I-10 shooting suspect makes 1st court appearancePosted: Updated:
The man arrested in the Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge during his first court appearance that authorities have "the wrong guy."
The judge set bail at $1 million for Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., 21, after Maricopa County prosecutor Ed Leiter said the suspect presents a danger to the community.
"The fear that was instilled in the occupants of those vehicles as well as the fear instilled on everyone driving on the I-10 and Valley freeways for several weeks was of such an intense nature that if this suspect is released or such a million-dollar cash bond is not put in place, the threat to the community must be preserved," Leiter told the judge.
Merritt said, "I could never afford that bond, though, and I got two kids, you know."
He was charged with four counts each of aggravated assault, criminal damage, disorderly conduct, endangerment, discharging a firearm within city limits, disorderly conduct involving a weapon, carrying out a drive-by shooting and intentional acts of terrorism.
Merritt then asked the judge if he could speak. After the judge warned him that anything he says could be used against him, Merritt said he's not the shooter and that he had no access to his gun because it's been in a pawn shop for two months.
"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," he said.
Merritt was arrested Friday at a Wal-Mart at 5600 W. Northern Aven. in Glendale at 6:47 p.m. DPS had reportedly been monitoring him all day.
Authorities said at a news briefing Friday night they found the gun on the Merritt and it matches the case.
Brandon Copeland said he witnessed the arrest of the suspect as he did some Friday night shopping at the Wal-Mart. 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.
Merritt, the father of two, was actually in the store with his girlfriend and their daughter when officers caught up to him and arrested him.
One witness said they saw a number of undercover cars and officers and then observed an officer fingerprinting the car before again having it towed away..
At a news conference Friday night, DPS said he is "forensically linked" to the first four shootings.
"We have evidence that leads us to believe this suspect can be associated with the I-10 shootings from August 29th and August 30th," DPS said in a statement.
DPS said it is trying to establish a possible link to the other scenarios over the past couple of weeks.
Merritt faces a range of criminal charges, which include unlawful discharge of a firearm, endangerment, criminal damage and aggravated assault.
Governor Doug Ducey has released this statement about the arrest:
"I applaud the excellent work done by our state troopers, SWAT team, investigators, Col. Milstead and all the law enforcement agencies who partnered to identify this suspect and apprehend him. This was no easy case, but our law enforcement officials worked night and day from the moment these shootings began to get to the bottom of it and protect Arizona citizens. Let it be clear -- those who endanger the lives of Arizona residents will pay the consequences and be prosecuted with the full force of the law.”
According to a tweet from Phoenix city councilman Sal DiCiccio, there were 4 confirmed incidents from same 9 mm handgun. He says DPS located the 9 mm handgun, recently pawned at local pawn shop. In another tweet, DiCiccio says that lab analysis confirmed it is the "same gun as freeway shootings. Person who pawned the gun is same person who purchased gun."
Mo-Money Pawn Shop released this statement on Facebook late Friday night:
On Wednesday September 16th, 2015 management at Mo Money Pawn Shop were contacted by detectives from the Arizona Department of Public Safety asking for our cooperation in finding a certain caliber and make of handgun. Detectives and ballistic experts from AZ DPS examined several weapons and after further ballistics testing found the weapon they thought to be the match of the weapon used in several of the I-10 shootings. Pawn Shops in the state of Arizona are required by law to keep detailed records of all transactions conducted, and in this case (as well as several in the past) our diligence has assisted law enforcement officials in apprehending their suspect.
Following his arrest, we spoke to the suspect's father and his mother-in-law.
Leslie Allan Merritt, Sr. says "Whoever thinks my son is the I-10 shooter is a moron."
Meantime, his future mother-in-law, Cynthia Sauceda, told us she thinks there's no way he played any part in the shootings.
This arrest comes on the same day charges were dropped against an Avondale man detained as a "person of interest" in connection with the string of freeway shootings.
Freeway shooter case: 4 confirmed incidents from same 9mm handgun. DPS located 9mm handgun recently pawned at local pawn shop.— Sal DiCiccio (@Sal_DiCiccio) September 19, 2015
BREAKING: We got him! DPS SWAT team is in custody of the individual suspected of I-10 shootings. Apprehended moments ago.— Doug Ducey (@dougducey) September 19, 2015
Merritt posted videos of himself shooting handguns and rifles on social media, along with a personal statement vowing revenge on anyone seeking to wrong him or his family.
Pictures and video on Merritt Jr.'s Facebook page shows him firing several weapons, including a 9 mm handgun, a .357 magnum, and a hunting rifle. A picture of a pump-action shotgun from 2013 is labeled "my baby."
His Facebook page indicated Merritt worked as a landscaper and was a gun enthusiast, but there was no indication as to why he might have been shooting at cars on the freeways.
It wasn't clear who was responsible for the other shootings.
"Are there others out there, are there copycats, that is possible. we will continue to investigate," DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead said at the news briefing Friday night.
"Tonight, I cannot give you a whole lot of detail, as interviews and search warrants are underway, but I thought it was important for Arizonans to know the weapon and man that we believe is responsible for starting is in custody," Milstead said.
There is still an active investigation into the other freeway shootings not attributable to Merritt.
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton commended the work of DPS and Phoenix Police in bringing about an arrest in the case.
I hope this brings these senseless crimes to a stop and that Valley residents can get on with their daily lives without fear.— Greg Stanton (@MayorStanton) September 19, 2015
Copyright 2015 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.. The Associated Press contributed to this story.