PHOENIX (AP) – A landscaper who is the suspect in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge Saturday that authorities have “the wrong guy” and he hasn’t been in possession of a gun for two months.
Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., 21, was charged with counts including aggravated assault, criminal damage, disorderly conduct, carrying out a drive-by shooting and intentional acts of terrorism. In a brief court appearance, the prosecutor said he presents a danger to the community after drivers spent the past three weeks on edge.
“The suspect presents a dramatic and profound threat to the community,” the prosecutor said.
Judge Lisa Roberts set bail at $1 million, and Merritt asked to speak to the court.
“All I have to say is I’m the wrong guy. I tried telling the detectives that. My gun’s been in the pawnshop the last two months. I haven’t even had access to a weapon,” he said.
Merritt was arrested about 7 p.m. Friday after a SWAT team swarmed him at a Wal-Mart in the suburb of Glendale. Minutes later, Gov. Doug Ducey took to Twitter to proclaim “We got him!” and the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety held a news conference to outline the four shootings detectives linked to Merritt.
DPS director Frank Milstead said Merritt was behind the shootings of a tour bus, an SUV and two cars on I-10 on Aug. 29 and 30.
“Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible,” Milstead said, adding that the investigation is continuing.
In an interview with the Associated Press, the suspect’s father was adamant that his son had nothing to do with the shootings and anyone who says he was involved is a “moron.”
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.
“He has way too much value for human life to even take the slightest or remotest risk of actually injuring someone,” the elder Merritt said of his son.
He said his son worked as a landscaper and likes guns but is not a criminal.
Merritt Jr.’s Facebook page, confirmed by his father, has two video clips that show him firing guns into the desert toward a palm tree, exclaiming “whoo” after squeezing off a round.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who received updates about the arrest from police, said Merritt tried to pawn the gun used in the shootings.
Brandon Copeland said he witnessed Merritt’s arrest while doing some Friday night shopping at Wal-Mart. He was struck at the military-style response during the arrest, as officers stormed the crowded store and came out with Merritt in handcuffs.
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“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.
Since Aug. 29, there have been 11 confirmed shootings of vehicles in the Phoenix area involving bullets or other projectiles, such as BBs or pellets. Most occurred along I-10, a major route through the city.
There have been no serious injuries, although a 13-year-old girl’s ear was cut by glass after a bullet shattered a car window.
The shootings prompted several school districts to keep their buses off freeways, and some motorists altered their commutes to avoid driving on I-10.