Thursday, March 18, 2004

Alert citizens lead to capture


The capture of Ohio's highway-shooter suspect Charles A. McCoy Jr. early Thursday in his Las Vegas motel room showed again just how much law enforcement depends on help from alert citizens. Las Vegas resident Conrad Malsom, 60, met McCoy at the Stardust casino and recognized him from a photo in USA Today. McCoy was even reading a USA Today with his photo prominently displayed in it. Before Malsom called the authorities, he not only found out first where McCoy was staying, but phoned to make sure McCoy was listed there. That's one super-vigilant citizen.

Like the Washington sniper case, the shootings along Columbus' Interstate 270 outer beltway and Interstate 71 menaced a broad area, until this week when police finally were able to identify the suspect and got tipped off to his whereabouts.

In an era of domestic and international terrorists, such teamwork between police and citizens is all the more indispensable. Even in police-intensive Washington, D.C., or a state capital such as Columbus, it's still a daunting task for police on their own to find a sniper. After cameras were mounted along the Ohio sniper's I-270 hunting grounds, the shootings shifted south to I-71.

The initial break in the case came from McCoy's family. His father took four handguns away from him recently, and Friday he gave police a 9mm Beretta handgun for testing. The suspect's mother filled out a missing person's report and described him as a paranoid schizophrenic. Once his photo was circulated, the arrest came swiftly. McCoy's father may have suspected some time ago, but police appeals to relatives or friends do not always produce instant results. The suspect's sister was still telling reporters Thursday how sweet, passive and nonviolent her brother is, although according to the Columbus Dispatch, police were called to their parents' Grove City home in 2001 because he was acting violent.

The former high school fullback and wrestler lived with his divorced mother on Columbus' south side. She said he was upset about the imminent sale of the house and the expected move.

One huge loophole in background checks is that unless the courts commit a mentally ill person to an institution, authorities are unlikely to have any record that would bar such a person from buying guns. Lawmakers need to find ways to give sheriffs more reliable notification. In the meantime, alert citizens of all types can do their part for public safety by challenging any disturbed person who seeks to get his hands on a lethal weapon.

Ohio's 24 highway shootings began last May and included vehicles traveling or parked along the interstates, delivery trucks, school buses, houses and an elementary school. It's a wonder only one person was killed - Gail Knisley, a passenger in a car, on Nov. 25. It took almost a year to identify a suspect, who was living in the center of it all. This threat seems to be over, but the need for an alert, vigilant citizenry is ongoing.

Alert citizens lead to capture
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