HE WAS STILL answering the phone at home the other day. "Tom Wales," his recorded voice said. But the message mailbox was full. Thomas C. Wales, 49, an assistant U.S. attorney, anti-gun slinger, and onetime City Hall hopeful, has been dead more than two months, murdered by an unknown assassin. Who and why remain open questions. But investigators are now taking a harder look at possible motives linked to Wales' crusade to ban handguns—which was also the kind of gun used to kill him.
For the record, "There's nothing significant to report yet," says Seattle Police homicide captain Brent Wingstrand. Wales was slain the night of Oct. 11 by an experienced shooter firing through a window at the prosecutor's Queen Anne home. A Hayes Street neighbor reported seeing only a man walking to his car and driving off.
Likewise, the Justice Department, which is offering a $50,000 reward in the case, and the King County prosecutor's office also have no new details to release, spokespersons say.
But don't think the probe is stymied, say officials familiar with the inquiry. Actually, the going is slow because of the considerable leads. Importantly, the investigation has not been handed off by Seattle police to the FBI, indicating that there's no hard evidence the shooting was directly linked to Wales' work as a federal prosecutor.
Though his 18 years as a prosecutor has been widely reported as a more likely motive for the murder, officials say Wales was a low-profile assistant U.S. attorney who worked on mostly nonviolent, white-collar crimes and almost always negotiated plea settlements.
Early speculation linked the slaying to an irate driver involved in a recent auto accident with Wales. But officials say that doesn't square with the skilled hit.
The shooting was also theorized as an act of anti-U.S. terrorism related to the Sept. 11 tragedies, one month to the day earlier.
Probers feel the killer hoped the conflict of possible motives would confuse his trackers.
"The more complex or more involved a person is in various different activities or interests," agrees Wingstrand, "that complicates it. And Mr. Wales was a dynamic, active member of the community."
Where this leaves investigators is, for one, focusing more on Wales' anti-handgun efforts, officials say.
They've questioned members of militia and gun-proponent groups, seeking evidence of an organized faction behind the shooting. They're also interested in comments posted on the Internet about Wales' slaying—such as "Whoever did this [murder] has my congratulations" and "Now, if only the same would happen to a few thousand more anti-American, anti-constitutional traitors holding public office."
Such comments "are certainly being looked into," Wingstrand says. But he cautions that while "high-profile cases can attract people who fling mud, 99.9 percent of the time that's all there is to it."
If Wales was the bane of anyone, it was gun-use proponents. The day he was killed, the president of Washington Ceasefire was aggressively pushing his anti-gun group's proposal to require background checks at state gun shows. Similar controversial measures met fierce resistance from pro-gun groups before they were passed by voters in Colorado and Oregon. The National Rifle Association urged its members to resist such efforts by "anti-gun extremists."
Ceasefire has been one of the country's most active gun-control organizations, gaining both fame and notoriety in 1997 with a ballot initiative to require gun owners to buy trigger safety locks and take gun-safety classes. Wales spearheaded the initiative that, though soundly defeated here, was the model for laws passed elsewhere.
Ceasefire director Bruce Gryniewski says the group is determined to win passage of a state gun-show law in Wales' name and is expanding its anti-gun efforts by attempting to raise $2 million through the Tom Wales Endowment Fund (www.tomwalesendowment.org).
The family has also created its own fund. The Thomas Wales Memorial Foundation will "encourage the causes that relate to other areas of his life," says spokesperson Eric Redman (donations: c/o Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, 1501 Fourth, Seattle 98101).
Wales had two grown children and was divorced but close to ex-wife Elizabeth. He also regularly spoke out against the death penalty, backed drives for affordable housing, sat on the Seattle Planning Commission, and aspired to a seat at City Hall.
Though it's little known, the Harvard grad was a semifinalist for a Seattle City Council appointment to replace resigned council member John Manning in 1996. Wales and others lost out to Richard McIver.
SPD's Wingstrand is optimistic police will break the case. "Obviously, there are mountains of information to sift and many people to talk to," he says. "We're working our way through it."