PHOENIX » A landscaper arrested in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge Saturday that authorities have “the wrong guy” as investigators stood by their detective work that traced the gun to the suspect after he took it to a pawn shop.
Leslie Allen Merritt Jr. 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, a prosecutor said the 21-year-old should face a high bail after drivers spent the last three weeks on edge.
“The suspect presents a dramatic and profound threat to the community,” said Ed Leiter of the Maricopa County attorney’s office.
Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Roberts set bail at $1 million, and Merritt, who had remained quiet during the proceedings, asked in a soft-spoken voice to address 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 pawn shop the last two months. I haven’t even had access to a weapon,” he said as he stood handcuffed in a black and white striped jail uniform.
Merritt was arrested Friday evening after a SWAT team swarmed him at a Wal-Mart in the suburb of Glendale. Minutes later, Gov. Doug Ducey proclaimed on Twitter, “We got him!”
Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said the break in the case was the result of exhaustive investigative work in which weapons from local pawn shops were test-fired at the state crime lab.
Graves said evidence from shell casings and bullet fragments determined that a gun Merritt pawned was used in four of the shootings on Aug. 29 and 30. A tour bus, SUV and two cars were hit by bullets on Interstate 10 on those days.
“Today we are seeing the end result of some incredible police work,” he said at a news conference.
Graves declined to comment on Merritt’s statement in court that his gun was in the pawn shop at the time of the shootings and similar statements made by his family.
“The evidence as you’ll see in the next couple of days speaks for itself,” Graves said. “We’re not going to get in a debate about that.”
Tom Mangan, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been assisting in the investigation, said the evidence gathered by DPS leaves “no doubt” the gun used was the one owned and pawned by Merritt.
According to Mangan, a bullet contains certain land and groove impressions after it’s been fired that are unique to a particular firearm. Firearms examiners would have test-fired the suspect’s gun and found impressions in the bullet that matched any ballistic evidence recovered from the shooting scenes.
“That’s a very lucky investigative lead that that gun wasn’t destroyed or thrown into the bottom of a river or buried,” Mangan said.
A man who identified himself as a manager at Mo-Money Pawn declined to comment Saturday beyond a post on a Facebook page that said detectives contacted the shop Wednesday looking for a certain caliber and make of handgun and examined several weapons.
Eleven vehicles in all were hit by bullets or other projectiles, such as BBs or pellets, while driving along Phoenix freeways between Aug. 29 and Sept. 10. There have been no serious injuries, although a 13-year-old girl’s ear was cut by glass when a bullet shattered a car window.
Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said the investigation continues into who is behind the other shootings.
“Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible,” he said.
Graves said detectives interrogated Merritt “virtually all night.”
“There’s some elation here that this piece of the pie has been solved, but we are still feverishly working to wrap up all these loose ends,” he said.
Messages seeking tips about the shootings will remain posted on electronic signs along freeways, and a $50,000 reward is still available, Graves said.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Merritt’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. He said his son 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.
The Wal-Mart where Merritt Jr. was arrested Friday is 6 miles north of where some of the shootings occurred along I-10, a major route through the city.
The shootings prompted several school districts to keep their buses off freeways, and some commuters altered their routes.
Sarah Madder, of Phoenix, said she’ll stay off I-10 for a few more days despite the arrest.
“It seems like there had to have been more than one person,” Madder said Saturday. “If it calms down for a while, I’ll get back on.”
Dustin Ramirez, who was getting fuel at a Phoenix gas station, said there are still a lot of open questions if Merritt is suspected of only four of the 11 confirmed shootings.
“It’s a little unnerving, but you got to admire their ability to catch the guy in the first place,” Ramirez said.
Meanwhile Friday, a judge ordered the release of a 19-year-old man who was arrested on an alleged probation violation Sept. 11 and questioned regarding the shootings. Authorities have declined to explain the man’s connection to the case but said he was not a prime suspect. According to Graves, “We know where he is. We’re still interested in him.”
Three young men also were arrested and accused of hurling rocks at cars with slingshots in a case that authorities called a copycat to the shootings.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed to this report.