A man questioned in a string of Phoenix freeway shootings is not the prime suspect and investigators are pressing ahead with leads in a case that has left the city on edge for two weeks, authorities said Saturday.
A 19-year-old man from a Phoenix suburb who was detained Friday at a convenience store near Interstate 10 is a person of interest, but Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves declined to say what led police to question him. The man has been booked into jail on an unrelated marijuana possession charge.
Phoenix drivers have been unnerved since the 11 confirmed shootings began Aug. 29, mostly along I-10, a major route through the city. Many have avoided freeways since then. Eight of the cars were hit with bullets and three with projectiles that could have been BBs or pellets. One girl's ear was cut by glass as a bullet shattered her window.
Graves said the investigation was moving forward and authorities were not concerned about the public growing complacent now that someone has been questioned. Police were still seeking tips, with freeway message boards across the city continuing to flash a tip line number.
The shooting scenarios have varied. Some involved bullets fired at random cars, others involved projectiles — possibly BBs or pellets — and one was apparently road rage, Graves said.
Graves had said Friday that investigators were questioning the man "about a number of things" besides the freeway shootings, but he declined to disclose what that entailed. People who answered phones registered to the man's address said they weren't related to him.
Speaking to Fox 10 in Phoenix (KSAZ-TV) from the back of a squad car after being apprehended, the man said officers surrounded him and his mother, guns drawn, after he bought a pack of cigarettes and a drink at a convenience store Friday. He said officers had been aggressive with him, aggravating his back injury.
Witnesses said law enforcement officers seemed to be waiting for the man to appear and moved in quickly, surrounding his white Chevrolet Tahoe with unmarked vehicles. The SUV was being examined for any evidence that might connect it the shootings, Graves said.
Marco Mansilla watched it unfold while getting coffee at a nearby McDonald's restaurant. The lot was suddenly teeming with law enforcement, and when he tried to leave, an officer told him to "go back in the store. It's not safe."
Mansilla said he asked an officer: "What happened? Is that the sniper guy?" He said the officer declined to answer.
On his way back to his window-tinting business across the street, Mansilla said he saw the man sitting inside a police car while four officers watched over the woman, who was in handcuffs.
"She was in shock," Mansilla said.
Store clerk Sara Kaur said she sold the man cigarettes, around 9:15 a.m., moments before between 15 to 20 cars swarmed in and officers handcuffed him. She described him as a regular customer, and she said she's "never had a problem with him."
Authorities have appealed for help through social media, news conferences, TV interviews and freeway message boards. Many of the thousands of tips proved to be false leads.
Longtime residents still remember a string of random shootings that terrorized Phoenix a decade ago. Nearly 30 people were shot then, and eight killed, including a cyclist who was riding down the street and a man who was sleeping at a bus stop. Two men were eventually caught and convicted.