The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

November 25, 2013

Ten years after the ‘highway shooter’

Ten years later, Mary Cox still cannot drive on that section of I-270. She has tried it twice by herself.

“This sounds kind of crazy,” she says.

Not if you know what happened on Nov. 25, 2003, while she was in the car with her best friend, Gail Knisley. Not if you know that the bullet that killed the 62-year-old Knisley grazed Cox’s sleeve.

Knisley’s granddaughter, now 20, still thinks about “Grammy Gail” every day. Loren Knisley has honored her grandmother’s caring spirit, and the help she herself received after Gail Knisley’s death, by deciding to become a school counselor.

The attorneys for the man who killed Knisley — the “highway shooter,” as he became known — still visit him in prison. That’s unusual - they don’t visit other clients they no longer represent. But this case was special to them. Their client wasn’t a criminal, he was sick.

Maybe they still can help.

“I think if we can eventually cure these mental problems, Charles would be no more of a danger than you or I,” Michael Miller, one of the lawyers, said. Many of the people connected to the highway shootings of Charles A. McCoy Jr. think, even a decade later, that what happened then isn’t quite over.

The random shootings began on May 10, 2003. There were 10 before Knisley’s death attracted widespread attention and led countless central Ohioans to change their driving patterns in fear. The shootings were clustered along I-270, I-71 and I-70 on the South and West sides of Columbus and in the suburbs of southern Franklin County.

Another 13 were linked to the same shooter before McCoy was arrested on March 17, 2004, in Las Vegas, a few days after he disappeared from his mother’s home on the South Side.

The tip that led to McCoy was the 5,144th that investigators had checked out. They found a gun under his mattress that matched 12 of the shootings.

McCoy, who was not taking medication to control the symptoms of his paranoid schizophrenia, did not know what he was doing, his attorneys argued. A 2005 trial ended in a hung jury. McCoy pleaded guilty that same year to 11 charges, including involuntary manslaughter in Knisley’s death.

He was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

McCoy is now 38 and remains in protective-control housing at Allen Correctional Institution in Lima. He is in protective custody because of “personal choice, high notoriety of (the) case, and (to) ensure his personal safety,” according to a statement from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

He is separated from the general population but still can move around within the unit. A guard escorts him when he is in the general part of the prison.

Because of the increased security around him, he is unavailable for news-media interviews, a prisons spokeswoman said. McCoy did not respond to a letter from a Dispatch reporter. His family members declined to comment.

But his lawyers see him sometimes. “The first five years, it was discouraging and depressing,” his attorney Mark Collins said. “It might have been that our expectations were unrealistic.”

McCoy’s mental state improved from the time he was arrested until he pleaded guilty, Miller said. By the time of his guilty plea, he was able to explain in court that he heard voices. His prison sentence, though, sent him into a tailspin.

The lawyers asked now-retired FBI Special Agent Harry Trombitas, who investigated the case and also visited McCoy in prison, to speak to corrections officials about making sure McCoy had and took the proper medication.

He has looked better in the past couple of years, Collins said.

“He is showing remorse,” he said. “He can show and express insight about what he did and why he did it.”

He also “wants desperately” to communicate to the Knisley family how sorry he is, Collins said. Everyone on the defense side well remembers how kind the Knisleys were during the trial.

They acted the way they did because that’s what Gail Knisley would have wanted, said Missi Knisley, 45, her daughter-in-law, who served as a family spokeswoman for this story.

Gail “was the nicest, greatest, classiest person in the world,” she said. “We wanted to represent her that way. We wanted to make her proud.”

Missi Knisley said she still thinks about McCoy’s mother and father. She has a 16-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter and imagines how difficult it would be to watch a child suffer the way McCoy has.

Her children were in school counseling for years after the shooting. The help that 20-year-old Loren Knisley received prompted her to study counseling at the University of Cincinnati, her mother said.

The example of her grandmother did, too. Gail Knisley always told her grandchildren that “pretty is as pretty does,” meaning that how you act is more important than how you look. Loren Knisley says that phrase all the time, her mother said.

Gail Knisley’s friends also remember the example she set. “She was the friend that you could share a problem with because you knew it wouldn’t go any further,” said Linda Hatmacher, who met Knisley in the eighth grade.

Knisley was a pie-baker and a crocheter who loved to dance, Hatmacher said.

She died on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and that day remains the hardest for Hatmacher. They already had been planning their gift exchange, and a group of friends had been talking about a cruise because Knisley had never taken one.

Mary Cox, the woman who was driving the car when Knisley died, talks the same way. When Cox was divorced, Knisley was the person who helped her through it. She thinks the person who could best have helped her deal with Knisley’s death was Knisley herself.

Cox, now 73, was driving Knisley from Washington Court House in Fayette County to a doctor’s appointment in Gahanna on the day of the shooting. Knisley didn’t feel comfortable driving around the Columbus area.

After the shooting, Cox went to counseling. She took anti-anxiety medicine.

She does not often think of McCoy.

“I haven’t, what you call, forgiven him,” she said.

She knows that he is sick, and so she pays special attention to the news when she hears that someone with a mental illness has killed. She wonders how the mentally ill obtain guns.

“If it’s something big, it hurts me,” she said. “It brings it all back.”

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