Talk to someone whose friend was shot to death, then debate gun laws

Tom Wales, a federal prosecutor, was shot inside his home on Oct. 11, 2001.

It was about 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2001, when Bill Harwood, an attorney from Yarmouth, got a phone call. A good friend from high school and college, a federal prosecutor named Tom Wales, had been shot and killed the night before as he sat in front of his computer inside his home in Seattle, Wash.

Harwood was getting dressed for work and felt the shock strike him. “I felt numb. I just couldn’t think for a minute, and then an overwhelming feeling of sadness,” he said. He thought of how he would never have another conversation with Wales — one of his closest friends, a father of two and a gun-control activist.

“It is just a senseless tragedy of a brilliant 49-year-old lawyer who was a great guy and a public servant,” said Harwood, now 60 and a partner at Verrill Dana law firm in Portland.

Discussions about gun violence sometimes get lost in statistics or in a more philosophical debate about the role of government. But to understand the real effect, talk to someone whose loved one or friend was shot to death. People have a right to own firearms, but the right comes with responsibility.

“This is a very tragic and personal experience that survivors live with,” Harwood said.

The apparent assassination of Wales, a U.S. assistant district attorney, became a national story. Police reported that the shooter stood outside Wales’ home and fired several rounds from a handgun through a basement window. Wales was found, gravely wounded, after neighbors heard the gunshots.

It’s still a national story. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is continuing to investigate, and prior to the 10-year anniversary of the shooting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder renewed efforts by asking for the public’s help. There is a reward of up to $1 million for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

For Harwood, the experience was not just tremendously saddening but eerie. The two had lived parallel lives, in a way.

They both grew up in the suburbs of Boston and attended Milton Academy, where Wales was the captain of the football team and president of the student body. They graduated in 1970 and then both went to Harvard University, where they were roommates.

By the time they left college, their friendship was cemented, Harwood said. “He was a fun guy. He enjoyed life. He had a great sense of humor and was obviously a strong student and a good athlete.”

They both sought a career in law, developed high-profile careers on opposite sides of the country, had children and, of all things, became gun-control activists.

Wales developed an organization named Washington CeaseFire, and Harwood helped start the nonprofit Maine Citizens Against Handgun Violence. Though they lived on different sides of the United States, their goals were the same: reduce gun violence.

Harwood said he was motivated to act after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, thinking, “that could be anywhere in Maine. That is just a plain vanilla town with a plain vanilla high school,” he said. “A bunch of us got together and said enough.”

The first co-chairs of the organization were Chellie Pingree, former majority leader of the Maine Senate and now a Democratic U.S. representative, and Duane “Buzz” Fitzgerald, former president of the shipbuilding company Bath Iron Works.

Started in 1999, the group went on to lobby against a proposal to allow college students to have guns on campuses and partnered with police departments to give away 25,000 gun locks. In addition to being on the board of the organization, Harwood is chairman of the national Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Wales’ death was tragically ironic — that a man devoted to preventing gun violence and putting criminals in jail was senselessly shot in his own home. But it confirmed Harwood’s efforts to work to protect public safety: “If for no other reason, I’m going to carry on because Tom would want me to.”

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.