Arizona freeway sniper suspect charged with 16 felonies

Leslie Allen Merritt. © Maricopa County Sheriff's Office
A suspect in Arizona’s recent spate of highway shootings was formally charged on Wednesday with 16 felonies, including drive-by shooting, aggravated assault, and discharging a firearm, prosecutors said.

The complaint accuses Leslie Allen Merritt Jr, 21, a landscaper and father of two, with six counts of aggravated assault, three counts of drive-by shooting, three counts of unlawful discharge of a firearm, three counts of disorderly conduct, and one count of endangerment.

“I understand the frustration by some with respect to the limited amount of information released by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to date,” said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery in statement announcing the charges. “However, I am equally grateful for the caution necessary to safeguard any prosecution of the Defendant and the need to protect Due Process rights.”

The charges stem from shootings on the Interstate-10 freeway in the metro Phoenix area that struck a Cadillac Escalade, a bus, a Kia Sorrento and a BMW, prosecutors said. They were the first four incidents in the spree, which occurred between August 27 and August 29, according to DPS.

There were 11 incidents in total during the spree that ended September 10. Four incidents involved bullets and seven others involved a projectile of some sort. No one was seriously injured, but a 13-year-old girl was cut by flying glass when a bullet struck a car window. The shootings and other incidents caused fear among Phoenix commuters, and had law enforcement on edge and keen to find a culprit.

Prosecutors would have been forced to release Merritt if the charges against him had not been filed by Tuesday. Merritt and his family have maintained that he is innocent, however, and questions have been raised as to whether he is really the shooter.

“All I’ve got to say is you’ve got the wrong guy,” Merritt told a court commissioner at his arraignment, according to the Arizona Republic.

Investigators believe they have arrested the right man. The accusations against Merritt rely heavily upon the results of ballistics tests that matched Merritt’s Hi-Point 9mm handgun to bullets and bullet fragments recovered by detectives from vehicles targeted in the four shootings.

Merritt told the commissioner his gun had been in a pawnshop two months ago and that he hadn’t had access to the weapon, but detectives said the gun was not pawned at the time of the shootings, according to court documents.

Leading up to the arrest, Arizona DPS searched area pawn shops for a handgun that could have been the source of the bullet fragments collected from the four shooting incidents. Any firearm found meeting the criteria was confiscated and tested. One firearm matched the bullets and fragments. It had been pawned by Merritt.

Merritt, who was arrested on September 18, is being held on a $1 million bond. He is due to appear in court for a preliminary hearing on Friday.