• Ashley

Episode 4: Thomas Wales

Updated: Aug 20

One of the FBI’s major case files is an unsolved murder of Assistant United States Attorney, Thomas Wales, that happened in Seattle back in 2001. This is a case that had all the resources imaginable to solve it, all the press attention, plus A MILLION DOLLAR REWARD, and yet… almost 19 years later… there are still so many unknowns. The Bureau recently charged someone in this case, the first indictment in almost 2 decades, but it wasn’t the murderer. This is Washed Away.


Sources for this episode include: Somebody Somewhere Podcast, FBI, KUOW, The Seattle Times, and Wikipedia.

An important note: Suspects in this case are of course considered innocent until proven guilty. Please respect the privacy of "The Pilot" mentioned in this episode. And my condolences go out to the Wales family. May they someday soon get closure, justice, and peace.


Transcript-

Ashley:

One of the FBI’s major case files is an unsolved murder of Assistant United States Attorney, Thomas Wales, that happened in Seattle back in 2001. This is a case that had all the resources imaginable to solve it, all the press attention, plus A MILLION DOLLAR REWARD, and yet… almost 19 years later… there are still so many unknowns. The Bureau recently charged someone in this case, but it wasn’t the murderer. This is Washed Away.

David Payne:

It just seems much more likely if you're going to murder somebody, it has to do with money or love or jealousy.

Jody Gottlieb:

Or all three.

Ashley:

That's David Payne and Jody Gottlieb. They're independent journalists that host an investigative podcast called Somebody Somewhere and they covered the Tom Wales case for their first season back in 2018. I was really curious to find out what drew them to this case in particular.

David Payne:

Jody and I connected out here in Seattle and we went looking for a case and this one was recommended by a number of people, uh, both to Jody and I, and it was just a natural fit because of my background as a former AUSA, like Tom Wales was. So, it all kind of just fell into our lap really.

Jody Gottlieb:

It's funny how you, when you're sourcing a story, we came to it separately. I happened to be living in the neighborhood where Tom Wales was murdered. I believe in kismet. And it just kind of aligned and seemed like a great opportunity for us to work on this together.

Ashley:

Thomas Wales had been an AUSA for almost two decades and worked for the Western District of Washington. He prosecuted white collar crimes, like for example, fraud. He was a member of the Seattle Planning Commission. He was on the mayor's citizen advisory committee and he was involved in Washington Ceasefire, a program dedicated to reducing gun violence. Because he was such a prominent figure, Tom Wales' murder made headlines. It was big news. And it's been said that he might be the only federal prosecutor ever killed in the line of duty, meaning for his work, or maybe even because of it.

Jody Gottlieb:

This is a federal case and it's an unsolved federal case. So federal cases are open. And so a lot of the documents in the Wales case are sealed, which makes for reporting and trying to source and get information even more challenging, right? Because if you're covering a story, you would just go to, you know, put in a FOIA request and get all the legal documents. You'll be able to piece the story together. You'd get a very good sense of what that case was. And in this case, it really is good, old reporting and tenacity that kept us going and honestly uncovering leads. And, uh, we did have someone drop some information on us that always helps build the narrative of the story and tell the story in a way, which, you know, still today haunts me that there's so much, we still don't know about this case.

David Payne:

Yeah. One of the statistics that we talk about in the podcast is this murder investigation generated three times the amount of documents as the Enron investigation, the biggest white collar crime case that the FBI ever did.

Ashley:

According to the FBI's website, 3000 boxes of evidence were collected during their Enron investigation, just to put the amount of files in the Tom Wales case into perspective. And one of those files is a sketch of a man seen in Wales' neighborhood in the weeks leading up to his murder. But as I usually do, I'm getting ahead of myself. So let's go back to 2001. Here's what happened: On October 11th, around 10:40 PM, Tom was sitting at a desk in his home office, responding to emails on his computer. When someone snuck into the backyard of his home on Queen Anne (that's of course in Seattle) and through the basement window, they shot Tom several times hitting him in the neck. The gunfire was heard by neighbors who immediately called 9-1-1, but sadly, Tom died at the hospital. The next day, he was only 49 and left behind two children.

Ashley:

At the time there were witness reports saying a man was seen fleeing the neighborhood and that a shadowy figure was seen getting into a car. I'm not clear if those reports are connected or about the same person, but whoever shot Tom Wales seemed to do it in a hurry as they left shell casings behind at the scene.

Ashley:

"One of the things that jumped out to me was Tom being such a vocal gun control activist. So I was thinking it was some kind of like.. Someone was mad about some gun legislation or something. That was kind of my first thought going into his murder. But I know you guys looked into the type of gun and you kind of covered that."

Jody Gottlieb:

Yeah. You know, I think that's the easy and natural fit, which is like, what's the work he's doing. And then who are the people he's dealing with and if they have a public persona. And so that obviously was, was something we looked at very early on and really, you know, saw no signs of, you know, I think he was a charismatic leader who was an advocate for gun control and that alienates and pisses some people off. And so I think that's polarizing, but I think what we now know is this case is far more deeper than, than that - it appears.

David Payne:

Yeah. And I would add that, uh, you know, we don't know whether it was, um, somebody in the gun industry or lobby. There was a very compelling case I think, made on a number of fronts that it wasn't, the FBI clearly ruled that out. Uh, not that that's the be all end all, but, um, you know, between the type of gun that was used, the shell casings that were left, there were just a number of things that suggest that it wasn't, you know, including the fact that he was not that much of a, was not perceived as that much of a threat to the gun lobby. So it wasn't like, you know, if you stop Tom, you stop the gun control movement.

Ashley:

The gun that was used to kill Tom was a Makarov, which is an Eastern European made semiautomatic pistol. And the one that was used in this murder, which had a unique barrel, has never been found. So the big question is who wanted to kill Thomas Wales and why?

Ashley:

The FBI actually focused rather quickly on a suspect whose name has mostly been kept from the public since he hasn't been charged. But if you do a little Googling, you can certainly find it. On David and Jody's podcast, they refer to him as "The Pilot", and I'm going to do the same. This person was someone Tom had prosecuted in the past, but the case had been dismissed.

Jody Gottlieb:

There's so much evidence out there. I mean, it would be, in my opinion, I'm not the lawyer, David is. I only play one on TV. I think it would be nearly impossible to actually get and indict The Pilot for this. There's so much reasonable doubt. And let me tell you something, they turned his life upside down and inside out. So it's not for the lack of trying for sure.

Ashley:

An odd detail in this case is that the pilot flew through Las Vegas, Nevada just three days before a letter written by someone confessing to killing Thomas Wales was mailed to the Seattle FBI in 2006, that's five years after the murder. At the time the Bureau said it had not linked that letter to any suspect in the case, which of course would include The Pilot. But about Las Vegas connection is such a strange coincidence

David Payne:

Problem that they have is that there is an alibi for The Pilot. And that is at about the time of the murder there are phone calls placed from The Pilot's home to someone that they have verified. So they either have to put The Pilot, have to have The Pilot, hiring somebody to be at his house to make the phone call, or they have to have The Pilot, uh, hiring a hitman. We both agree that the direction that they're looking... there's better than a 50/50 chance that it's not The Pilot and that it has more to do with, um, corruption that we identified within the FAA. Some government contracts that were being led, uh, and that all circle around this retrofitting of Bell Helicopters.

Ashley:

So Bell Helicopters is a company that calls themselves aviation experts. In 2018 they dropped helicopters from their name and they just go by Bell now. Their helicopters were used in the Vietnam War, but quite a few of them ended up on the secondhand market once the war was over and people started converting the copters so they could use them in civilian life and so they could sell them. Which is technically legal, as long as you follow the FAA's rules, but these renovations could get really complicated and could land you in court if you didn't do it right. Or especially if you put people in danger. Tom Wales prosecuted cases for those exact reasons. And it's actually what he took The Pilot to court over.

Ashley:

But apparently there was one specific fraudulent helicopter from Bell that became a really big problem. David and Jody spent quite a bit of time talking about Bell Helicopters on their podcast about the case. They did a ton of research and it's a lot to try and summarize here, but essentially... money may have been the ultimate motive in Tom's murder. Money that was associated with that problem helicopter and possibly the FAA. And it's all connected to a big update in the case that came just last year.

David Payne:

So Shawna Reid was arrested in 2019. It was the first arrest related to the case. And I say related because she was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, for some statements she disavowed making. Uh, she clearly, I think by everybody's admission had nothing to do with the crime itself. But she dated somebody who the FBI believes may or may not have been involved or may have been a hitman or may have been friends with a hitman. And the way that the Shawna Reid piece of it connects to it is that somehow they have identified somebody they believe as the hitman and the hitman is either this person out of Snohomish, who is a 50 year old guy who looks like one of the pictures that they had released in 2005, or it's a guy that we referred to as CG who was dating Shawna Reid. So they've kind of honed in on believing that it's a hitman and it's one of these two guys and she's friends with both, but I feel like she is somebody who's been caught up in this, uh, in an effort to show that they're doing something, which is not a great place to be.

Ashley:

So the FBI is basically trying to get to their real suspect or suspects through this woman. So they've either officially moved on from the pilot as a suspect, or I suppose it's possible he could be involved in what is now being called a conspiracy. Conspiracy involving corruption and big money and of course... murder. And after all of that, you probably won't be surprised to learn that the FBI wasn't too thrilled about David and Jody looking into this case...

David Payne:

When we first started the case, we reached out to them to get some comments on some things that we had been hearing and so forth. And they asked us to stand down that they were working on something. And it turns out that what they were working on at that particular time, you know, we were 16 years in on the investigation. We're like, "yeah, sure you are." But they actually were working a lead. Whether it's, whether you want to believe it's a good one or not, but they were working the Shawna Reid angle.

Jody Gottlieb:

The fact that they were like, "stand down" , I was like, Oh, that's exactly the reason why we should keep going. You know, you don't know what you're going up against. And when you start pulling off the bandaid on issues of malfeasance, of murder, of conspiracy... you get concerned for your safety.

David Payne:

On a lighter side, I'll tell you a funny anecdote. We went out to lunch one day, I think at Grand Central Bakery over on the East Lake side, pull up my WiFi and I kid you not on one of the selections of the WiFi it says "FBI surveillance van."

Jody Gottlieb:

I do have a photograph of David at one point during the investigation where we work. Uh, the blinds were drawn and David is peeking out the window, um, behind the blinds. And I thought, this is where we are. This is where we are in this investigation.

Ashley:

Watching your backs.

Jody Gottlieb:

Yeah, I think that's just being smart. Right. And, uh, being aware of our circumstances and the fact that we were kicking the can down a road that we didn't know what was going on.

Ashley:

I had asked if they ever felt like they needed to look over their shoulders while they were working on their podcast. What, with investigating a murder and knowing that they were on the FBI's radar. They're far braver than I am, that's for sure. And since they're the experts on this case, I just had to ask, will there ever be justice for Thomas Wales? Do they think this case can ever be solved?

David Payne:

I don't think it'll ever go to trial. Could it be solved? Sure. I think it could be solved if, um,

Jody Gottlieb:

There's a gun retrieved.

David Payne:

Yeah. That gun is in the bottom of some body of water somewhere. I don't even think you could make ballistics work at this point. I think it's really comes down to some kind of deathbed confession scenario is the only way to solve it and, uh, look the money hasn't incented anybody to come forward.

Jody Gottlieb:

Yeah, there's a million and a half dollar reward. So in the middle of the, um, of our reporting, the, um, FBI came out and increased the, the reward and it hasn't to this day, that we know of, been able to help solve the case.

David Payne:

So I think that's, I think that's where we are.

Ashley:

If you have a tip about the murder of Tom Wales, please contact your local FBI office or email walestips@fbi.gov. You can also call David and Jody at (414) 909-1482. And I can't recommend their podcast enough. If you want to dive deep into the investigation of Tom's murder, listen to the first season of Somebody Somewhere. Their second season is also available. It's based in Seattle and it's about a double homicide in a homeless encampment known as The Jungle.

Ashley:

It's possible that the FBI has spent almost two decades focused on a suspect that probably didn't do it. Of course, I don't have all the information that the FBI does in this case. So what do I know? I certainly haven't gone through their three to five thousand boxes of files, but from David and Jody's investigation and everything I've read online, it just doesn't exactly fit. Unless he's involved in this new conspiracy that we're hearing about. A conspiracy to kill Tom Wales, to stop him from something involving the FAA and Bell Helicopters and a lot of money. But if the pilot was involved, he would have been arrested a long time ago. Don't you think? I mean, as Jody said, they've turned his life upside down over the years, trying to find enough evidence to charge him and they haven't been able to do so. But if The Pilot didn't do it, then who did? And why? And will we ever know the truth?

Ashley:

Washed Away is a Cosmic Bigfoot production, find out more at cosmicbigfoot.com and for show notes, sources, images, and transcripts visit washedawaypodcast.com. Be sure to follow the show on Instagram and Twitter @washedawaypod. You can send case suggestions if you want to washedawaypodcast@gmail.com. And if you want to help this podcast reach more listeners, you can do that by subscribing and leaving a rating or review, especially on Apple. I'm Ashley Smith and I'll have another episode for you in a couple of weeks. Thanks for listening.

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