Ten years ago, the section of Interstate 270, between I-71 and High Street on the south side, took a dark turn.
On Nov. 25, 2003, a bullet fired by a man driving westbound on I-270 flew over several lanes of traffic and into a car headed the other direction.
The bullet struck that vehicle’s passenger, Gail Knisley, and killed her.
The now convicted Charles McCoy Jr. told investigators that he didn’t realize his bullet killed the 62-year-old woman.
“He just remembers firing out the window,” said Harry Trombitas, a former FBI agent who worked on the I-270 Highway Sniper Task Force. “But he (McCoy) told us he heard a ping like it hit the guardrail and he thought the wind was knocking the rounds down.”
Former Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Steve Martin led the sniper task force, although he insists it was a team effort.
See a slideshow of the case.
“There were no superstars,” said Martin. “Everyone pitched in. On very few occasions were we told ‘no’ when we asked for something.”
Martin says that investigators first thought the shooting that killed Knisley was an isolated incident.
“Until we got into it, we had no knowledge there had been that many shots fired,” Martin said. He also says police reports from the south Columbus area revealed a number of shootings that matched similarities with Knisley’s death. “We knew we had a problem and a really serious problem.”
And the problem was identifying the mysterious and elusive highway shooter who apparently began his attacks six months prior to the woman’s death.
Investigators discovered 10 similar attacks matching the serial shooter dating back to May 10, 2003 — all of them taking place on the south end of Columbus along I-270, High Street, Rathmell Road and state Route 23.
“It’s important to understand we were open 24-7,” Martin said. “We had trap and trace lines. The first 30 days, we had hostage negotiators managing on the phones, because they have that ability and schooling as far as soliciting information from people on the phone and things like that.”
Trombitas said that snipers have a certain personality.
“These sniper-type people have a tendency to, they commit their crimes from a distance,” he said. “They’re not the kind that will get in your face.”
The task force utilized every resource available at the time, including technology called Shot Spotter, which can pinpoint the location of a gunshot to within 20 feet.
“These are sensors which are trained to listen to specific frequencies of gunfire, and by placing a number of sensors in particular area, like the south end of Columbus off I-270, you are able to, when a gunshot goes off, it triangulates and gives you an immediate address of where that shooting occurred,” said Trombitas, who now serves as the system vice president of Security Operations for OhioHealth.
McCoy began to taunt investigators and expanded his targets to outside Franklin County.
Bullet holes began showing up in cars, homes and school buses in Pickaway, Madison, Licking and Fayette counties. Investigators say McCoy fired his gun at least 14 more times between November 2003 and February 2004.
“When he started going into Fayette County, that's when he pulled over in daylight and shot twice, shot at an oncoming car and then he went onto the other side of the overpass and fired into the hood of this car,” says Martin, who said that McCoy was beginning to exhibit more aggressive tendencies at the time.
As months passed with no leads to get the task force closer to finding the highway sniper, Martin says frustrations began to run high.
“I’m sure there were frustrations with some of the detectives when you would hand them a lead and they would look at that and think, ‘there’s nothing to this.’ But you still have to go out and follow that lead up. Every one (tip) had to have an answer for it.”
Then came tip #5444.
Both Martin and Trombitas say there was nothing unusual or remarkable about the tip, which came from one of McCoy’s relatives on March 11, 2004.
“It said, ‘Go speak to Charles McCoy Sr.,’” recalled Trombitas. “’There’s been some discussion in the family that his son, Charles Junior, may have some involvement in the shootings and he’s recently turned over his handgun to his father.’”
Two Columbus police detectives assigned to the sniper task force caught the lead and went out to talk with McCoy’s father and convinced him to turn over the 9 mm Beretta.
Both Martin and Trombitas said they weren’t expecting much when they handed the gun over to the Columbus police crime lab for ballistic testing. The task force had already tested more than 100 weapons in connection with the sniper case and had come up with no leads.
But the next day, Martin says he got a phone call that put the case on the fast track.
“Mark Hardy did ballistics on it the next day,” said Martin. “He called in the office and said, ‘Hey, we got your gun.’”
Martin says ballistics test fired from McCoy’s 9 mm Beretta matched the same markings from the bullet that killed Gail Knisley six months before.
Trombitas says he was in Martin’s office the morning that call came in.
“The enormity of that statement, it was like getting a kick in the stomach,” recalled Trombitas. “We’ve been looking for somebody, and all of a sudden, we had a face to put with who did this.”
The positive ballistic test marked a turning point for the highway shooter investigation. The task force now had a name, a face, and the car McCoy most likely drove during all 24 sniper attacks — a green Chevrolet Astro.
According to investigators, McCoy watched the detectives go to his father’s home and take his gun.
So he fled more than 2,000 miles away to Las Vegas and become a wanted fugitive.
Despite that, Martin says McCoy made no efforts to hide his identity or his car.
“As you're probably well aware, Las Vegas has the best video security in the world, so we actually had Charles at different casinos there, interacting with people, playing different games,” said Martin. “Had he gone to Des Moines, Iowa, we probably never would have found the guy unless they got him on a traffic violation or something.”
But it wasn't technology or surveillance that ultimately led to McCoy's capture.
It was a tip from Conrad Molsom, who called 911 after spotting McCoy at the Stardust Sports Book Lounge.
“I had seen his face and I remembered from earlier in the morning the USA today and I knew it was him,” Molsom told reporters in March of 2004.
What Molsom didn't know at the time was that the man he thought was McCoy was actually someone else, but Molsom still took it upon himself to search further, and in that process, he found McCoy’s green Chevy Astro in the middle of a motel parking lot right next door to the sports lounge.
Trombitas remembers getting a call from an agent in the FBI field office in Las Vegas.
“He goes, ‘Hey Trom, we're sitting on your sniper dude,’” he said. “’We're setting up on his hotel room and waiting for him to come back to his hotel room.”
Thirty minutes later, Charles McCoy Jr. was under arrest and on his way back to Ohio to face 24 charges, including aggravated murder, attempted murder and felonious assault.
Martin says what’s important to note is how well the task forced worked together with more than a dozen police agencies from the local, state and federal level acting as one voice.
He prides the fact that the task force worked with only local media and not the national networks, which clamored for interviews.
“I think all of us that worked this thing knew that at some point in time that we were going to bring this to some resolution,” said Martin. “We’d hope sooner than later.”
Sooner was better, because McCoy’s days of terror could have lasted much longer than they did had he not been caught, officials say.
“He had intended to shoot from Las Vegas all the way back to Columbus,” said Martin. “He had a couple boxes of ammunition and another 92 Beretta with him. He told us he planned to shoot all the way back.”
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