Freeway shootings investigation continues in wake of arrests in 'copycat crime'Posted: Updated:
Three people, all 18 years old, have been arrested in what law enforcement authorities are calling a copycat crime in the wake of a string of high-profile, freeway shootings that have plagued the Phoenix area since Aug. 29.
The apprehensions came after a man and wife in their vehicle reported a car came up alongside theirs Saturday night. The three occupants used a slingshot and granite rocks to shatter the driver's side window of the victim's car, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said.
"The victims were smart enough to get the license plate of the vehicle that pulled up alongside," Arpaio said.
The teens have been identified as Aaron Nottingham, Albert Elijah German and Christian Cook. All three are residents of Mesa and were booked on suspicion of assault, endangerment and criminal damage.
It happened at State Route 24 and Ellsworth Road in Queen Creek.
The teens admitted shooting at 10 pedestrians and four vehicles between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday.
According to Arpaio, a fourth 18-year-old male is being investigated, as well.
Col. Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, also confirmed the incidents were "copycat crimes."
"We don't think what happened on the east side is anything related to what we have going on the west side," Milstead said. "These are just some kids out thinking that maybe they could come up with some good idea."
"Don’t kid yourself," Milstead added. "What the kids were doing last night was absolutely lethal. If you break out a windshield with a rock and somebody grabs the steering wheel and jerks it or turns it the wrong way, or hits another car and you have a catastrophic collision, you could end up with death again."
We have not had a shooting since Thursday or a projectile shooting since Thursday, Milstead said.
Milstead said more than 850 leads in the I-10 shootings have come into the command center so far.
"None of us should drive the freeways or any roadway and worry about people just randomly shooting items at our vehicles," Milstead said. "We as a task force will continue to work on this until we can bring this to a stop."
The DPS director urged the public to remain vigilant.
"We have an incredibly large footprint along the I-10 corridor," Milstead noted.
Milstead said it’s tough to determine right now whether the shootings stem from the same group of people or “different people doing different things” by firing projectiles in some instances and bullets in others.
Earlier Sunday, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety alerted the media they were planning to to provide details into the overnight shootings.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio will hold a press conference at 1pm at MCSO headquarters, in reference 2 arrests made involving vehicle windows shot out.— Deputy Enriquez (@DeputyEnriquez) September 13, 2015
DPS also tweeted that Milstead would join Sheriff Arpaio at the news briefing.
Colonel Milstead will be attending and speaking at the press conference held at MCSO today regarding the #azfreewayshootings— Ariz. State Troopers (@Arizona_DPS) September 13, 2015
Up to now, investigators have confirmed 11 incidents in the last two weeks, mostly shootings and some projectiles.
A person of interest detained Friday for questioning into the freeway shootings made an initial appearance early Saturday morning and was booked on an unrelated drug charge.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said troopers detained Oscar de la Torre Munoz, 19, for questioning Friday.
All DPS has said about Munoz is that he is from Avondale, and he has been booked on a drug charge - possession of marijuana - unrelated to the shootings. The agency has not said what led investigators to Munoz, but emphasized that its investigation is not closed and that Munoz is only one person to whom investigators are speaking.
DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead and Gov. Doug Ducey have been appealing to the public all week for help solving the freeway shootings case.
In addition to the tipline, a dedicated 24-hour crisis hotline has been activated for people who are anxious about the freeway shootings.
That hotline number is 1-800-203-2273.
Phoenix drivers have been unnerved since the shootings began Aug. 29, mostly along Interstate 10, a major route through the city. Many drivers have avoided freeways since then. Eight of the cars were hit with bullets and three with projectiles that could have been BBs or pellets. One girl's ear was cut by glass as a bullet shattered her window.
Authorities have appealed for help through social media, news conferences, TV interviews and freeway message boards, whose messages morphed from "report suspicious activity" to "shooting tips" to the more ominous "I-10 shooter tip line."
Many of the thousands of tips proved to be false leads. In Arizona, windshields are frequently cracked by loose rocks sent airborne by the tires of other vehicles.
A number of Valley schools have changes their bus routes for extracurricular activities to avoid traveling on I-10. They are:
- Mesa public schools
- Deer Valley Unified School District
- Dysart Unified School District
- Kyrene School District
Other districts have stopped using the I-10 "until further notice"
- Fowler Elementary School
- Tolleson Elementary School
The Paradise Valley School District said as a precautionary measure, it is rerouting buses from the area of Highway 51 and Shea Boulevard.
Longtime residents still remember a string of random shootings that terrorized Phoenix a decade ago. Nearly 30 people were shot then, and eight killed, including a cyclist who was riding down the street and a man who was sleeping at a bus stop. Two men were eventually caught and convicted.
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