A suspect in the spree of highway shootings that frightened Arizona drivers for weeks told authorities Saturday that they have the “wrong guy” because his gun has been in a pawn shop.
Leslie Allen Merritt, 21, proclaimed his innocence during his arraignment as prosecutors argued that he remains a danger to the community. He was charged with four counts each of drive-by shooting, intentional acts of terrorism, discharging a firearm within city limits, aggravated assault, endangerment, criminal damage and disorderly conduct involving a weapon.
Merritt asked the judge if he could speak after she set his bond at $1 million and said he would be required to wear an ankle monitor if he posts it. The judge warned Merritt that anything he said could be used against him during his trial, and he nodded.
“All I got to say is that I’m the wrong guy. I tried telling the detectives that,” Merritt said, adding that his gun has been at a pawn shop for two months. “I haven’t even had access to a weapon,” he said.
“I can never afford that bond,” Merritt added. “I got two kids.”
The judge, however, said that there was “very sufficient probable cause” to charge Merritt, and Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves declined to comment on the suspect’s denial during a news conference Saturday.
Authorities say Merritt owned a weapon that was “forensically linked” to the first four shootings in a string of shots fired at vehicles on or near Interstate 10, which runs through Phoenix.
The first three shootings occurred on Aug. 29 and were followed by eight more stretching through September. The only person who has been injured in the violence was a 13-year-old girl who was cut by flying glass.
Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said that some of the violence could have been carried out by “copycats.” Some of the shootings involved projectiles, like BBs or pellets, and one was a road rage incident.
Graves said the Department of Public Safety, along with other agencies, were still seeking suspects in the other cases, and a $50,000 reward was still being offered.
“There’s some elation here that this piece of the pie has been solved, but we are still feverishly working to wrap up all of the loose ends,” Graves said. “There is limited relief.”
Investigators tracked Merritt throughout the day Friday and spotted him at a pawn shop selling a gun, according to NBC affiliate KPNX. He was later tackled and arrested by a SWAT team that trailed him to a Walmart in Glendale, Arizona.
Authorities had been monitoring pawn shops that had bought or loaned a firearm that matched the make of any of the guns used on the freeway, Graves said.
Officials have not named the pawn shop where they found the gun allegedly used by Merritt, but Mo Money Pawn in Phoenix released a statement Saturday that detectives had examined several guns at the store and eventually “found the weapon they thought to be the match of the weapon used in several of the I-10 shootings.”
“Pawn Shops in the state of Arizona are required by law to keep detailed records of all transactions conducted, and in this case (as well as several in the past) our diligence has assisted law enforcement officials in apprehending their suspect,” the statement said.
Merritt’s next court hearing is set for Sept. 25, and Maricopa County prosecutor Edward Leiter argued that he should be held until then because even if he didn’t physically harm anyone, “this suspect presents a dramatic and profound threat to the community.”