Mistaken identity played role in capture of sniper suspect

It appears Ohio fugitive didn't accept pizza from man who led police to him

March 20, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The tale was already hard enough to believe.

A Las Vegas man in a hotel casino offers a slice of pepperoni pizza to a guy sitting at another table, recognizes him from newspaper photos as the man wanted in two dozen shootings in Ohio, sets out alone on the Vegas Strip to search for the fugitive, and 12 hours later finds the suspect's car and leads police to their man.

Now the story of how Charles A. McCoy Jr. was captured has taken a stranger-than-fiction turn.

Conrad Malsom thought he shared his pizza with McCoy, but now a Wisconsin man attending a convention in Las Vegas says Malsom gave him the pizza at the Stardust Hotel and Casino and misidentified him as McCoy.

And judging by their pictures, McCoy bears a strong resemblance to Mike Cholak, the man from Wisconsin.

"It was me wearing the blue jeans and black Oakley T-shirt. It was me reading the USA Today when Mr. Malsom walked over and offered me his pizza. It wasn't the guy police wanted in Ohio," Cholak said yesterday from his home in Kenosha, Wis.

"This whole thing is amazing, I know. The fact that Mr. Malsom eventually found the shooting suspect in Las Vegas just because he thought I looked like the guy is just unreal," Cholak said.

McCoy, 28, waived extradition yesterday at a hearing in Las Vegas, clearing the way for him to be prosecuted in Ohio. Preparations were under way yesterday for him to be flown back to Columbus with members of the task force that investigated the 24 shootings, including the one that killed 62-year-old Gail Knisley on Nov. 25.

But while McCoy awaits prosecution, the mystery of who ate Malsom's slice of pizza continues.

"It doesn't appear [Malsom] met our guy, but he ended up finding that car and we got our man, so that's what matters," a task force investigator told reporters in Las Vegas.

Yesterday Malsom declined to talk but didn't challenge Cholak's claim.

Cholak said he was in Las Vegas attending a real estate convention at the Stardust Hotel and was taking a lunch break at a deli in the hotel Tuesday when Malsom walked over and offered to share his pizza.

"I didn't want to be impolite so I thanked him and took it." Malsom returned about 15 minutes later to ask if he enjoyed the pizza and the two men eventually shook hands.

Cholak awoke early Wednesday morning and saw a report on CNN in which Malsom was being interviewed and said he shared his pizza with McCoy.

After the pizza encounter, Malsom spent hours contacting law enforcement agencies in Nevada and Ohio. He was questioned by the FBI about his supposed McCoy sighting for about 90 minutes and later began searching the Strip.

The big break came about 11:30 p.m., when Malsom decided to circle around the Stardust parking lots and spotted McCoy's green car with an Ohio license plate. He called police and McCoy was arrested shortly afterward.

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