Sunday, March 28, 2004

Tipster's story attracts doubts

New puzzle surrounds highway shooting case

By Ken Ritter
The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS - The story was compelling: An eagle-eyed tipster spotted the man wanted in a deadly string of Ohio shootings reading a newspaper story about himself in a Las Vegas casino, gathered a trail of evidence and turned him in to police.

But a little more than a week after the tip that led sniper suspect Charles McCoy Jr. into custody, questions have surfaced about the story told by tipster Robert Conrad Malsom.

Investigators say McCoy was never at the Stardust casino and doesn't appear on the casino's surveillance tapes. A Wisconsin tourist six years older, 6 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than McCoy says he's the man who spoke to Malsom.

So how did McCoy wind up in custody?

Malsom, 60, is sticking with the story he told repeatedly last week as TV cameras rolled.

He says he offered a slice of pepperoni pizza to a man at a sports betting parlor at the Stardust and realized he was face-to-face with a fugitive. He says the man was reading a USA Today story about the search for the highway shooter, and that he left behind a water glass, match book, lunch wrappers and a bizarre scribbled note on the back of a horse betting worksheet.

"I know what I saw," he said. "I was certain."

After the man left, Malsom says he gathered up clues he left behind and spent the afternoon trying to get the FBI and police in two states to believe him. Later that night he found McCoy's green Geo Metro with Ohio license plates at a budget hotel just off the Las Vegas Strip.

The efforts earned Malsom praise from law officers and put the unemployed salesman in line to claim at least part of a $60,000 reward for catching the culprit behind 24 highway shootings in which one person was killed.

Investigators say they don't much care how much of Malsom's story is true, since he somehow found the sniper's car. They would not comment on a possible reward.

But as the media spotlight turned to media glare, Malsom has been trying to defend himself.

This week Malsom gave a copy of the note he found at the casino to the Associated Press, although it's not clear who wrote it and law enforcement officials won't comment.

Undated, unsigned and almost indecipherable, the note has 30 lines written sideways on an 81/2 -by-11-inch sheet of paper. Half appear to begin with the word "You." One word resembles "Columbus"; another, "opportunity." One line seems to include the phrase "absolutely preposterous."

"This letter confirmed it for me," Malsom said. "This was written by McCoy. Nobody's disproved it to me."

But Mike Cholak, 34, a real estate businessman from Kenosha, Wis., says he was the one reading USA Today at the Stardust when Malsom approached.

And the lead investigator in the case in Ohio said authorities have no evidence McCoy was ever in the Stardust during the 24 hours he was in Las Vegas before his capture.

"It wasn't him. We checked," said Franklin County, Ohio, Sheriff's Detective Zachary Scott.

"We have videos of (McCoy) at other casinos, wearing a white shirt," Scott said. "We're pretty comfortable that when he said he wasn't at the Stardust, he wasn't at the Stardust."

Even Malsom's former best friend in Las Vegas says he doesn't believe Malsom met McCoy at the Stardust - and he was with Malsom at the time.

"He actually thinks it was McCoy he saw inside the sports book," said Thomas Smith, 65, a neighbor in the RV park where Malsom parks his motor home. "I'm convinced that it wasn't."

Malsom and Smith aren't speaking since arguing over who should get the reward. Their relationship has turned "venomous," said Malsom, who says he makes money repairing air conditioners and housesitting.

He insists the man he met a little before noon March 16 had a five-day growth of beard, wore jeans and a black T-shirt with the word "Oakley" on the back, and told him his name was Mike.

Cholak said that was him.

Mike Zacker, 34, a colleague of Cholak's who was gambling with him at the Stardust, called it "just ironic upon ironic upon ironic" that despite the apparent mistaken identity, Malsom later found McCoy's car.

Authorities acknowledge that Malsom made repeated 911 calls to get authorities to respond. Las Vegas police are investigating why it took at least 14 increasingly frantic calls before officers met him near the motel where McCoy was arrested. Police later found a 9mm Beretta handgun and ammunition in McCoy's motel room.

Despite the discrepancies in Malsom's account, investigators credit Malsom with helping catch McCoy, 28, who is jailed in Ohio facing a felonious assault charge.

"He helped out. He found the car," Scott said from Columbus, Ohio. "He thought it was McCoy. That's what he says. Then he started looking for cars, and found the car.

"What are the Vegas odds on that?"

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