Phoenix residents can perhaps breathe a little easier. On Friday evening, Arizona Department of Public Safety authorities arrested suspected freeway shooter Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., the 21-year-old man allegedly behind a string of seemingly random hits on passing vehicles traveling down a stretch of Interstate 10. But Merritt's father, Leslie Allen Merritt Sr., has maintained his son's innocence.
Arizona Gov. Doug Doucey first broke the news Friday evening, tweeting, "We got him!" (although it should be noted that Merritt has not been convicted). At a news conference later that evening, DPS Director Frank Milstead told reporters that Merritt had been arrested at a Glendale Walmart in connection with the first four of 11 shootings along the freeway which took place just weeks ago, between Aug. 29 and 30. He added that Merritt had been charged with unlawful discharge of a firearm, as well as two more serious counts of assault and criminal endangerment.
"The weapon and man we believe was responsible for starting this spree is in custody," said Milstead in a statement. "Are there others out there ... copycats? That is possible."
The random shootings spanned a period of just under two weeks, ending abruptly on Sept. 10 when, as The Arizona Republic pointed out, national interest surrounding the case began to grow.
Although the sporadic shootings frightened the public, thankfully, no one was seriously injured. The four incidents with which Merritt has specifically been charged included alleged hits on a tour bus, an SUV, and two cars. A 13-year-old girl traveling in another vehicle suffered a cut on the ear after a bullet shattered the car's window, although Merritt has not been charged in that case.
On Friday, a judge ordered the release of another 19-year-old man being held for questioning in regards to the shootings, although police maintained that he was not a prime suspect.
Ducey, meanwhile, took to Twitter again to congratulate the department on its efforts. "Great work by Arizona DPS investigators and SWAT team," he wrote.
Over the past few weeks, a handful of concerned residents began taking matters into their own hands, despite police assurance that the department had the situation under control. On Sept. 2, DPS authorities responded to a tip that a man wearing body armor, all-black clothing, and carrying a firearm had been spotted wandering near the stretch of Interstate 10 where the suspect had allegedly opened fire. After arriving on the scene and briefly detaining the man, however, police learned that he was the leader of a vigilante civilian militia called Bolt Force and had been patrolling the area for clues that might lead him to the suspected shooter.
"The communication error caused resources to be drawn to me instead of the shooter which is bad," said Tony Rowley, who went by the name "Bolt", in an interview with CNN. He explained that he and his group of former police and military members were simply trying to lend a hand to local police and scare away any potential shooters. "Our goal is to help … [to get] extra eyes and ears on the ground, [but] we prefer law enforcement handles arrests."
For his part, Merritt's father insists that his son is innocent of all charges. The Arizona Republic reported on Friday that, after finding out about his son's arrest, Leslie Allen Merritt Sr. spoke out on his son's behalf.
"It's got to be some sort of mistake or someone wanted the reward — this is just preposterous," he told reporters, adding that whoever believed that his son was responsible for the crimes is a "moron." Merritt's father also claimed that his son did not have the time to commit any such crime due to his busy schedule, which he said included some 12 to 15 hours of landscaping work each day.
"He has been raised with too much respect for life and too much for firearms [to have done this]," said Leslie Allen Merritt Sr.
The AP reported Friday that a Facebook page belonging to Merritt Jr. identified him as a landscaper and showcased at least one video of him firing a handgun at a shooting range, however police could not identify any specific motive. As of Saturday morning, Merritt's Facebook page had either been removed or was not immediately available.
Image: ABC15 Arizona/YouTube