Phoenix I-10 shootings suspect: ‘I’m the wrong guy’

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PHOENIX — A suspect in Phoenix’s recent highway shootings denied Saturday he had anything to do with the case as a judge set his bail at $1 million.

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., who was arrested Friday, shook his head as a prosecutor asked the judge to set bail at that mark at a court hearing, and the suspect took in a deep breath when the judge agreed.

Leslie Allen Merritt was arrested in connection to the I-10 shootings. (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)

Leslie Allen Merritt was arrested in connection to the I-10 shootings. (Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office)

Police have said the suspect was “forensically linked” to the first four shootings along Interstate 10 in downtown Phoenix.

“The evidence as you will see in the next couple of days speaks for itself,” Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves told reporters. “We’re not going to get into a debate (with the suspect).”

There have been no fatalities linked to any of the 11 incidents, which happened in and around I-10 between August 29 and September 10.

Merritt has been charged with numerous felonies, including drive-by shooting, intentional acts of terrorism, aggravated assault, criminal damage, endangerment and discharging a firearm within city limits. The next court appearance will come Friday.

The arrest

Merritt was arrested while shopping at a Walmart in Glendale, a Phoenix suburb, according to Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey.

Authorities got a break in the case after a 9 mm handgun was pawned, City Councilman Sal DiCiccio said. The pawn shop’s owner alerted authorities after he suspected it was the same type used in the highway shootings.

Lab results showed it was the same gun used in four I-10 shootings on August 29 and 31, said Col. Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Graves said Merritt pawned the handgun, which investigators collected from the shop. The gun was fired at the state crime lab and bullets from the tests matched bullet fragments from the four freeway shootings, Graves said.

It’s unclear whether the suspect is connected to the other seven shootings.

“Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible,” Milstead said. “We will continue to investigate.”

The suspect’s father, Leslie Merritt Sr., told CNN affiliate KNXV-TV that anyone who believes his son is the shooter is ” a moron.”

The suspect has no connection to a man who was questioned by police about the shootings earlier in the week, Graves said.

Jittery residents

Phoenix residents were on edge over the random gunfire in late August and the first two weeks of September. In addition to the shootings, authorities said there were “numerous reports” of damaged cars.

The first round of gunfire hit an SUV, an empty tour bus and a passenger car last month. More shootings followed, with the latest reported September 10.

State officials expressed relief at the arrest Friday, but they said the investigation is ongoing.

“We got him!,” the governor tweeted after the arrest.

He urged residents to stay alert and call authorities if they have any information related to the shootings.

Copycats

The spate of shootings in Phoenix spawned copycats on roadways elsewhere in the city — presumably by someone trying to emulate the downtown incidents.

State officials described the shootings as “domestic terrorism” and offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

There have been no fatalities linked to the shootings. A girl, 13, was wounded when a bullet pierced the windshield of the SUV she was in — the only injury linked to the highway shootings.

In a case described as unrelated to the shootings, police arrested three people for allegedly firing rocks with a slingshot at pedestrians and cars.