The man accused in a string of freeway shootings in Phoenix appeared in court Saturday and insisted to a judge that cops have “the wrong guy, my gun has been in the pawn shop for two months.”
Leslie Allen Merritt, 21, was arraigned on multiple charges, including four counts each of carrying out a drive- by shooting and intentional acts of terrorism. He was ordered held on $1 million cash bail.
He was warned about making statements that could be used against him after he asked Judge Lisa Roberts if he could speak.
“All I have to say is I’m the wrong guy,” Merritt told the judge. “I tried telling the detectives that.”
He claimed he didn’t even have access to a gun because he gun was in a pawn shop for the past two months.
A prosecutor said bail should be set at $1 million because of the “dramatic and profound threat” Merritt posed to the community if he was released.
Merritt told the judge he would have a hard time raising the bail amount.
“I could never afford that bond,” he said. “I got two kids.”
Merritt was arrested by Arizona authorities Friday for a string of freeway shootings that have rattled Phoenix motorists. Authorities said they had “forensically linked” the man’s gun to four of the 11 cars hit.
Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead announced the arrest at a news conference Friday two hours after Merritt had been apprehended.
He was arrested at a Glendale Wal-Mart at 6:47 p.m., DPS spokesman Bart Graves confirmed at a Saturday press conference. Glendale is a suburb located west of Phoenix.
“Today we are seeing the end results of incredible police work,” Graves said, noting that Merritt’s arrest was not the result of a tip from the public.
Graves said investigators identified Merritt as a suspect by checking pawn shops for guns matching the caliber of shell casings at the crime scenes.
Detectives focused on a gun pawned by Merritt, and when crime lab technicians test-fired it, it was a match, Graves said.
He added that the investigation into the incidents was still ongoing.
“If he did or didn’t have that gun in the pawn shop for the last two months, that will come out in the first hour of the trial. So that means if it wasn’t him, it was a pawn shop employee or someone who had access to the gun after it was sold, which means sloppy police work and Merritt should sue the state for every penny they have.”
“Copycats are possible. That’s why we will continue to investigate,” Graves said.
Milstead said the suspect was arrested in the first four shootings, which took place on Aug. 29 and 30. Other charges Merritt faces include criminal endangerment, assault and unlawful discharge of a firearm. Police say bullets from Merritt’s weapon struck a tour bus, SUV and two cars on a stretch of Interstate 10 in Phoenix. No one has been injured.
The Arizona Republic reported that Leslie Merritt Sr., the man’s father, was physically ill after hearing about his son’s arrest. Merritt told the Associated Press he believes his son is being used as a scapegoat by police who were desperate to make an arrest under immense pressure.
“He has way too much value for human life to even take the slightest or remotest risk of actually injuring someone,” he said of his son.
Leslie Allen Merritt Jr.’s Facebook page, confirmed to the Associated Press by his father, indicated that he worked as a landscaper and was a gun enthusiast, but there wasn’t any indication as to why he might have been shooting at cars on the freeway. It wasn’t clear who was responsible for the other reported shootings.
“Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible,” Milstead said, adding that the investigation continues.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who received updates about the arrest from the police department, said the arrest was made after the suspect tried to pawn the gun used in the shootings.
“We got him!” Ducey tweeted. “Great work by Arizona DPS investigators and SWAT team.”
Brandon Copeland told the Associated Press he witnessed the arrest of the suspect while shopping at the Wal-Mart. He said he was struck at the military-style response as officers stormed the crowded store with semiautomatic weapons and came out with the man in handcuffs.
“My girl goes maybe we should leave, and I’m thinking we should leave. And as soon as she says that, like five, six unmarked units just rolled up with blue and reds flashing everywhere,” he said.
Fox 10 Phoenix also reported police were seen impounding a dark grey Saturn from the Wal-Mart parking lot and that one other woman was in custody. However, it was unclear what she was questioned about.
Since Aug. 29, there have been 11 confirmed shootings of vehicles in the Phoenix area involving bullets or other projectiles. Most of the shootings occurred along a stretch of Interstate 10, a major route through the city. There hasn’t been a confirmed shooting since Sept. 10.
Though there have been no serious injuries, a 13-year-old girl’s ear was cut after a bullet shattered a window of a vehicle she was riding in.
The shootings prompted several school districts to keep their buses off freeways and even altered some motorists’ commutes to avoid I-10.
Authorities have offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case and also distributed thousands of fliers in communities along the freeway to raise awareness about the shootings and the reward.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety said state troopers have stepped up patrols, while other agencies assisting in the investigation have included Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa police as well as the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I think it’s fair to say since a week ago, we’ve made headway in this case,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said earlier Friday.