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Wednesday, June 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FBI yanks Wales case away from Seattle office

Seattle Times staff reporter

In a major rebuke, FBI officials in Washington, D.C., have overruled a decision by the bureau's Seattle office to reduce the number of agents investigating the slaying of federal prosecutor Thomas Wales.

The officials took the rare step Tuesday of removing the case from the Seattle office and putting it under the direction of an FBI official in Portland.

The official, Robert Jordan, special agent in charge of the Portland office, will carry the special title of inspector in the Wales case, a designation previously employed in investigations of bombings of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and Atlanta's Olympic park in 1996.

Jordan, who will report to top FBI officials in Washington, said Tuesday he expects to increase the size of the task force investigating the killing of Wales, who was gunned down in his Queen Anne home in 2001. He said that could include agents in Seattle and Portland.

But Jordan said he would not discuss details until he meets in Seattle on Monday with agents currently assigned to the case and with the special prosecutor, Steven Clymer.

It was Clymer who asked top officials in Washington, D.C., to review a decision by the special agent in charge of the Seattle office, Laura Laughlin, to reduce the number of agents on the case from four to two last month.

Laughlin's decision was strongly criticized by a three-member FBI review team from Washington, which interviewed agents and supervisors in the Seattle office last week, according to sources close to the investigation.

The review team concluded that supervisors in Seattle had failed to provide adequate direction in the case, leaving agents without resources and support, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.

Laughlin traveled to Washington, D.C., Monday to meet with top bureau officials, who informed her of the new steps, the sources said.

Wales, 49 when he was killed, worked in the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle for 18 years. He was shot at about 10:40 p.m. Oct. 11, 2001, while sitting at a computer in his basement. Wales was hit by several shots fired from his backyard.

If killed because of his work, Wales would be the first federal prosecutor in U.S. history to be slain in the line of duty. A $1 million reward has been offered for information that helps solve the case.

Agents have focused on a Bellevue airline pilot as their prime suspect. The pilot had been targeted by Wales in a fraud case that concluded in 2001.

Laughlin, in an interview Tuesday, said she did not consider the new moves to be a rebuke.

"The time has come for a different view of the case," she said, calling the changes the result of discussions between her and FBI officials in Washington, D.C., and Portland.

She said she had personally added an FBI analyst to the case Tuesday to bolster the investigation.

Laughlin, who inherited the Wales case 15 months ago when she was appointed head of the Seattle office, denied she had reduced the task force last month. But she declined to discuss what personnel moves she had made.

Sources close to the matter have previously said Laughlin cut the task force in half, citing an e-mail she sent to the Seattle office announcing the removal of two agents from the case.

Laughlin said two of the original task-force members will remain on the case. A Seattle police detective also remains assigned to the investigation.

Laughlin and Jordan both said they do not consider the Wales investigation to be a "cold case" and noted that agents are pursuing active leads.

"It is a very, very important case to the FBI," Jordan said.

Agents have twice searched the pilot's house, and his friends and associates have been called before a federal grand jury in Seattle investigating the case.

No charges have been filed against the pilot, who has refused to be interviewed by reporters. The Seattle Times is not naming the pilot because he has not been charged.

Laughlin's decision to reduce the number of agents working on the case came shortly after the Seattle FBI office disclosed in April that it had received an anonymous letter written by a person claiming responsibility for killing Wales.

The letter was mailed from Las Vegas in January, around the time the Bellevue pilot visited that city while traveling on business, sources said.

The letter was written by someone claiming he was hired to kill Wales, and it contained what the FBI described as misleading and unrealistic information meant to throw off investigators.

Agents have been trying to directly link the letter to the pilot, who could be charged with obstruction of justice if he wrote it.

Laughlin's decision stunned agents because they viewed the developments related to the letter as a significant breakthrough in the investigation, sources said. Agents believed they were closer to solving the case, said one senior FBI official with detailed knowledge of the case.

The official said Laughlin's decision to reduce agents stemmed from a routine inspection of the Seattle FBI earlier this year by bureau officials. During that review, the official said, some agents working on the Wales case complained about lack of support from supervisors.

Those agents were removed from the case after Laughlin read the review, the official said, declining to identify them.

One of those agents was Ron Bone, the lead agent on the case who had been chosen because of his success in past cases, sources said.

Laughlin said Tuesday she would not comment on the inspection but that she was not aware of criticisms made by agents of the Wales investigation.

Clymer, the special prosecutor, declined comment on the FBI's announcement Tuesday. Clymer, a Cornell University law professor and former federal prosecutor, was appointed because the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle had to remove itself from the case.

Mark Bartlett, first assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, said, "We're encouraged and optimistic about the additional resources and leadership being provided by Robert Jordan and the renewed commitment shown by the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation in Seattle, Portland and in Washington, D.C. As always, we remain convinced that the Seattle Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation will bring the person who assassinated Tom to justice."

In a written statement, Laughlin referred to the changes as the completion of a "strategic realignment" in the investigation that will "hopefully bring a fresh point of view to this case."

"When someone takes the life of prosecutor whose job it is to uphold the law, it is more than a murder, it is an attack on society and our justice system," Laughlin said.

Jordan, 55, was appointed as head of the Portland office in 2003. He recently completed a five-week stint as acting deputy assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division in Washington, D.C.

He previously served in the Boston, Newark and San Diego field offices and as assistant director of the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility in Washington.

Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-330 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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