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Tuesday, May 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wales suspect reportedly in Vegas days before letter sent

Seattle Times staff reporters

A Bellevue airline pilot under investigation in the fatal shooting of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales was in Las Vegas around the time an anonymous letter was mailed from there claiming responsibility for the killing, according to sources familiar with the investigation.

The letter, postmarked Jan. 23, was mailed to the Seattle office of the FBI, which is investigating the unsolved 2001 slaying.

The pilot, who was prosecuted by Wales in a fraud case, has been the prime suspect in the shooting since early in the investigation. A woman who answered the phone at the pilot's house Monday said he told her he did not want to speak with a reporter.

The investigation is a top priority of the FBI, which is offering a $1 million reward for information that helps solve the case.

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. Wales, 49, was shot in his Queen Anne home on Oct. 11, 2001, by an assailant standing in his back yard.

The pilot traveled to Las Vegas on Friday, Jan. 20, and spent more than five hours there in the evening between flights, according to airline travel records subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in Seattle.

The pilot's trip and the subpoena were described to The Seattle Times by sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. The Times is not naming the pilot because he has not been charged in the case.

Although the letter was postmarked three days after the pilot's trip — on Monday, Jan. 23 — it could have been dropped in a mailbox on Friday night and sat there over the weekend before being processed, said Marilyn Fenimore, customer-relations coordinator for the U.S. Postal Service in Las Vegas.

The FBI disclosed the letter two weeks ago, asking for the public's help in identifying the author. A tip line has been set up: 866-322-7009. The bureau said it has not linked the letter to any suspect in the case.

The author purported to be a hired killer, a claim FBI officials said they doubted because the letter contained an unrealistic account of the killer's actions.

But based on similar contacts in other investigations, FBI behavioral experts concluded that the letter writer likely is connected to Wales' killing. The letter even could have been written by the killer to create a diversion, the experts said.

The pilot, who works for Republic Airlines, went to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 20 to travel to Washington, D.C., initially seeking to board a 1:15 p.m. direct flight on Alaska Airlines.

Caroline Boren, an Alaska spokeswoman, confirmed that the pilot sought to fly free in an extra seat, invoking a courtesy arrangement in which pilots can fly on each other's airlines as part of their work. Alaska declined the request because Republic does not have an extra-seat agreement with Alaska, Boren said.

Alaska later was contacted by the FBI and provided information about the pilot's actions, she said.

After being denied a seat by Alaska, the pilot got an extra seat on America West Flight 52 to Las Vegas, leaving later that afternoon, according to the travel records described by the sources.

He arrived in Las Vegas shortly after 5 p.m. and left about 11 p.m. on a flight to Washington, D.C., the records show.

America West spokeswoman Valerie Wunder declined to comment, citing airline privacy policies.

Republic spokesman Warren Wilkinson also declined to comment. Republic provides regional service in many parts of the U.S., including from Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C.

The FBI described the letter as a major development but has not been able to determine the exact location where it was dropped in Las Vegas.

Letters dropped into boxes are collected by trucks and taken to a central processing site, making it impossible to determine from which box they came, said Fenimore, the postal official in Las Vegas.

The pilot has been under scrutiny throughout the investigation, according to court documents and people familiar with the case.

Wales had brought felony charges against him and others, 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, who worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle for 18 years, mostly handling white-collar crimes, was shot about 10:40 p.m. Oct. 11, 2001. He was hit by several shots fired from the back yard through a basement window.

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 pilot attended a movie in downtown Seattle the evening Wales was killed, leaving the theater about an hour before the shooting.

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

Times staff reporter Mike Carter contributed to this report.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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