- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - A man charged in some of the metro Phoenix freeway shootings last summer gave conflicting accounts about when he pawned a handgun that investigators say was used in some of the attacks, according to a recently released transcript of his police interview.

Leslie Merritt Jr. told police Sept. 18 that he could not have been the shooter because his handgun had been sitting in a pawn shop for a month and a half. But he later said the weapon had been pawned three or four weeks earlier and then near the end of the interview, that the gun was pawned on a specific date in late August.

“I cannot tell you who did it because I really, honestly don’t know,” Merritt, 21, said during the interview. It became public late last week as part of his bid to have his case sent back to a grand jury.

Authorities say they used ballistic tests to tie Merritt to four of the 11 shootings that occurred on freeways between Aug. 22 and Sept. 10 and left the city on edge. The investigation into the other shootings remains open.

No one was seriously injured after eight cars were hit with bullets and three were struck with projectiles, such as BBs or pellets. The only injury was to a 13-year-old girl whose ear was cut by glass.

Merritt maintains his innocence, and his lawyers say phone records and accounts from family members will show that he wasn’t near the scene of the shootings.

Prosecutors say an analysis of Merritt’s phone records doesn’t prove he is innocent. His fiancee initially corroborated his alibi claim but eventually changed her account. Defense lawyers say investigators bullied the woman into disavowing her support for the alibi.

Authorities say they used ballistic evidence gathered from the shot-up vehicles to determine the model of the gun used in some of the attacks. They say they eventually found a match when searching pawn shops in metro Phoenix.

Deep into the interview, detectives told Merritt that they had video of him pawning his handgun on Aug. 30. Finally, the landscaper said he remembered pawning the gun on Aug. 29, because he and his fiancee needed money to buy baby formula for their daughter.

Merritt repeatedly denied any involvement in the shootings, while investigators questioned his honesty on numerous occasions. He even offered to take a polygraph test, though it’s unclear whether he did so.

Jason Lamm, Merritt’s attorney, and Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the 21-year-old, declined to comment on the police interview.

Investigators told Merritt that they believed he either pulled the trigger or witnessed someone who did. They asked about his knowledge of the shootings and about his social media posts on the investigation.

Authorities say Merritt showed an extreme interest in the shootings and made a Facebook post about the arrest of three teenagers who hurled rocks at cars with slingshots in a copycat case but weren’t tied to the shootings. Merritt explained that he was just following the investigation through the media.

He denied a detective’s claim that he was trying to terrorize motorists.

“I got no reason to do that, man,” Merritt said.


Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud .

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