Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., the landscaper arrested in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge that authorities have “the wrong guy” as investigators stood by their detective work that traced the gun to the suspect after he took it to a pawn shop. Merrit was charged Saturday with counts including aggravated assault, criminal damage, disorderly conduct, carrying out a drive-by shooting and intentional acts of terrorism.
During a brief court appearance, a prosecutor suggested the 21-year-old should face a high bail after drivers spent the last three weeks on edge. Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Roberts set bail at $1 million, and Merritt, who had remained quiet during the proceedings, asked in a soft-spoken voice to address the court.
He said as he stood handcuffed in a black and white striped jail uniform “All I have to say is I’m the wrong guy. I tried telling the detectives that. My gun’s been in the pawn shop the last two months. I haven’t even had access to a weapon.”
However according to a charging document released late Saturday night by Maricopa Superior Court investigators determined Merritt had not pawned his gun at the time of the incidents. Merritt was arrested Friday evening after a SWAT team swarmed him at a Wal-Mart in the suburb of Glendale.
Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said the break in the case was due to exhaustive investigative work in which weapons from local pawn shops were test-fired at the state crime lab. Graves said evidence from shell casings and bullet fragments determined that a gun Merritt pawned was used in four of the shootings on Aug. 29 and 30.
On those days a tour bus, SUV and two cars were hit by bullets on Interstate 10. Tom Mangan, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been assisting in the investigation, said the evidence gathered by DPS leaves “no doubt” the gun used was the one owned and pawned by Merritt.
A total of eleven vehicles were hit by bullets or other projectiles, such as BBs or pellets, while driving along Phoenix freeways between Aug. 29 and Sept. 10. However thankfully there have been no serious injuries.
Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said the investigation into who is behind the other shootings is ongoing. Graves said electronic signs with messages seeking tips about the shootings will remain posted along freeways, and a $50,000 reward is still available.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Merritt’s father, Leslie Merritt Sr. said he believes his son is being made a scapegoat by police who were desperate to make an arrest under immense public pressure.
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