On a 2001 camping trip, a man asked his pilot friend about a federal prosecutor's recent death. The pilot denied the crime, but that didn't ease the man's mind.
MAPLE FALLS, Whatcom County — For six years, a reclusive man living in this remote corner of the state has been haunted by the killing of Seattle federal prosecutor Thomas Wales, worried that a man he knows might be the killer.
Bruce McClung is one of the main reasons the FBI has focused much of that time on a Bellevue airline pilot who was prosecuted by Wales in a bitterly fought fraud case.
McClung, 76, who was a friend of the pilot’s, has told the FBI that before Wales was slain, the pilot pointedly spoke of his desire to kill Wales, according to a grand-jury witness and other sources familiar with the investigation.
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Wales, 49, was shot six years ago this month, on Oct. 11, 2001, while working at his computer in the basement of his Queen Anne home. The gunman stood in the backyard and fired several shots through a window about 10:40 p.m. A witness saw a man running to a vehicle and speeding away.
McClung has spoken with the FBI on numerous occasions since 2001, and he has fixated on details surrounding Wales’ killing, even buying the exact make and model of the murder weapon.
Pilot “turned pale”
In a recent interview from his tiny cabin, which has no phone and sits at the end of an unpaved road, McClung denied he had described specific threats by the pilot. But he confirmed he had provided the FBI detailed information about the pilot’s rage toward Wales.
“I know he was really mad at him,” McClung said.
The pilot complained that Wales had lied about some matters and cost him a large sum in legal bills, McClung said.
McClung said he was so troubled by the pilot’s remarks about Wales that when the two went on a hunting trip two days after the killing, he asked the pilot if he shot Wales.
They were sitting at a campfire in the Okanogan forest, McClung recalled.
“He said, ‘no,’ ” McClung said.
McClung said he asked a second time within a few hours.
“He got really upset,” McClung said.
The pilot “drew up, straightened his posture … and turned pale,” McClung said.
The pilot answered no again, emphatically stating he had already answered the question and that he wasn’t involved, McClung recalled.
McClung said the pilot expressed no emotion other than concern about his own fate.
“No empathy,” McClung said.
That was typical, McClung said. The pilot “couldn’t put himself in the other guy’s shoes. A lot of us questioned his lack of empathy — those of us who knew him.”
Throughout the rest of the weekend, McClung said, the pilot was agitated, saying he knew he would be a suspect in the killing and that investigators would hound him.
Wales had brought charges against the pilot and others, accusing them of illegally converting a military helicopter to sell as a civilian model. After four years in the courts — and after the pilot amassed $125,000 in legal bills — the charges were dismissed in July 2001 as part of a plea deal in which the defendants’ company pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine.
Shortly after that, the pilot sued the federal government for malicious prosecution, saying the case had been constantly on his mind and affected him emotionally. His suit, pending when Wales was killed, later was dismissed.
The pilot has professed his innocence in Wales’ killing through his attorney but refused to be questioned by the FBI and turned down requests by The Seattle Times for an interview. The Times is not naming the 46-year-old pilot, who currently is unemployed, because he has not been charged in the case.
More than 10 FBI agents and Seattle police detectives continue to work the case. The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI have pledged to keep it a priority, offering a $1 million reward.
If Wales was killed because of his work, he would be the first federal prosecutor in U.S. history to be killed in the line of duty.
“He can’t let go”
McClung at first would not speak about Wales’ killing while standing outside his cabin in a light rain. Then, he began to talk and moved inside the cabin, which is heated by a woodstove and powered by car batteries. Throughout the interview, he puffed a cigar and moved nervously about the small quarters.
He said he first met the pilot in the 1980s over CB radio. Later, they shifted to ham radios and continued their friendship. Both lived in Bellingham and began getting together for pizza, McClung said.
They continued to be friends when the pilot later moved to Bellevue, and they often talked about the helicopter case, McClung said.
When the case was settled, McClung said, he repeatedly advised the pilot to put the matter behind him — to “leave it alone and walk away.”
But the pilot was furious and pursued his suit, McClung said. The pilot was particularly angry he had to sell a Porsche to pay legal fees, McClung said.
The pilot’s “personality is the kind where he gets his teeth in something, he can’t let go,” McClung said.
McClung said FBI agents first questioned him at his Bellingham home shortly after the slaying and gave him a tiny recorder to tape conversations with the pilot.
McClung said he testified twice before a federal grand jury in Seattle. After the first appearance early in the investigation, McClung said, the pilot learned about it, showing up on his motorcycle at McClung’s house.
McClung said he assured the pilot he had not said anything to hurt him. But the pilot was angry and suggested McClung might be taping him. Even though he had the FBI’s recorder, McClung said, he didn’t use it.
Their friendship ended, McClung said.
Later, after he retired as an insurance investigator and moved to his cabin 25 miles away, the agents continued to visit McClung. McClung has taped an agent’s card to an old computer monitor and written the dates of their visits in the margins of the card.
Although he lives in isolation — except for a ham radio — McClung said he travels to a nearby library to follow news of the Wales case on the Internet.
His curiosity about the killing led him to purchase the same type of gun used to shoot Wales — an Eastern European pistol called a Makarov.
McClung said he wanted to test the gun to see if it could fire an unusual type of bullet recovered from the crime scene. He found it could, he said.
When FBI agents learned he owned the gun, they had it test fired and ruled it out as the murder weapon, he said.
McClung said he wasn’t aware whether the pilot owned a Makarov.
“The bottom line is, I think [the pilot] could have done it — but I don’t know,” he said.
He believes the case will be solved. “I’m one of those romantic idealists who feels something will break,” he said.
The investigation took a turn last year, when the FBI received an anonymous letter from Las Vegas regarding the killing.
The letter’s author wrote that the killing was carried out by a hit man from Las Vegas, a claim the FBI discounted as an amateurish attempt to throw off investigators. The letter was postmarked about the same time the pilot was in Las Vegas during a flight stopover.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org