FBI combs house of suspect in federal prosecutor's slaying

FBI agents removed 27 boxes of possible evidence during a search yesterday of the home of a Bellevue airline pilot who is the prime suspect in the 2001 slaying of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales.

In another search Wednesday, agents removed a bullet from the wall of a Bellingham home where the suspect once lived.

FBI agents and Seattle police detectives yesterday combed the sprawling split-level home on a shady, dead-end suburban street just south of downtown Bellevue. After about four hours, they carried the boxes, strapped with tape that said "evidence," to a van in front of the home.

The pilot was not home. A house guest awakened by the agents about 8:30 a.m. declined to say what was taken and criticized investigators.

"If this is the government doing the best they can do, then we got big problems," said the man, who would not give his name. Attempts to contact the pilot and his attorney yesterday were unsuccessful.

Pat Adams, the special agent in charge of the Seattle FBI office, was at the scene. He said he would not discuss the search because the warrant had been sealed by a federal judge.

Solving the Wales killing is his office's second-highest priority, after counter-terrorism, Adams said.

"This particular case is something that has to be resolved," he said.

The pilot, who has not been charged in the slaying, was indicted in 2000 by Wales in a fraud case involving the renovation of a Vietnam-era helicopter. The following year, the charges against the pilot and his business partners were dropped, and the company they formed pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor.

The Seattle Times does not usually name suspects in criminal cases unless they have been charged.

The pilot complained bitterly about having spent more than $125,000 in attorneys fees and sued the government for malicious prosecution. That lawsuit later was dismissed by a federal judge.

Wales, 49, a veteran prosecutor, was shot about 10:40 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2001, while sitting at a computer in the basement of his Queen Anne home. The killer fired several bullets through a window at the back of the home. A witness who heard the shots said she saw a man walk quickly to a nearby parked car and drive away.

The FBI first searched the pilot's home in December 2001. To obtain a warrant for the second search, agents had to present new information for probable cause to a federal judge.

Wednesday, the task force investigating the Wales killing searched a Bellingham home on Yew Street, where the pilot lived in the mid- to late 1990s. They cut out a 22-by-9 inch piece of plasterboard at the top of a staircase and removed "one silver bullet" from a wall stud, according to a search-warrant inventory left with the renters.

"They were all over the place," Cassandra Murphy, a recent graduate of Western Washington University, said Friday. Pieces of FBI evidence tape were still stuck on the walls of the split-level home.

Four weeks earlier, FBI agents searched an abandoned Bellingham house on Kushan Street where the pilot spent time with friends in the 1980s. The owner of that property, who asked that his name not be used, said the pilot was a family friend who had visited the house. FBI agents told him they had recovered at least one bullet and a shell casing, the man said.

A key focus of the Wales investigation has been the FBI's massive efforts to locate an Eastern European-made semiautomatic handgun called a Makarov, which is believed to be the type of gun used to shoot Wales. No gun linked to the killing has been recovered.

By testing the bullets found in the Bellingham houses, agents might be able to determine whether the pilot owned or fired a Makarov.

FBI agents spent two days at the Kushan Street house, according to neighbors. "They had a little setup going on, a tent," said Kim Bredeson, who owns a home two doors away.

Adams said that search was attended by Steven Clymer, a special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General John Ashcroft to oversee the Wales investigation. Clymer is chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle is not taking part in the investigation because Wales worked there and many of the workers in the office were his friends.

At the Bellingham house searched last week, longtime neighbors remembered the pilot, who lived there for several years.

Bill Apt said he sometimes saw the pilot standing on the rear deck of the home, which overlooks an expanse of grass and trees, firing a handgun into the ground.

Another neighbor, Clyde Senger, said the pilot sometimes seemed to be attempting to drive away a horse that had wandered from another neighbor's yard.

"I think he was shooting into the ground — bang-bang-bang — trying to scare the horse," Senger said.

Apt said the pilot told him he cursed the federal investigation into the helicopter fraud case, which began in 1997, three years before indictments were handed up.

"I remember him crying the blues that this had cost him so much money," Apt said.

The pilot's anger over the helicopter fraud case and hard feelings toward its prosecutors, including lead attorney Wales, came up early in the investigation into the killing. Agents have said they've tracked down dozens of other leads and eliminated several other suspects.

Authorities also are investigating whether Wales' work as president of the anti-gun group Washington CeaseFire could have provided motive in the case. Agents subpoenaed a copy of a television talk show, broadcast two weeks before the shooting, on which Wales spoke against a proposal to arm airline pilots in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Without mentioning names, Wales said he knew pilots who were not qualified to carry guns in the cockpit.

The Bellevue pilot owned as many as eight guns at one time, court records show. He flew for a major U.S. carrier before he became a suspect in the Wales case but is no longer flying for that airline.

Eight FBI agents and a Seattle police homicide detective are assigned to the investigation full time.

Mike Carter:206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com.