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Tom Wales Fought for Gun Control. Maybe He Died for It.

January 13, 2002|KIM MURPHY | Kim Murphy is The Times' Seattle bureau chief

A community college graduation on a warm june afternoon, the kind where everybody sits in folding chairs in the gym and dads with bobbing video cameras squint down from the bleachers. The commencement speaker, a Seattle prosecutor and gun control activist, walks diffidently to the podium. He's a tall, slight man in spectacles. In his blue suit, he looks ready to try a tax fraud case.

Hardly anybody expects that when Tom Wales finishes talking they'll either feel like hugging him and saying thank you for saying that to my child. Or they'll feel like punching him in the mouth.

Wales knew that's what they'd think. He knew some people would listen, and some would get mad. He didn't care. Because when they were mad, it meant they were alive. As he tells the graduates: "John Lennon said, before he was shot and killed outside the Dakota Apartments in New York, 'Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.'

"Find something you believe in passionately and get into it," Wales says. "Get outraged. Take a stand . . . . Be present in your own life."

Then Wales takes on the National Rifle Assn., the death penalty, the disproportionate number of black people in prison, the country's "foolish" mandatory minimum sentences, and President Bush's inaction on global warming. Whoa. There's some tentative applause and a lot of exchanged glances. This is Edmonds, a conservative suburban outpost north of Seattle, on the political fault line that runs north, south, east and west of the liberal-minded city where Wales had also served two terms as chairman of the city planning commission and hoped to run for city attorney or county prosecutor, and maybe even Congress someday.

"Disagree with me? Go ahead. Please do," Wales says, as if inviting the lady who comes up afterward to tell him it's the worst graduation speech she ever heard. (Somebody else tells him it was the best.) "Go through that door and come battle me on these issues," he says. "Life is not a dress rehearsal, ladies and gentlemen. It's the main event. Don't waste your time on the stage. We're all forgiven many sins in our lives, but the most difficult to forgive, in my view, is wasting the gift of life on this planet."

Four months later, on a frosty October night, Tom Wales says his last lines on the stage, to a 911 dispatcher, after someone stands outside the window of his house, sees Wales at the computer and pumps bullets through the glass. A neighbor sees a man walk quickly from the area and drive away.

The shooter left behind the first nationally known gun control leader killed by bullets in the last two decades of the handgun debate. Wales, 49, had spent more than 15 years with the gun control group Washington CeaseFire. He was preparing to raise funds for further legislation requiring background checks for buyers at gun shows in the state. It would have been a significant step. Legislatures in Western states have been among the most formidable opponents of gun control, although voters in Oregon and Colorado have passed statewide initiatives requiring such checks.

Three months after the murder, with a $25,000 reward posted by the federal government, a joint federal-local task force does not seem close to finding the killer. Was it a defendant Wales once sent to prison? A gun owner angered by Wales' frequent diatribes against the NRA? Someone about to be indicted for a federal crime? Someone who had a personal grudge?

"We've called this an assassination. This was just a very targeted, non-random act," says Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who bucked conservative Washington law enforcement tradition by appearing at gun control events at Wales' side. The police chief broke down recently when shown a picture of himself next to Wales, planting daffodils at a Seattle park in September in memory of a University of Washington pathologist slain with a handgun two years ago. "The murder of a federal prosecutor is unbelievably unique," Kerlikowske says. "We have to ensure that every prosecutor knows that we're going to do whatever it takes, everything possible, to solve this, and to protect them."

The murder made people who knew Wales anxious. Some leaders of Washington CeaseFire dropped out of sight for a time, operating on cell phones out of friends' houses. Especially unsettling were phone calls to the CeaseFire office and messages sent over the Internet. "You all ought to be hung for high treason," one caller said. "Somebody musta thought it was 'time to start shooting the bastards,' " a written message said. "Seems like a good start to me."

Yet another message said, "This bag of guts was either dispatched, eliminated, or culled. Good riddance, and may his soul rot in whichever circle of hell is reserved for government scumbags."

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