Suspect in 4 of 11 Phoenix freeway shootings charged

Leslie Allen Merritt (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP)
Leslie Allen Merritt (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office via AP)

PHOENIX (AP) — Prosecutors announced formal charges Wednesday against a 21-year-old man suspected in some of the freeway shootings that have rattled the Phoenix area.

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr. was charged with 16 counts, including aggravated assault, unlawful discharge of a weapon, disorderly conduct, endangerment and carrying out a drive-by shooting.

But prosecutors did not file terrorism charges that police originally sought against the landscaper arrested Friday night at a suburban Phoenix Wal-Mart.

Previous story: Phoenix freeway shooting suspect: ‘I’m the wrong guy’

Maricopa County’s top prosecutor, Bill Montgomery, previously said Arizona’s terrorism laws enacted after 9/11 focus mostly on protecting public utilities from attack and would not apply to the freeway shootings.

Using ballistics tests, detectives tied Merritt to four of the 11 shootings reported on Phoenix-area freeways, Arizona Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said.

State police say copycats might be shooting guns or other weapons on freeways, so the investigation remains open.

Only one person was injured in the shootings: On Aug. 29, a bullet pierced the windshield of an SUV on Interstate 10, and the broken glass slightly cut a 13-year-old passenger.

Merritt is charged in that shooting and three others where state police recovered bullet fragments from vehicles.

Merritt said at his initial appearance Saturday that officers arrested the wrong person. He said that during the time the shootings occurred, he didn’t have the pistol police recovered from a pawn shop last week.

“My gun’s been in the pawn shop the last two months,” Merritt told the judge. “I haven’t even had access to a weapon,”

But the owner of the Mo Money Pawn Shop in Phoenix said Wednesday that he had turned over logs and surveillance video that showed Merritt pawned the gun Aug. 30.

That puts Merritt’s pawning of his gun after the four shootings he’s charged with.

He had previously pawned and retrieved his gun twice since July, pawn shop owner Eric Baker said. Each time, he would have had to present identification and give a fingerprint, plus undergo an FBI background check to retrieve the weapon.

“And the final time it was brought here was Aug. 30 around 5:30 p.m. after the freeway shootings occurred that day,” Baker said.

Also Wednesday, state police said the series of shootings began earlier than thought.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said the shooting of a BMW is now believed to have occurred Aug. 27, not Aug. 30. Three other shootings on Aug. 29 had been thought to be the first of the 11 confirmed incidents.

The BMW was parked at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Aug. 27 and retrieved Aug. 30. Graves said the date change is being made because the BMW’s driver wasn’t sure when the shooting happened.

The man had a flat tire changed at a dealership several days later, and a bullet fell out. Police said they matched that round and others recovered from a tour bus, SUV and cars to the 9 mm pistol Merritt pawned.

Investigators say eight cars were hit with bullets and three were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets, most while driving along I-10 in metropolitan Phoenix.

Merritt is scheduled for a court status conference Friday, but that hearing could be canceled if prosecutors seek a formal indictment.

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