PHOENIX (AP) – Police arrested a man Friday for a string of seemingly random freeway shootings in Phoenix, adding that they had linked the man’s gun to four of the 11 cars hit.
Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., 21, was arrested at a Wal-Mart in Glendale, a suburb west of Phoenix at about 7 p.m., said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey.
Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead, announcing the arrest at a news conference two hours later, said Merritt had not been formally charged yet.
Milstead said the suspect was arrested in the first four shootings, which took place on Aug. 29 and 30. The agency says the suspect faces a range of charges that include criminal endangerment, assault and unlawful discharge of a firearm.
The four shootings that police say he committed hit a tour bus, SUV and two cars, all of them on Interstate 10. No one was injured.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the suspect’s father was adamant that his son had nothing to do with the shootings and that 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,” he said of his son.
Leslie Allen Merritt Jr.’s Facebook page, confirmed by his father, indicated he worked as a landscaper and was a gun enthusiast, but there was no indication as to why he might have been shooting at cars on the freeways.
It wasn’t clear who was responsible for the other shootings.
“Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible,” Milstead said, adding that the investigation continues.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who received updates about the arrest from the police department, said the suspect tried to pawn the gun used in the shootings
“We got him!” Ducey tweeted. “Great work by Arizona DPS investigators and SWAT team.”
Brandon Copeland said he witnessed the arrest of the suspect as he did some Friday night shopping at the Wal-Mart. He was struck at the military-style response as officers stormed the crowded store with semiautomatic weapons and came out with the man in handcuffs.
“My girl goes maybe we should leave, and I’m thinking we should leave. And as soon as she says that, like five, six unmarked units just rolled up with blue and reds flashing everywhere,” he said.
Since Aug. 29, there have been 11 confirmed shootings of vehicles in the Phoenix area involving bullets or other projectiles. Most occurred along Interstate 10, a major route through the city. The Wal-Mart where the suspect was arrested is 6 miles north of where some of the shootings on I-10 occurred.
There have been no serious injuries, although a 13-year-old girl’s ear was cut by glass after a bullet shattered a car window.
There has not been a confirmed shooting in the case since Sept. 10.
The shootings have prompted several school districts to keep their buses off freeways, and some motorists have altered their commutes to avoid driving I-10.
Authorities offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. They distributed thousands of fliers in neighborhoods along the freeway this week to raise awareness about the shootings and the reward, and electronic billboards along the highways have urged drivers to phone in tips.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety said state troopers have stepped up patrols, while other agencies assisting in the investigation have included Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa police as well as the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I think it’s fair to say since a week ago, we’ve made headway in this case,” Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said earlier Friday.
Meanwhile Friday, a judge ordered the release of a 19-year-old man who was detained at a convenience store on Sept. 11 and questioned regarding the shootings. Authorities have declined to explain why the man was questioned about the shootings, but they have said he was not a prime suspect.
He was arrested on an alleged probation violation stemming from marijuana found in the man’s house during a Sept. 11 search. The search was based on a tip that he was violating probation by possessing a gun. The man had been sentenced to probation for excessive speeding and fleeing from police.
Three young men were arrested and accused of hurling rocks at cars with slingshots in a case that authorities called a copycat to the shootings, but one of the young men denied in jail interviews that was the case.
Associated Press Writer Bob Christie contributed to this report.
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