extremely frustrated, the supporter says.

Also frustrated are Wales' family and friends. Younger brother Rick Wales hopes someone with information about the killing will come forward. While an arrest would not bring Tom Wales back, it might help the family deal with the loss.

"You don't just think about it on the anniversary of the day he died," Rick Wales said. "I think we in the family think of it in two ways. We think of it all the time, and then it fades away and sort of pops up and insinuates itself in your mind when you don't want it to be there and it hits you again."

FBI agents, meanwhile, express confidence that they will, eventually, catch the culprit.

"The Seattle FBI office has handled a number of very high-profile cases over the years," said Charles Mandigo, the special agent in charge of the Seattle office. "In the end, they were successfully prosecuted. Likewise, this case will be successfully concluded."

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.

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