The FBI has found evidence strongly suggesting that the fatal shooting of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales in 2001 involved a conspiracy and a hired gunman, according to an FBI official familiar with the investigation.
Agents had pursued a single-shooter theory in the case and focused on a former Bellevue-area airline pilot who has long been a leading suspect in the shooting.
While agents continue to look at all leads that remain in the 16-year-old investigation, they are reviewing possible ties between the pilot and a small circle of people who agents suspect were involved in the killing, the FBI official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.
The official said there is a “very small group” of people who know what happened. “They never talk about it,” the official said.
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The pilot, whom Wales had prosecuted in a bitterly fought fraud case, has maintained his innocence throughout the long-running investigation.
The Seattle Times is not naming the 57-year-old pilot because he hasn’t been charged in the case. He couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, and his attorney declined to comment.
While the first-time disclosure that multiple people might be involved represents a major step in the investigation, the official cautioned that agents have yet to develop sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges.
The FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have scheduled a news conference in Seattle for Wednesday, during which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the department’s No. 2 ranking official, is expected to make the agency’s most extensive comments on the case since then-Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the 10-year anniversary of the shooting.
Rosenstein will be joined by Wales’ daughter, Amy Wales, U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes, interim Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, Seattle’s FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge Jay Tabb Jr. and others involved in the case.
Wales, 49, was working as a white-collar criminal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle when he was shot several times while sitting at a computer in the basement of his Queen Anne home about 10:40 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2001.
If Wales was killed because of his work, he would be the first federal prosecutor in the nation’s history to be slain in the line of duty.
The FBI has designated the Wales killing a “major case file,” on par with the decades-long Unabomber investigation that eventually led to the arrest of Ted Kaczynski, an anarchist who between 1978 and 1995 sent or delivered booby-trapped packages that killed three Americans and injured 24 more.
New statistics released by the FBI show the extent of the Wales investigation and the work of its task force, which has consisted of several agents and a Seattle police detective, one of whom has worked the case exclusively since its early days.
The FBI’s Tabb said the investigation has generated 2,345 sub-files – each a separate avenue of inquiry – and more than 51,000 investigative documents.
“It is three times the number … in the Enron” case, he said, referring to the massive accounting-fraud scandal that brought down the Houston-based energy and commodities company.
Despite the passage of time, Tabb said, the case remains active. As proof, he offered that some 21,000 of those investigative documents were generated since the 10th anniversary in 2011, and that in the past 12 months agents have pursued nearly 100 leads and initiated nearly 50 legal procedures, mostly subpoenas.
Moreover, agents continue to track down leads, as recently as the past two weeks, he said.
“Progress is being made,” Tabb said. The case, he said, has a “special purpose.”
In addition to the task-force investigators, Tabb said, “fresh analytical eyes” are applying the bureau’s latest big-data software to the case. “It may or may not turn out some new information,” he said.
Agents continue to trace more than 2,600 replacement barrels for a Makarov handgun that forensic evidence has linked to the bullets and shell casings recovered from Wales and the crime scene.
Tabb stressed that the DOJ is still offering a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of Wales’ killer.
He said the FBI believes there are people who have key information but have not come forward for the reward money because they are skeptical the government would pay them.
Tabb said he wanted to make clear to those people they will be paid if they provide helpful information.
The wide-ranging probe – hampered in the beginning by investigative missteps and overshadowed by the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks – has continued to focus on the commercial-airline pilot as other suspects were eliminated.
The pilot lived for years in Beaux Arts Village near Bellevue, and for a time in Snohomish. He is believed to be now living in Delaware.
According to a Federal Aviation Administration database, he continues to fly as a licensed commercial-airline pilot. For a time early in the investigation, the pilot was placed on paid leave by his then-employer when he emerged as a suspect.
The pilot, along with several business partners, had been the target of a flawed prosecution by Wales on charges the group had illegally converted a military helicopter to sell for civilian use. The charges against the individuals were dropped, and the company pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine.
The pilot sued, alleging malicious prosecution, and sought more than $125,000 in legal fees. The suit, pending when Wales was killed, was later rejected by a judge.
From almost Day One, the pilot has been a suspect in the killing, and over the years agents have searched his homes several times.
They’ve never been able to crack his alibi that he had left a downtown Seattle movie theater shortly before the slaying and was at home, across Lake Washington, engaged in a phone call around the time Wales was shot.
While the pilot’s attorney, Larry Setchell, declined to comment Tuesday, he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a 2006 interview that his client felt “profound frustration” over the helicopter prosecution. “How could there not be? He hadn’t done anything wrong.”
But Setchell said that he and his client “never once blamed Tom Wales.”
“This is Richard Jewell all over again,” Setchell said, referring to the man wrongly suspected in the 1996 Olympics bombing.
In 2006, the Seattle FBI office received an anonymous letter from Las Vegas in which the author wrote in detective-novel style that the killing was carried out by a hit man. The letter was postmarked about the same time the pilot happened to be in Las Vegas.
“He did not write the Las Vegas letter,” Setchell was quoted as saying in a New Yorker magazine article about the shooting.