I-270 shootings, 10 years later

Tip No. 5,444 leads investigators to the shooter

Editor's note: In this special three-part series exclusive to ThisWeek Community News, retired FBI special agent Harry Trombitas chronicles his experience as a lead investigator into the fatal shooting that occurred November 2003 on the south corridor of Interstate 270 in central Ohio.

On March 11, 2004, a tipster contacted the I-270 shooting investigation task force and provided tip No. 5,444.

On the surface, it appeared no more significant than the 5,443 tips before it. The tipster said that investigators should take a look at Charles A. McCoy Jr. The tipster said McCoy recently turned over a firearm to his father, and there had been some discussion within the family that McCoy might be involved in the shooting death of 62-year-old Gail Knisley less than five months ago.

The tip was assigned to two Columbus police detectives. The next day, the two detectives went to the home of Charles McCoy Sr. Investigators later learned that Charles McCoy Jr., who was driving to his father's residence in his 1999 dark green Geo Metro and saw the two detectives talking with his dad, pulled to the curb and watched the interview.

After the interview, Mr. McCoy gave the detectives his son's handgun. Nothing surfaced during the course of the interview with Mr. McCoy that suggested that this lead need be handled any more expeditiously than the others.

Charles McCoy Jr., however, knew that the handgun was significant. Shortly after witnessing interview with his father, Charles hit a nearby ATM, removed the remaining cash from his account and left town.

On March 15, 2004, I arrived at the Franklin County sheriff's office to meet Chief Deputy Steve Martin at about 7 a.m., as usual. Little did we know we were on the cusp of a much-needed break in the case. The handgun recovered from Charles McCoy Sr. was on its way to the Columbus crime lab for testing.

At about 10 a.m., the phone rang while Martin was seated at his desk in his office and I was busy preparing the media update for that afternoon's press conference. Martin picked up the phone and I could tell from the expression on his face that something important was taking place.

He put the phone on speaker. On the other end was our firearms examiner at the Columbus crime lab. He said, "Fellas, you have your gun!"

Those words took my breath away. Charles McCoy Jr. was the person we had been looking for. I quickly pulled up his driver's license photo and looked in amazement. McCoy was a white male, age 28, standing 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds, with brown hair and green eyes. Whatever image I had in my mind's eye of what our shooter would look like, it wasn't the meek-looking individual in front of me.

We immediately called a meeting with our key investigators from the task force and our law-enforcement partners. We needed to pick up McCoy as quickly as possible, but we had no criminal charges filed that would allow us to arrest him legally.

We made contact with the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office and discussed possible charges. It was determined that the most appropriate charges that could be filed without jeopardizing our case was felonious assault for his involvement in shooting at a house on Brown Road in Columbus. This incident occurred on Dec. 15, 2003, and although no one was hurt, people were in the residence at the time of the shooting.

We knew the rounds that struck the house were fired from the same weapon used to kill Knisley because the bullets dug out from the residence matched the weapon ballistically.

Now that we knew, or had probable cause to believe, that McCoy was in possession of the firearm at the time of that shooting, getting a warrant was simple. Finding him would prove to be a different matter.

Investigators checked all known locations for McCoy but were unsuccessful in locating him. We decided it was time to go public with the information that we had identified McCoy as a suspect.

Immediately, the task force phones were deluged by media calls. We scheduled a press conference and released McCoy's photo and physical description, and we answered as many questions as we could without jeopardizing the case. A nationwide manhunt was on.

Two days later, March 17 at approximately 4:30 a.m., I woke to the ringing of the telephone. On the other end was Scott, an FBI agent in the Las Vegas division. Scott, his fellow agents and task force officers on the FBI's Fugitive Task Force had received information from a citizen who believed that he had seen McCoy in a casino and had found his vehicle in the hotel parking lot.

The FBI agents and task force officers confirmed that McCoy had checked into the hotel. They set up surveillance on McCoy's vehicle and hotel room.

About a half hour after Scott's call, the Las Vegas task force had McCoy under arrest. Within hours, our investigators landed in Las Vegas. McCoy refused to answer questions, but waived extradition and agreed to travel back to Ohio to face his charges.

On April 1, 2004, McCoy was indicted by a grand jury in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas on 24 counts, including aggravated murder, attempted murder and felonious assault. McCoy went to trial facing possible death penalty charges but the trial ended in a hung jury May 9, 2005.

McCoy, who had previously been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, accepted a plea deal to avoid the death penalty but agreed to serve 27 years in prison. He pled guilty on Aug. 9, 2005. He currently is incarcerated at the Allen Correctional Institution in Lima, where he will most likely remain until his release date, which is scheduled March 10, 2031.

Martin and I have talked with McCoy twice since his incarceration in an attempt to learn more about what he recalls during his crime spree in 2003 and 2004. Although McCoy was lucid during our interviews when it came to discussing how he is doing now that he is on medication, we were not able to make any headway with him when it came to discussing his thoughts and actions at the time of the crimes.

While we might never know what prompted McCoy's shooting spree, the investigation into Knisley's death illustrated the strong bonds between the central Ohio law-enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels.

Men and women from Franklin County sheriff's office; the Columbus Division of Police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the Ohio State Highway Patrol; and the FBI tirelessly worked the investigation from start to finish.

They checked their egos at the door to do their jobs and accomplish their collective goals: holding people accountable for their actions and bringing justice to the victims who cannot speak for themselves.

View archival photos from the I-270 shooter case and read the entire series online at ThisWeekNEWS.com.

The opinions expressed in this article solely are those of the author, Harry Trombitas, and not those of the FBI or any other agency. Retired Special Agent Trombitas writes the Case in point column for ThisWeek Community News. He currently is system vice president of security operations for OhioHealth and a senior consultant for Armada, a security consulting company, in Powell.

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