Friday, March 19, 2004 | 9:21 a.m.
Dean Juipe's column appears Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. His boxing notebook appears Thursday. Reach him at email@example.com or (702) 259-4084.
If Charles McCoy Jr. was trying to avoid being captured, he made a strategic mistake. He got to Las Vegas two days too soon.
McCoy -- the alleged Ohio freeway sniper who was nabbed at the Budget Suites behind the Stardust early Wednesday morning -- might very well have remained inconspicuous had he timed his arrival here to coincide with the opening of March Madness.
Instead, he left Columbus, Ohio, last Friday and apparently drove more or less nonstop across the country until pulling into Las Vegas on Tuesday. That afternoon, an alert, unemployed car salesman named Conrad Malsom spotted McCoy in the sports book at the Stardust and struck up a conversation.
He later followed McCoy to the Budget Suites, were police arrested the passive fugitive.
Based on the crowd in the Stardust sports book Thursday, McCoy wouldn't have had any trouble blending in with the several hundred bettors who were transfixed by the NCAA tournament games on the big screens. Whereas McCoy was more obvious Tuesday, placing horse-racing bets and drawing Malsom's suspicions by reading a USA Today story on himself that included his picture, 48 hours later that same area of the casino was wall-to-wall mayhem.
The six rows of 15 seats each on the horse racing side of the parlor where McCoy sat leisurely on Tuesday were swallowed up by basketball fans by the time March Madness had kicked off its 19-day run.
Basketball fever could have kept McCoy from being detected in Las Vegas for at least that long.
In fact had he really been committed to life on the lam, McCoy could have found at least one other sports book in town that was so dense with hoop maniacs that he might never have been found. The crowd at the sports book at Mandalay Bay for Thursday's first-round games was so immense as to be all but impossible to traverse.
Thousands of crazed basketball fans jostled for standing room in the massive facility, pouring past the poker room border and into the walkways.
March Madness is big business in Las Vegas, drawing countless tourists, fans and late-blooming experts. It rivals the Super Bowl for betting interest, while superseding the football game with its extended run.
It's hectic, it's loud and it's contagious. Throngs of bettors react with roars of approval or shouts of concern on seemingly every play of each and every game.
The gathering never gets hoarse.
But on Tuesday, as McCoy sat in the Stardust book, it was a horse of a different color. Few people were around as the tracks of current interest out here -- Aqueduct, Santa Anita and Golden Gate -- were dark, leaving McCoy with plenty of room to stretch out (and read about himself) as he watched televised racing from Florida.
Perhaps he allowed himself to be detected, as he used his real name on his Budget Suites registration. Perhaps he was no more clever than another wanted man who was arrested in Texas the same day, as that fellow was using his own name as he routinely went about his life despite having escaped from prison in 1971.
Perhaps neither of those guys was looking for cover.
But for anyone who is, this is the time to be in Las Vegas. This is the time when it's the games on the big screens -- and not the identity of your sports-book neighbor -- that draws even the most carefree car salesman's undivided attention.