Rod Rosenstein, left, speaks as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington Annette L. Hayes looks on at a news conference giving an update on the unsolved 2001 slaying of a federal prosecutor on Wednesday.

Rod Rosenstein, left, speaks as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington Annette L. Hayes looks on at a news conference giving an update on the unsolved 2001 slaying of a federal prosecutor on Wednesday. Elaine Thompson/AP

A Cryptic Addition to the Long-Standing Mystery Surrounding the Murder of a Federal Prosecutor

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein flew to Seattle for a press conference at which he announced little, but may have said a great deal.

Back in the fall of 2001, exactly one month after the 9/11 attacks, a lawyer in Seattle named Tom Wales was murdered as he worked alone at his home computer at night. Someone walked into the yard of Wales’s house in the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood of Seattle, careful to avoid sensors that would have set off flood lights in the yard, and fired several times through a basement window, hitting Wales as he sat at his desk. Wales died soon afterwards. He was 49, divorced, with two children in their 20s.

The crime was huge and dismaying news in Seattle, where Wales was a prominent, respected, and widely liked figure. As a young lawyer in the early 1980s, he had left a potentially lucrative path with a New York law firm to come to Seattle and work as an assistant U.S. attorney, or federal prosecutor. That role, which he was still performing at the time of his death, mainly involved prosecuting fraud cases. In his off-duty hours, Wales had become a prominent gun-safety advocate. From the time of his death onward, the circumstances of the killing—deliberate, planned, nothing like a robbery or a random tragedy—and the prominence of his official crime-fighting record and unofficial advocacy role led to widespread assumption that his death was a retaliatory “hit.” The Justice Department considers him the first and only U.S. prosecutor to have been killed in the line of duty.

You can read about the twists of the case in a 2007 story by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, “An Unsolved Killing.” For the Seattle Times, Steve Miletich and Mike Carter have done a long series of stories. I have written about the case several times over the years—including in 2007in 2008in 2011, and in 2014—mainly because I had met and liked Wales during the two years my wife and I lived in Seattle soon before his death. One of his in-laws is a long-time very close friend of ours.

Within the law-enforcement world, even people who had never known Tom Wales have made the search for his still-unarrested killer a first-tier, open-ended priority. The FBI gives prominent space on its site to videos from Wales’s children, descriptions of accumulating clues, and directions for providing tips. The National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys (NAFUSA)—the organization of Wales’s comrades—has continually highlighted the case, and raised money for a reward for tips leading to arrest and conviction. The Justice Department offered a reward for information that helped solve the case, which rose to up to a million dollars. On the 10th anniversary of the killing, Eric Holder, as attorney general for the Obama administration, went to Seattle to meet with Wales’s family and talk with investigators. Last year Jeff Sessions, the current attorney general, did the same thing.

And this afternoon Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was in Seattle as part of a high-profile, and perplexing, presentation about the case.

Yesterday, the Department of Justice sent out a press release saying that Rosenstein and other important officials would be making an announcement in Seattle today. Jenny Durkan, mayor of Seattle and herself a former federal prosecutor in Seattle, would be there and would speak. So would Michael McKay—former federal prosecutor, former president of NAFUSA, now president of the NAFUSA Foundation that is raising money for a reward in the Wales case. Plus the current U.S. Attorney in Seattle, Annette Hayes; the FBI special agent in charge of the case, Jay Tabb; Seattle’s police chief, Carmen Best; and others—winding up with Amy Wales, Tom Wales’s daughter, who with her brother (also named Tom) has made powerful videos and other statements about the search for the killer.  

When I saw the announcement, I thought: At last! A break in the case. Why else would Rosenstein be crossing the country, with such fanfare, to make such an all-dignitary presentation, if they didn’t have something big to announce?

As “news,” or something big, what happened was at face value underwhelming, and also puzzling. The NAFUSA Foundation announced that they had added $525,000 to the reward fund, on top of the million dollars that had long been there. So the news-related theme that ran through all the presentations was: Someone out there knows the details, you should come tell us because it’s the right thing to do, and also you should bear in mind that there’s even more money sitting on the table. As a Seattle reporter (who wasn’t identified [but who I’ve subsequently learned was Brandi Kruse of Q13]) asked when the time came for questions: Why would this money make a difference, now? It’s been more than 16 years since the crime, and the million-dollar offer has been in place for seven years. Why should this make the difference?

Jay Tabb, of the FBI, fielded that question. “Another way to look at it is, people talk. People aren’t good at keeping secrets. Other people might have talked about it in those past seven years.” (Michael McKay said, “People may have heard something in a bar. They may have heard some pillow talk.”) [This was not from Mayor Durkan, as earlier noted. Thanks to Gene Johnson for the correction.] “Just that little bit of extra information might change the outcome of the investigation,” Tabb said. “The FBI’s easy to find. Please come forward.” Please talk with us had been the payoff line of all the speakers’ remarks.

As a matter strictly of law enforcement, there seemed two possible readings of this presentation. One is: Maybe they’re really close. For more than a decade, attention in Seattle has centered on one specific person, who was the focus of a grand-jury investigation, and whose home has been searched multiple times by authorities. He’s a commercial airline pilot, who was 40 at the time of the killing, and is 57 now, and had been involved in a fraud case that Wales was prosecuting. His circumstances and identity are so well known that, even though he’s not named in most news reports because he’s never been charged (Jeffrey Toobin’s is an exception), his lawyers are routinely quoted by name, and some of his past legal brushes are mentioned in the press. But he’s had alibis, as Toobin explains.

Does the press conference mean that the authorities are closing in? Do they have an idea that people who know something, and have stayed quiet this long, might be ready to flip—with the extra half-million dollars, and the renewed appeals to do the right thing? The Seattle Times reported on Wednesday that the FBI had found evidence “strongly suggesting” that the shooting “involved a conspiracy and a hired gunman,” citing an FBI official familiar with the investigation. If the case closes sometime soon, then in hindsight this may seem a move of Mueller-like prosecutorial strategic cunning.

And if not? Then the other theme of the press conference will be the one that justified the effort and fanfare of putting it on.

Every one of the speakers urged people who might know about the case to come forward, and every one of them said that this would be the “right” thing to do. But they all stressed something else as well: that doing justice in this case mattered even more than in “ordinary” killings, because a defense of law enforcers is a defense of the law itself.

“Any attack on a law-enforcement officer is an attack on our entire justice system,” Rosenstein said as he began the session. “It is an attack on the rule of law … We will continue to pursue this case for as long as it takes to achieve justice.”

Amy Wales, who spoke last, visibly bore the burden of her family’s grief. But, she said, “this case has always been about more than one man. My father’s murder was an attack on the institutions of the United States.” If a man like him “can be brutally murdered for carrying out his prosecutorial duties,” she said, then “the law-enforcement and judicial processes that keep all of us safe are fundamentally compromised.”

“My father believed strongly in the institutional mission of the Justice Department and the FBI,” she continued. Tom Wales had strong political views, his daughter said—“as was his right.” But “he saw his work, and mission,” as beyond any political entanglement.

She pointed out that he had left his corporate-law prospects to become a public employee, and never looked back or regretted that decision. She waited a beat, and then added, “We have … never regretted it,” as listeners imagined all that the regret might entail.

“His service is all the more important now,” she added, “when the FBI and the Justice Department are constantly maligned, for partisan or political purposes.”

Rosenstein didn’t put it that way. He couldn’t have. And perhaps didn’t need to. But he stood looking approvingly as one of the other speakers (I didn’t see which) said, about the long-term commitment to the Wales case: “We’ve lost one of our own. And we leave no one behind.”

Could that have been the message a man in Rosenstein’s position—a long-time working prosecutor; leader of thousands of people who have devoted their lives to law enforcement and are now under assault from above; the man with the power to protect Robert Mueller’s investigation, or disrupt it—hoped to convey?

Tom Wales would have liked to think so.