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Think you can elude the law in Las Vegas? Don't bet on it

City has long been mecca for fugitives, who soon get caught

LAS VEGAS -- This is not something you will find in the tourism brochures, but Las Vegas has long been a popular destination for criminals running from the law.

They swarm to Sin City's end-of-the-line motels and neon-lit casinos, betting they can beat the odds and get lost in the crowd, only to learn that this city of security guards and surveillance cameras is actually one of the worst places to go underground.

"If you think you can hide in Las Vegas, don't come," Police Chief Mike Mayberry of Henderson said Wednesday in announcing the capture of Ohio highway sniper suspect Charles A. McCoy Jr.

McCoy discovered the difficulty of going on the lam in Vegas when authorities swooped in on him at the budget hotel where he was staying. Police had received a tip from a resident who recognized McCoy as he read a newspaper story about himself at the Stardust hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

Police say some fugitives use Las Vegas as a way station, a place where they can figure out their next move. Others take permanent refuge here, using fake names to start a new life.

"It's an image of risk and bright lights and adventure," said Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "Those are the elements that may be attractive to those men in the first place. It's the image of wild, wild West."

Thousands of fugitives -- from shady bankers and parole violators to gangsters and murderers -- have found the end of the road in Las Vegas over the years.

Music Row murderer Richard F. D'Antonio, convicted of killing a 23-year-old researcher for the now-defunct Cash Box magazine in Nashville in 1989, made his way to Las Vegas. He worked as a pit boss at a casino before he was caught.

Buford Furrow turned himself in to the FBI here after killing a postal worker and wounding five people in a 1999 shooting at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles. He took a taxi to Las Vegas.

William "Andy" Beith, a Baptist school principal, was arrested at a local hotel in 2001 after fleeing Indiana with an 11-year-old girl with whom he was having sex.

Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst hid out in Las Vegas for several days after robbing a San Francisco bank in 1974. So did Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who thought Las Vegas would be an easy place to cash bad checks after they butchered a Kansas family in 1959 in a spree that inspired the book "In Cold Blood." Five Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers spent time there that summer.

"We get a lot of murder suspects," said Las Vegas police Lieutenant Ted Lee, who spent 3 1/2 years leading the Criminal Apprehension Team, the task force that collared McCoy.

Since the task force was founded in 1992, the squad has plucked more than 6,000 fugitives off the streets of Las Vegas. Last year, the nine-person unit arrested 400 people wanted for various crimes.

Lee said many fugitives come to Las Vegas believing it is bigger than it really is, thanks to an influx of tourists that reached 36 million last year.

Las Vegas also has a virtually unseen force of 9,000 private security guards patrolling hotel-casinos and bolstering the 2,000 or so sworn members of the Police Department. Add a battery of surveillance cameras in hotel lobbies, casinos, elevators, and hallways, and it is hard to stay hidden.

In most cases, Lee said, fugitives are simply trying to put distance between themselves and where they are wanted. McCoy drove about 2,000 miles from Columbus, Ohio. "They come here and have one last hurrah before they get arrested," Lee said.

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