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Sunday, April 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Could mystery letter solve case of slain prosecutor?

Seattle Times staff reporter

FBI tip line


Anyone with information about the letter or the author's identity is asked to contact the FBI toll-free at 866-322-7009 or write to: FBI, 1110 Third Ave., Seattle, WA 98101. The FBI has offered a $1 million reward for information that helps solve the case.

More than four years after the fatal shooting of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales, the FBI has received an anonymous letter in which the writer claims he was hired to kill Wales.

The letter was mailed Jan. 23 from Las Vegas to the Seattle office of the FBI, which is investigating the unsolved slaying. Wales, 49, was killed in his Queen Anne home on Oct. 11, 2001, by an assailant in his back yard.

If Wales was killed because of his work, he would be the first federal prosecutor in U.S. history to be slain in the line of duty.

The letter writer purports to be a hit man hired by a woman and possibly others to carry out the killing. No motive for the act is given in the letter released by the FBI.

FBI officials said they doubt the author's claims, noting the one-page, typewritten letter was written in the style of a detective novel, contains unrealistic information and provides no details known only to the killer and investigators.

But based on similar contacts in other investigations, along with the letter's sudden appearance so long after the shooting, FBI behavioral experts have concluded the writer likely is connected to Wales' killing.

One possibility is that Wales' true killer might have concocted the hit-man story to create a diversion, according to the experts.

"It is one of the avenues" the FBI is pursuing, said James Fitzgerald, a supervisory agent and behavioral expert with the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va.

Copies of the letter and the envelope were provided to The Seattle Times by the FBI, which is asking for the public's help in providing any information that would help identify the writer.

The envelope bears an unusual name in the return address: "Gidget." The name "Gidget" has long been associated with a teenage female character in a popular 1959 film by that title, as well as a 1960s television series of the same name.

Gidget is likely a name the author has used in conversations, Fitzgerald said. "It's significant to the author, for one reason or another," Fitzgerald said.

The return address is listed as "2400 W. Charleston" in Las Vegas, a strip mall on a busy boulevard. The address doesn't appear to be significant, FBI officials said. But, coincidentally, the FBI office in Las Vegas is located at 700 E. Charleston, along the same boulevard.

The trail in Las Vegas

Agents haven't been able to find the mail carrier in Las Vegas who picked up the letter. They know only that it came from Las Vegas. But disclosure of the envelope — handwritten in a distinctive style — might jog the memory of a carrier, the FBI said.

Since January, the FBI has studied the letter while conducting tests to lift fingerprints and DNA from the envelope and letter. But nothing has been found yet, the FBI said. Two stamps on the envelope were self-adhesive, and the envelope could have been sealed with a sponge.

Handwriting experts are also analyzing the letter.

Fitzgerald said the penmanship on the envelope or the author's writing style might be recognizable to someone who reads it.

The writer asserts he was broke and between jobs when he received an anonymous call from a woman offering him money to shoot someone he didn't know.

The woman provided him an address and gun, the writer says.

"I drove to the address, and then parked some distance away, north of downtown," the letter reads. "I kind of camped out in the backyard of this house, and waited for the guy to settle in at his computer. Once he was there, I took careful aim. I shot two or possibly more times, and watched him collapse."

The writer says he retraced his steps, dropped off the gun, retrieved his money and returned to Las Vegas.

The letter is the latest in a string of intriguing but frustrating developments in the case, which has been given top priority by the FBI.

The bureau has designated the Wales killing a "major case file," on par with the decades-long investigation that eventually led to the capture of the Unabomber in 1995.

Publication in two newspapers of an anonymous anti-technology manifesto written by the bomber led to his arrest. The bomber's brother recognized the treatise as the work of his sibling, Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski, who killed three people and injured 23 others between 1978 and 1995, was sentenced to life in prison.

Wales worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle for 18 years, mostly handling white-collar crimes. He was killed about 10:40 p.m., when he was struck by several shots fired from the backyard through a basement window.

Pattern seen

Wales, the divorced father of two grown children, was alone in the house, sitting at his computer. Neighbors heard the shots, and one of them saw a shadowy figure walk quickly to a car.

The letter fits a pattern seen in dozens of anonymous or fake-name letters received by investigators and the news media in high-profile criminal cases over the years, said Fitzgerald, the FBI behavioral expert.

The FBI has given the pattern a name: "Post Offense Manipulation of Investigation Communications," or POMIC.

The writer is often the person who committed the crime or someone who knows about it, Fitzgerald said. The writer tries to make the crime seem like a random act, pointing to a contract killer or a mentally ill person to throw off investigators or create a potential defense issue if the case goes to trial, Fitzgerald said.

In the Wales case, the scenario in the letter is unrealistic because the supposed hit man is easily contacted by a woman he doesn't know, which would normally make a paid killer suspicious of an undercover police operation, said Shawn VanSlyke, a supervisory agent and behavioral expert at the FBI analysis center. It's also unlikely a hit man would pay his own travel expenses and wait to be paid after the killing, VanSlyke said

Still, the author is likely connected to Wales' slaying because someone unattached to the killing probably wouldn't write such an elaborate letter so long after the crime, VanSlyke said.

The letter mentions a sum paid for the killing. In the copy provided to The Times, the FBI replaced the dollar amount with x's, holding back that detail because only the writer would be able to verify the amount if questioned. One line of the letter was omitted for the same reason, the FBI said.

The FBI said it has not linked the letter to any suspect.

Agents have long focused on a Bellevue airline pilot as a prime suspect, believing he was furious at Wales for prosecuting him in a fraud case. The pilot — whom The Times is not naming because he hasn't been charged — attended a movie in downtown Seattle the evening Wales was killed, leaving the theater about an hour before the shooting.

Court papers filed by a special prosecutor in the case have tied the pilot to a grand-jury investigation, outlining escalating conflicts between Wales and the pilot before Wales was killed.

But despite twice searching the pilot's home, conducting a massive hunt for a unique gun barrel used in the killing, and calling the pilot's associates before the grand jury, the FBI has been unable to develop enough evidence to make an arrest.

The pilot couldn't be reached for comment on the letter, but a lawyer who represented him in other matters dismissed its significance.

"I've lost all faith in them as an investigative agency," said Seattle attorney Larry Setchell, referring to the FBI. "I wouldn't be surprised if they wrote [the letter] themselves."

Setchell declined further comment and said he doesn't represent the pilot in the Wales investigation.

The pilot has previously complained to others that the FBI has unfairly focused on him because it needs a suspect.

Wales had brought felony charges against the pilot and others in a fraud case, accusing them of improperly altering a military helicopter to make it look like a civilian model they could sell.

The charges against the individuals were dropped in July 2001, but the helicopter-rebuilding business pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine.

Shortly after, the pilot brought a wrongful-prosecution action against the government, seeking $125,000 in legal fees. The pilot's suit, which continued to be heard after Wales was killed three months later, was ultimately dismissed by a federal judge.

Wales' work as a prominent gun-safety activist — he was president of an organization called Washington CeaseFire — also drew the ire of the pilot, who is a gun enthusiast, according to law-enforcement officials.

Wales' work with the organization also could have provided a motive for someone other than the pilot.

Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this story.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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