John Hathaway, self-appointed gadfly of Tacoma, dead at 69

CBS News producer remembers one of the most colorful characters ever to appear on "48 Hours"

John Hathaway
John Hathaway Gayle Rieber

I've written five books but I might not have written even one if I'd never met John Hathaway.

A native of Tacoma, Washington, Hathaway was a man from another era, or at least he pretended to be, a Dashiell Hammett character come to life. A one-time men's clothing store owner, Hathaway sported a pencil-thin mustache, wore custom-made suits and always a fedora. He claimed to have 130 of them.

You got the sense that Hathaway only came out after dark or when a saxophonist somewhere was playing "Harlem Nocturne." He called women "dolls," phones were "blowers" and elevators were "freights." There was a permanent ring of smoke around him because of his ever-present Camels. He was noir all the way.

Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, center, in 2002.
Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, center, in 2002. AP

I met Hathaway back in 2003 after Tacoma Police Chief David Brame shot and killed his wife Crystal and himself in front of their two young children in Gig Harbor, a picturesque town just across the bridge from Tacoma.

Hathaway lit the fuse on that tragedy when he beat the local media in reporting that the couple had filed for divorce. The divorce papers were filled with allegations of bad behavior, including Crystal's report that her husband the police chief had held a gun to her head.

At the time of the exclusive, Hathaway was a bartender in a down-and-out bowling alley in the Little Saigon section of town. But he had the soul of a reporter and spent most of his time and energy reporting for his own web-based newspaper. That's why someone slipped him the Brame divorce papers.

As the local media in Tacoma began chasing Hathaway's exclusive, more and more damaging information came out and, within days, Brame murdered Crystal and killed himself.

"48 Hours" producer Paul LaRosa and John Hathaway
"48 Hours" producer Paul LaRosa and John Hathaway Paul LaRosa

I met Hathaway when I traveled to Tacoma to look into the story for "48 Hours." I liked him immediately and he quickly filled me in on the sex scandals and political intrigue that led up to the deadly shooting. I produced an hour for the broadcast and eventually wound up writing a book - both called "Tacoma Confidential" - in which Hathaway played a central role. He was a writer's dream.

And so now I'm sorry to report that Hathaway passed away June 3 at the age of 69 at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. Hathaway had been in ill health since September, said his partner Carolyn Perry.

"We had a wonderful 4 ½ years," said his partner Carolyn Perry. "Up until the end, we had a lovely relationship. He loved joking around and we had a lot of laughs together."

Perry said Hathaway, Tacoma native who loved his city in an oversized way, always relished the television program and book that featured his story. "He said, 'Most people have 15 minutes of fame - I got 45 minutes,'" Perry said.

A memorial service - Perry called it "a celebration of life" -- is planned for later this month and Perry said Hathaway will be cremated in a custom-made suit that he never got a chance to wear and one of his patented fedoras.

He remained a gadfly to the end, always tweaking local officials with his online newsletter, always being a pain in the butt. In recent years, he even managed to get himself banned from two of Tacoma's finest restaurants, a turn of life that did bring him some regret, Perry said.

[Paul LaRosa is a producer for "48 Hours"]