Who Killed Tom Wales?

From the archives: The November 2006 feature story on the shocking murder of U.S. Attorney Tom Wales and the years of mystery that followed.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Seattle magazine. 

It was warm and windy on October 11, on that evening just a month after the watershed chaos of the terrorist attacks of 2001, when at least four shots rang out at 10:40 p.m. in a quiet Queen Anne neighborhood. Folks don’t hear much gunfire here, so when longtime resident Emily Holt heard the shots, she peeked out the window of her house. 

She saw a white man walking down the street that was only partially lit with street lights. “He was walking real fast,” she says. He got into a car parked under a tree on the well-lit block and “took off like a bat out of hell.” 

Holt didn’t yet know that her back-fence neighbor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Wales, 49, lay dying on his basement floor with gunshot wounds to his neck and upper body. He probably didn’t see his attacker as he sat at his desk answering e-mail in the basement office of his restored 1905 Craftsman on the 100 block of Hayes Street. 

The assassin pumped 4 or 5 shots (the FBI isn’t revealing exactly how many) from his 9mm Makarov semiautomatic pistol through the uncurtained basement window and into Wales who was sitting just a few feet from the window in the well-lit home office. He was a sitting duck. Bullets tore into his neck and throat and slammed into his torso. The Mak is favored on the streets because it’s small, easily concealed and delivers a powerful punch. Autopsy reports have never been released, but it’s unlikely that Wales had much chance of survival; the .380 caliber slugs went in small and came out larger. Early reports that he dialed 911 but couldn’t say anything coherent to the operator were later denied by police. He probably wasn’t capable of much after the shots were fired. 

Neighbors, hearing the shots, called police, and their response was quick in the tidy, upscale top-of-the-hill neighborhood only minutes from downtown. Cops saw the bullet holes in the basement window, forced their way in and found Wales lying on the floor.

The gunman had slipped through the dark and narrow cement walk between the Wales house and the house next door—the only way in and out—where Wales’ longtime neighbor, Mary Aylward, lay sleeping.

“The sirens woke me up; we don’t get much of that in this neighborhood,” Aylward told Seattle magazine. Aylward, who died in a traffic accident a few weeks after our interview, got up, dressed and stepped outside and into a nightmare she couldn’t have imagined when she turned in at 9 p.m. The street out front, and the driveway adjacent to her house where Tom Wales’ red Range Rover was parked, was a police-taped chaos of flashing lights, loud sirens, cops, medical aid vehicles and clots of neighbors standing around looking stunned. 

In the basement, medics were desperately trying to save Wales’ life. After more than an hour, they transported him to Harborview, but doctors pronounced him dead at 1:17 a.m.

The next day, with the Seattle law enforcement community in shock, Wales’ friend, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who lives four blocks away, called the crime an assassination. He told The Seattle Times that he was struck “that someone would assassinate a federal prosecutor. To me, that is tantamount to killing a police officer.”

Now, just after the fifth anniversary of the killing, there has still been no arrest. “This is a major, major case,” said Mark Bartlett in August. He’s a U.S. attorney who worked with Wales. “This is the number one criminal case in Seattle.” That may be because Wales’ murder has a distinction with national and historical implications: If Wales was killed because of his job, he’d be the first federal prosecutor in U.S. history to be slain in the line of duty.

There is a suspect in the case—a pilot—who has been unnamed so far because no charge has been made. “He did it, for sure,” says a Seattle magazine source who was close to Wales personally and professionally. Only a week before his death, Wales talked about the man to this friend. “Tom said he was an individual who’d lived outside the confines of what we think of as conventional life—he was very smart but very dangerous. Tom was intrigued by him.” 

So who would want to assassinate Tom Wales—and why?   

Wales, who friends say bore a resemblance to Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy of Law & Order, played by Sam Waterston, never lost a case in 18 years in the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office. He was known and well liked as a Queen Anne neighborhood activist and for his involvement in other local issues. His professional life unfortunately gave many people motives to kill him.

“We [friends and neighbors] were sure it was a terrorist that night—something to do with his job,” Aylward said. It was a logical conclusion since the attorney’s office is charged with prosecuting terrorism cases, and Wales’ death occurred so soon after 9/11. 

But Wales didn’t prosecute terrorists. His specialty was white-collar crime, particularly bank fraud—for instance, employees embezzling from customer accounts. He didn’t ordinarily deal with violent criminals, but danger was inherent in his work. He’d sent dozens of criminals to prison. While those criminals were often better educated, better dressed and less violent than, say, drug dealers, they also were more likely to have resources that would allow them to hire someone else to settle an old grudge.

Cops always look closely at family and friends in homicides. Personally, Wales was beloved by a wide circle of intimates. He was well known in national and local law enforcement circles, was active in Washington CeaseFire, a gun control group, and spearheaded the effort to write a neighborhood plan with the Queen Anne Community Council in the neighborhood where his two kids had grown up. 

People who knew him couldn’t fathom why anyone would want him dead. Disbelief was expressed by many of the hundreds of friends and family who gathered at his memorial. Ralph Fascitelli, CeaseFire president, was a good friend. “To his friends, his death was like the JFK assassination—he had so much promise and ability. He was wicked smart, unselfish and funny.”

“We golfed together, hiked together, socialized together and fought for gun control together,” says Fascitelli. At the memorial service he was surprised to find that “Tom had a dozen such ‘best friends.’”

Police scrutinize divorces in homicide cases, and Wales’ 27-year marriage had broken up a year before. It was painful, but he and former Seattle School Board member and literary agent Elizabeth Wales were still close, according to Aylward. “The divorce was hard for Tom,” she says. They had met in boarding school in Massachusetts when they were 16 and married on Tom’s 21st birthday at Harvard. 

Elizabeth wrote in a tribute for Tom’s memorial: “We were a deeply attached and happy couple for most of our 27 years of marriage. After a period of change on my part we divorced last year: It was hard, especially for Tom.” Elizabeth had announced that she was a lesbian. “He was a tolerant, loving man,” said Aylward, “but it took him a while to come to terms with that, but he did. They were still best of friends.” They were together in the parenting of their grown children, Tom and Amy, then ages 24 and 22 respectively, who were both at university in Europe at the time of their father’s murder. 

The curly-haired, wiry mountain climber and dedicated runner lived alone in the four-bedroom home where his kids grew up—not far from the upper Queen Anne village of restaurants, upscale grocery stores and boutiques. But he was moving on after his divorce. For a year or so, he’d been seeing Marlis DeJongh, who owns a Seattle court reporting business. “They seemed happy and well suited,” said Aylward. 

DeJongh, also an avid runner, started the annual Tom Wales 5K Run and Walk that benefits, among other things, the Thomas C. Wales Foundation, which gives an annual award for “passionate citizenship,” recognizing people who give uncommon time and energy to their communities. “We’re trying to reward the kind of tireless, inspirational, community-building leadership that distinguished Tom,” says brother and board chair Rick Wales. 

Wales was on the Seattle Planning Commission and served as its president a couple of times. His neighborhood activism meant long dull meetings where sometimes-contentious issues were discussed at the bread crumb level: noisy railroad noise, construction that blocked views, public schools meeting children’s needs, sidewalks and street repair. 

For neighbors like Aylward, who lived next to the Wales family for nearly 20 years, Wales’ death “felt like losing a son.” After Aylward’s husband died, Wales helped out and called or visited every day. “He’d call me up and say, ‘I’m on my way over...’ and he’d bring dinner and a pitcher of martinis,” said Aylward.

“He had refined sensibilities for music and food and wine,” says Fascitelli, “and yet he was also tough as nails, intensely competitive and fearless.”

Wales was born in Boston and had shared a room at the historic Massachusetts Milton Academy with Joseph Kennedy, son of the slain senator Robert Kennedy, who was later to become a congressman. After graduating from Harvard and Hofstra University School of Law, Wales worked in a Wall Street law firm but was more interested in public service, and went into the U.S. attorney’s office. In 1983 he arrived in Seattle. 

Wales was active and outspoken in neighborhood political efforts and had often expressed a desire to get into elective politics. He’d worked to get appointed in 1997 to replace resigned council member John Manning in the Seattle City Council; the election was won by Richard McIver. “He had an avuncular credibility,” says Fascitelli, “that made him a great leader—I expected him to be governor someday.”

The writer of "The Gidget Letter" claims to be Wales' killer. FBI agents have their doubts. Image courtesy Seattle FBI.

The nature of the Wales’ death immediately had Seattle Police, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives swarming the case. Wales was given Bureau Major Case status by the FBI. In FBI history, fewer than 200 investigations had been given this classification, making Wales equal to the Unabomber case where Ted Kaczynski was caught after a dogged, decades-long investigation after he’d killed three people and injured 29 others between 1978 and 1995. A $1 million reward has been offered by the government for information that helps solve the case.

Cops viewed the murdered lawman as “one of their own.” The way he was ambushed as he sat in his own home is particularly infuriating to federal law officials and considered especially cowardly.  

At the beginning, the investigation’s wheels spun in the rut of jurisdictional disputes between the Seattle Police Department and the FBI. If Wales was killed because of his job as a federal officer, legally, the FBI would take the lead in the investigation. If his death was tied to his personal life or his political activism, it’d be a case for the Seattle police.

There was also tension between the FBI and the Seattle U.S. Attorney’s Office. Wales had worked among them, and they insisted on overseeing the prosecution. The FBI maintained the local U.S. attorneys had been too close to Wales and insisted a special prosecutor be appointed. 

The FBI eventually took the lead in the investigation, and a Justice Department attorney in Washington, D.C., with no experience in homicide investigations was appointed as special prosecutor. At the time, agents in the FBI’s Seattle office were all busy chasing down terrorist leads—the early Wales investigation lacked strategic planning and direction, according to sources. 

In January of 2002, after a senior prosecutor and a frustrated FBI agent prodded higher-ups, a more organized and focused investigation was begun. Cornell University law professor Steven Clymer was brought in as special prosecutor to head the investigation, replacing the inexperienced Washington attorney. Clymer is a respected former federal prosecutor, known for his relentless prosecution of the Los Angeles cops who’d beaten Rodney King. 

Although Wales was known as fierce when prosecuting the complex cases he specialized in, he also showed compassion. He founded an innovative program that used convicted embezzlers to talk to bank employees about the consequences of falling to the temptations of embezzlement. His strong belief in justice from the enforcement side was tempered by equally passionate beliefs in personal redemption. 

He once spoke at a hearing in defense of a man he could have prosecuted and successfully pled for the state’s withdrawal of charges. The man, years later, wrote a letter read at Wales’ memorial. “Thank you for believing in me at a pivotal moment in my life, for looking at me as an individual and not a statistic, for understanding me when I did not understand myself and for giving me a chance to succeed.” 

As prosecutors searched for a motive, they considered Wales’ activism in gun control—he was president of Washington CeaseFire—and wondered whether there was a link with his death. It was a cruel irony that he was murdered by handgun, and it churned up citywide speculation that the killer was a gun fanatic.

After all, the day he was killed, Wales was pushing a proposal requiring background checks at state gun shows. He was gun control’s most prominent face in the state, was CeaseFire’s prime motivator and fund-raiser. He’d rankled gun rights advocates as spokesman for an overly broad and unsuccessful 1997 initiative that would have licensed handguns, mandated all pistols be sold with trigger locks and held gun owners liable for crimes committed if their weapons were stored unsafely. 

Not surprisingly, it stirred up controversy among gun manufacturers and owners, and was strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association and similar organizations. Right-wing Bellevue entrepreneur Alan Gottlieb of Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms told the Seattle Weekly he suspected Wales was killed by one of his own, perhaps voluntarily, to elevate him to martyr status for the gun-control cause. Radical right-wing Web sites snickered over his death. One called him “yet another arrogant, gun-banning Jew, out in the open, unafraid.” Wales was not Jewish.

But only a month after the murder the investigation led to a single suspect: a Bellevue commercial pilot and avid gun enthusiast who’d been prosecuted by Wales for felony fraud in the sales of some helicopters by a helicopter-rebuilding business in which the pilot was a partner. There was open acrimony between Wales and the pilot, who flies for tiny Republic Airlines. The corporate entity of the business pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and charges against the pilot and other individuals were eventually dropped. 

But the pilot claimed his reputation was damaged after all the legal wrangling, and he had run up some $125,000 in legal fees. He sued the government for frivolous and wrongful prosecution and lost. He was particularly angry with Wales, and this was his motive for murdering him, according to FBI sources sussed out by Seattle papers. 

The FBI and the pilot began a game of cat and mouse that’s still going on. He knows they’re suspicious and they know he knows. In August, the FBI searched homes owned by the pilot in Bellevue and Snohomish. FBI agents tell reporters they have plenty of circumstantial evidence against the pilot, who has refused to be questioned by law enforcement officers, as have others who authorities say have key information about the pilot’s whereabouts the night of the murder. 

Soon after the 9-11 attacks, Wales, never one to mince words when it came to his passionate beliefs, spoke out forcefully on TV news against allowing airline pilots to carry guns. According to media reports, the FBI believes that might have been the last straw for the pilot. Over the years, the pilot has been forced to give a DNA sample; agents have searched his home more than once; his friends and family have made repeated appearances before a federal grand jury. None of this has turned up anything the government could take to court. 

Some of the pilot’s friends could possibly supply an alibi or give other information that might clear him, but they won’t talk either. “What we have is a bizarre puzzle in the way all of these people are acting,” a federal source told The Seattle Times. “It could be easily cleared up if they’d simply cooperate.”

Local reporters have talked to at least one unnamed supporter of the pilot who’s given the FBI the details of his movements on October 11. He and a woman friend had gone to 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Theatre, only 10 minutes from the Hayes Street basement where Tom Wales sat working. After the show, according to the woman’s FBI statement, the two went home separately at about 9:30 p.m., just an hour before the shooting. 

But the pilot says he has an alibi, according to another friend who spoke to the Times: A call allegedly made from the pilot’s Bellevue home at about 10:30 p.m. would have made it impossible for him to have shot Tom Wales at 10:40. 

Supporters say the investigation was bungled and the pilot is being targeted unfairly because there are no real suspects. Law officers have admitted to reporters, off the record, that even though the investigation was “awkwardly handled” in the beginning, the evidence still leads to the pilot.

It was an impasse until early this year. More than four years after the slaying, law enforcement officials got a break. A typewritten note (with a handwritten envelope) was mailed January 23 from Las Vegas to the Seattle FBI by someone purporting to be an out-of-work hit man who was contacted to do the hit by an anonymous “nice-talking lady.” 

The note, known as the “Gidget letter” because the return address name was “Gidget” (the title of a puerile series of eponymous surfer movies of the late 1950s and a subsequent TV series), was written in a stylized staccato narrative like a 1950s detective novel. The writer may be trying to create a believable hit-man character from things he has seen or read. The letter was sealed, apparently with a sponge; the stamps were self-adhesive, so no DNA could be lifted from the envelope.  

On the night of October 11, the writer describes going to the window, where he “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 FBI says the letter fits a pattern observed in high-profile cases called “Post-Offense Manipulation of Investigation Communications,” or POMIC. The writer is often the criminal or someone who knows about the crime and is trying to throw investigators off the track. The writer could also be attempting to make false defense issues if the case ever goes to trial.  

The FBI says the letter is improbable at face value because the killer says he was contacted casually by someone he didn’t know; this would cause a real hit man to suspect an undercover police operation. Shawn VanSlyke, a behaviorist at the FBI analysis center, told reporters it’s also unlikely a paid killer would pay his own travel expenses and not be paid until after the hit. The writer describes collecting his money at a “specified location” after the hit. 

The FBI says it’s not linked a suspect to the diversionary letter, but in a story leaked by an FBI insider to Times reporters Steve Miletich and David Bowermaster on May 2, it appears that the investigation has discovered that the pilot went to some trouble to get to Las Vegas for a five-hour layover on a trip to Washington, D.C., on a day he could have mailed the letter with its January 23 postmark.

The investigation took another turn in early June after the revelations about the letter aroused speculations and hopes for an arrest in the case. Special Agent in Charge Laura Laughlin of the Seattle FBI office, announced her decision to cut the number of agents working full-time on the case from four to two, with one Seattle police detective retained full-time to the case. As recently as 2003, there had been eight agents assigned to the case.

This development caused great consternation—especially to those in the U.S. Attorney’s office, which had been recused from overseeing the case because of their close connection to their late friend and colleague. 

A few days later, Laughlin announced it was all a misunderstanding by the media. Agents were not being taken off the case but being replaced with new investigators. FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs said “other resources” were to be put on the task force to get a “fresh look” at the case.

Then the bombshell: The FBI announced its Portland office would take over. Portland Special Agent in Charge Robert Jordan was named inspector for the case and is overseeing day-to-day operations.  

Whether the move was a rebuke to Laughlin from pressures brought to D.C. FBI brass by prosecutors in the Seattle office or whether it was, as stated, to bring fresh perspective to a five-year-old case is not clear.

“High-level officials at the Department of Justice expressed displeasure to the FBI about Laura Laughlin’s resource allocation decisions,” an unnamed Justice Department source told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on June 14. 

The Seattle FBI told reporters such a move wasn’t unprecedented—that changing case management is frequently “applied to particularly challenging investigations such as the Olympic Park bombing case in Atlanta and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City.” 

Laughlin said, though perhaps the Wales case is smaller in magnitude than the aforementioned cases, “it is designated as a major case because of the nature of the victim. We feel this is an important case that can be solved. And we are committed to applying the necessary number of resources to solve it.”

Federal investigations are known for having patience and doggedly going the distance. The Unabomber case took nearly 20 years to solve. “I’ve been a prosecutor for 21 years,” says Mark Bartlett. “In your heart of hearts you feel as though virtually every criminal case, if you work hard and long enough, can be solved—I have every confidence that we will do so.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Seattle magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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