Sniper Suspect Skips 1st Court Day

Charles McCoy Jr., who stands accused of allegedly being the Ohio highway sniper listens to proceedings during an extradition hearing at the Clark County Courthouse in Las Vegas, Friday, March 19, 2004. McCoy waived extradition and will be returned to Ohio.
CBS/AP
The man suspected in a string of 24 highway shootings in central Ohio has been allowed to skip his first court appearance since being brought back to the state to face charges.

Charles McCoy is charged with felonious assault, in a December shooting at a house in Columbus.

In one of the other shootings, a woman in a car was killed.

Prosecutors argued that McCoy should be required to appear in court to answer the charges against him. But a judge disagreed, and let McCoy waive the appearance.

Defense lawyers didn't ask for bond to be set at today's hearing. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 30th.

McCoy was caught in Las Vegas Wednesday, waived extradition on Friday, and was flown back to Columbus Saturday, where he is in jail.

The shootings around Interstate 270 and two nearby highways began May 10, 2003, but intensified in the fall. Gail Knisley was shot and killed November 25th while a friend drove her to a doctor's appointment.

Police ballistic tests have shown that bullets from nine of the shootings - including Knisley's slaying - were fired from the same gun.

Investigators are looking into whether they have grounds to seek the death penalty for her slaying. McCoy's attorney has hinted he may use an insanity defense.

McCoy's arrest came after Conrad Malsom, a 60-year-old unemployed salesman in Las Vegas, recognized McCoy as the mad he'd seen in media reports as the chief suspect in the sniper case.

Malsom, who spotted McCoy after offering him a slice of pizza, did some amateur sleuthing, tracked down his car, called the cops and will be collecting a reward.

Some in Ohio who wish they'd been the ones to find McCoy are instead being disciplined.

Alleged slip-ups related to the investigation are ending the career of one public employee and have sparked reprimands for at least two others after they were criticized for mishandling potential evidence.

Jimmie Gaines, a state highway manager, has retired at only age 50, to avoid being fired for waiting two days last December before reporting his discovery of a frost-covered gun in the grass by the side of a road.

Back then, says Gaines, the sniper case did not come to mind when he saw the weapon.

"I thought it was a toy gun," says Gaines, who had spotted the gun as he supervised a crew erecting freeway signs. A day before, state officials had shut down half the highway so police could search for evidence.

Authorities later determined the weapon was not connected to the case, but state Highway Director Gordon Proctor called Gaines' oversight "unacceptable and egregious behavior."

Gaines admits he made a mistake but said he could have lied when he found the gun. "I wanted to tell the truth," he said.

Gaines is not the only government employee to face discipline. Two police dispatchers were sharply criticized for their response to a 911 call from a man claiming to be the shooter. "Whatever," one dispatcher told the man. "You just want attention, don't you?"

Authorities doubt the caller was the suspect now in custody, but both dispatchers were reprimanded. They told investigators they thought the calls were pranks.

"I wasn't warned that he was going to be calling in," dispatcher Barb Taylor said. "I had no direction or questions to ask."

Experts say law enforcement agencies sometimes react too aggressively when confronting unusual emergencies.

"I wouldn't blame the people - blame the system," said criminologist Allen Pierce, a Youngstown State University professor. "The system is inclined to overreact when they have an incident like this."

Police - who got over 5,500 calls on their line for tips from the public - also fielded false reports of sniper activity. In Circleville, south of Columbus, a man accidentally shot his father's minivan while target shooting, then called 911 to blame the sniper to cover his mistake. He faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted in the hoax.

Police made mistakes too, including raiding the home of a man whose neighbors called the tip line to suggest his name as a suspect.

Officers searched James Gearheart's residence repeatedly and questioned him about guns owned by his wife. Gearheart, who served time in prison for burglary, is not allowed to own guns.

Gearheart, 56, acknowledged his background made him a likely suspect but says police refused to give him a lie detector test to clear him.

"They wasted a lot of time and money investigating me," said Gearheart, who says the long and intensive investigation disrupted his life. "This could have been cleared up in one day."

Criminologist Jack Levin of Northeastern University questioned whether authorities acted properly but acknowledged the extraordinary nature of the sniper attacks.

"This was a random event that touched the lives of countless people who commuted on that highway," Levin said. "There are many roles in life for which you can be prepared. This isn't one of them."