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Suspect indicted on 15 counts in AZ shootings

Posted at 4:26 PM, Sep 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-25 19:26:48-04

The prime suspect in a series of shootings on a Valley freeway has been indicted by a grand jury.

Read the indictment.

Leslie Merritt Jr. has been indicted on 15 felony counts in connection with four shootings that occurred on Interstate 10 in August.

Merritt has been charged with four counts of drive-by shooting, four counts of aggravated assault, three counts of unlawful discharge of a firearm, two counts of disorderly conduct and two counts of endangerment.

Department of Public Safety officials said ballistic evidence ties Merritt to four shooting incidents that occurred on I-10 between Aug. 27 and Aug. 29.

Merritt remains jailed as electronic freeway signs keep urging drivers to report tips. State police say copycats might be shooting guns or other weapons on freeways, so the investigation remains open.

In court the morning after his arrest, Merritt said he was innocent.

"All I have to say is I'm the wrong guy. I tried telling the detectives that," Merritt said. "My gun's been in the pawn shop the last two months. I haven't even had access to a weapon."

The owner of Mo Money Pawn Shop in Phoenix said Wednesday he had turned over pawn logs and video surveillance tapes that showed Merritt pawning the gun on Aug. 30. That puts Merritt's pawning of his gun after the four shootings he's charged with committing.

He had previously pawned and retrieved his gun twice since July, pawn shop owner Eric Baker said.  Each time, he would have had to present identification, given a fingerprint and been on video, plus undergone an FBI background check to retrieve the weapon.

Court documents show police were looking for a specific brand and caliber of handgun after testing bullet fragments found in the first four vehicles hit by gunfire. They collected matching weapons from pawn shops, test-fired them and came up with a match to one Merritt had pawned.

Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said Wednesday that the first shooting is now believed to have occurred on Aug. 27. Three other shootings on Aug. 29 had been thought to be the first in 11 incidents.

The date change comes because the driver of a BMW that was hit was not sure when the shooting happened, Graves said. The car was parked at an airport Aug. 27 and retrieved Aug. 30.
 
Merrit's arrest followed two false starts in the investigation.

A week earlier, police took a 19-year-old into custody as a person of interest and later released him. Three young men also were arrested and accused  of hurling rocks at cars with slingshots, but authorities called them copycats.

Investigators say eight cars were hit with bullets and three were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets.