Sunday, March 21, 2004

Shootings caught many in publicity web

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - When Jimmie Gaines saw the frost-covered gun in the grass in early December, his first thought was not the manhunt under way for a shooter terrorizing central-Ohio drivers.

"I thought it was a toy gun," said Gaines, a state highway manager with 30 years experience who chose to retire instead of being fired for failing to report the gun for two days.

Gaines was one of several people caught in the net of publicity created by the shooting scare that gripped the area around Columbus, the country's 15th largest city, for 112 days over more than 50 miles of highway.

The four-month search for a suspect ended Wednesday with the arrest in Las Vegas of Charles A. McCoy Jr., 28, of suburban Columbus. A warrant had been issued charging him with felonious assault in a Dec. 15 shooting that damaged a house.

Gaines found the gun as he supervised a crew putting up freeway signs on Interstate 270, site of most of the shootings. The day before, the state had shut down the lower half of the highway so police could search for evidence.

The weapon wasn't connected to the case.

In early January, two police dispatchers were disciplined for their flip 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.

In Circleville, 25 miles to the south, a 33-year-old man accidentally shot his father's minivan during target practice, then called 911 to blame the sniper. He faces up to a year and a half in prison if convicted.

McCoy is a suspect in 24 shootings dating to May 10, many of them along the southern half of the Interstate 270 that runs around Columbus. Not until Nov. 25, however, when Gail Knisley was killed riding in a car, was a pattern identified and the shootings publicized.

On the city's south side, police raided James Gearheart's house and repeatedly questioned him about guns owned by his wife. Gearheart, who served time in prison for burglary, is not allowed to own guns.

Gearheart, 56, says he became a suspect after neighbors called his name in to a tip line.

He acknowledged his background made him a likely suspect but says police refused to give him a lie-detector test to clear him.

Gordon Proctor, state highway director, called Gaines' lapse "unacceptable and egregious behavior."

Gaines, 50, admits he made a mistake but said he could have lied about when he found the gun. "I wanted to tell the truth," he said.

Criminologist Jack Levin questioned whether authorities overreacted, given the unprecedented nature of the shootings.

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

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