Suspect in 4 of 11 Phoenix freeway shootings charged
Phoenix — Prosecutors announced 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.
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.
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 in 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 had pawned.
Investigators say eight cars were hit with bullets and three were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets, most while driving along Interstate 10 in metropolitan Phoenix.
Merritt is scheduled for a court status conference on Sept. 25, but that hearing could be cancelled if prosecutors seek a formal indictment.
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