- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2015

The 21-year-old landscaper arrested in connection with the Interstate 10 shootings in Arizona denied the charges against him at his first court appearance, but offered a defense that charging documents seemed to specifically refute.

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr. faces four counts each of drive-by shooting, intentional acts of terrorism and discharging a firearm within city limits. He also faces criminal damage, endangerment and disorderly conduct charges.

The suspect, handcuffed in a black and white striped jail uniform, insisted at Saturday’s hearing that he is not responsible for any of the shootings.

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

However, according to the Associated Press reports on Sunday, a charging document released by Maricopa Superior Court said investigators had determined Mr. Merritt had not pawned his gun at the time of the incidents.

At Saturday’s hearing, Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Roberts set his bond at $1 million, to which Mr. Merritt responded in a quivering voice, “I could never afford that bond.”

He was ordered held and was in jail Sunday night.

Mr. Merritt was arrested in connection with a string of shootings targeting vehicles on I-10 in Phoenix. He was arrested Friday evening after a SWAT team swarmed him at a Wal-Mart in the suburb of Glendale. Minutes later, Gov. Doug Ducey proclaimed on Twitter, “We got him!”

Police linked Mr. Merritt to at least four of the shootings through a gun he owned and had tried to pawn. The shootings began Aug. 29.

A central Phoenix pawn shop played an apparent role in the case. Mo Money Pawn said in a statement posted Friday on Facebook that, at the request of state Department of Public Safety investigators, it provided several weapons to authorities for testing and that “after further ballistics testing found the weapon they thought to be the match of the weapon used in several of the I-10 shootings.”

The suspect’s father, Leslie Merritt Sr., denied that his son is behind the shootings and told reporters he believes police are using his son as a scapegoat in order to appease public outcry over the shootings.

“Whoever said my son is the freeway shooter is a moron,” the senior Mr. Merritt said from his home in Mesa, AZcentral reported. “It’s got to be some sort of mistake, or someone wanted the reward. This is just preposterous.”

Tom Mangan, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been assisting in the investigation, said the evidence gathered by DPS leaves “no doubt” the gun used was the one owned and pawned by the younger Mr. Merritt.

Eleven vehicles in all were hit by bullets or other projectiles, such as BBs or pellets, while driving along Phoenix freeways between Aug. 29 and Sept. 10. There have been no serious injuries, although a 13-year-old girl’s ear was cut by glass when a bullet shattered a car window.

Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead said the investigation continues into who is behind the other shootings.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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