The newly appointed head of the Seattle FBI office said Tuesday there is “momentum” in the 13-year-old investigation into the fatal shooting of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales.
“It’s an ongoing, active investigation,” Special Agent in Charge Frank Montoya Jr. said during a wide-ranging news briefing in which he also discussed Washington state’s legalization of marijuana, public corruption and the balance between national security and protecting civil liberties.
The Wales investigation was handed back to the Seattle office in June, eight years after the FBI took the rare step of removing the case and transferring its leadership to the Portland office.
The move came after the previous special agent in charge, Laura Laughlin, triggered a firestorm when she reportedly sought to reduce the size of the task force trying to solve the case.
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Laughlin abruptly retired in February, amid a sex-discrimination lawsuit against her own agency in which she alleged she had been denied promotions and pressured to retire. She claimed the FBI damaged her reputation when it took the “unprecedented step” of transferring a major homicide investigation to another office.
Montoya, 51, who most recently worked as the national counterintelligence executive in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in Washington, D.C., took over the Seattle office in May. He joined the FBI in 1991 and has held various positions throughout his career, including special agent in charge of the Honolulu office.
Montoya said he was encouraged with the chances of solving the slaying of Wales, who was shot in his Queen Anne home Oct. 11, 2001.
The case has remained unsolved despite a reward of up to $1 million and massive effort to find the killer.
Montoya said that investigators are pursuing active leads and that a newly created criminal-enterprise squad in the office will be used, in part, to assist the three FBI agents and Seattle police detective assigned to the task force investigating the slaying.
A “very good plan” is in place, Montoya said.
The return of the case to the Seattle office offers a better opportunity to be “more attuned” to the needs of the case, listen to concerns from the Wales family and better marshal resources, he said.
Calling the case a homicide that hit “close to home,” Montoya referred to the possibility Wales was killed because of his work.
“Ultimately, it’s about the rule of law,” he said.
Wales, 49, a longtime prosecutor and anti-gun-violence activist, was divorced and living alone when he was shot while working at his computer in the basement. The assailant stood in the backyard and fired several shots through a window about 10:40 p.m. A witness saw a man run to a vehicle that sped away.
While multiple suspects have been investigated, investigators focused on an airline pilot who was bitter over being prosecuted by Wales.
However, after an intense investigation the pilot remained uncharged, and a law-enforcement source previously said serious doubts had arisen as to his culpability.
Russ Fox, the FBI supervisor overseeing the task force, declined Tuesday to discuss specific suspects but said there are a few who are being investigated.
On marijuana legalization, Montoya said the bureau is watching how the state law enacted in December 2012 unfolds, particularly the potential need to address “greater highs” associated with increased amounts of the psychoactive ingredient THC.
He expressed concern about black markets and criminal enterprises seeking to undercut state-regulated pricing.
Montoya also cited confusion about the law, noting he recently suggested to a college-age group who lighted up pot in the alcove in front of his office that they might want to move to a different location. The law does not allow public smoking of marijuana.
A top priority of his office, Montoya said, will be public corruption.
Although Washington state has a reputation for clean and open government, Montoya said, the bureau needs to keep its eye, for example, on the hundreds of million of dollars in highway projects under way in the area.
“I know human nature,” he said, referring to potential misuse of taxpayer money and abuse of public trust.
Montoya said he participated in the damage assessment of news leaks by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who provided numerous revelations since last year about the breadth of spying activities.
Montoya said he believed Snowden’s action were wrong because of the “way he did it.”
But Montoya said there could be more openness in explaining the intelligence process, without compromising sources and methods.
“We can stand for a little more transparency,” he said.