New tests lead to Phoenix freeway shooting case's undoing

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Posted: May 01, 2016 11:34 AM
New tests lead to Phoenix freeway shooting case's undoing

PHOENIX (AP) — Leslie Merritt Jr. sat in a police interrogation room, unaware of why he had just been swarmed by SWAT officers and whisked away in handcuffs.

"Why do you think you would be here?" the detective asked.

"I have no idea, man. Traffic ticket or something," Merritt replied.

Not even close.

After weeks of random shootings on Phoenix freeways that rattled residents, police believed they had their man.

The interrogation went on for more than two hours, culminating with the detective telling him that ballistics experts had matched his handgun to four of the 11 shootings and they had him on video pulling the trigger. The latter was a lie. The former would eventually be the undoing of it all.

Seven months after Merritt's arrest, the entire case fell apart, leading to his release, the dismissal of charges, allegations of a botched investigation and a gunman authorities dubbed a domestic terrorist possibly still on the loose.

Police believe the shootings began Aug. 27 and continued until Sept. 10. Investigators determined eight of the incidents were bullet strikes while the remaining three were some other projectiles. They also believed that while they had a serial shooter on the loose, some of the crimes were likely copycats.

Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.

Charter bus driver Robert McDonald first thought he hit something while on Interstate 10 on Aug. 29. But when McDonald stopped his empty bus, he was shocked to see what appeared to be a bullet hole.

Police arrived 20 minutes later.

"It hadn't really hit me that somebody took a shot at me," said McDonald, who still has trouble sleeping.

Before Merritt's capture, authorities faced mounting pressure to solve the case. They flooded the highways with patrol cars. They monitored freeway cameras. And signs posted over roadways offered drivers a tip line to call in suspicious activity.

Then came a break in the case. It was the morning of Sept. 11, a day after the last shooting. Cops had a lead. They swooped in with guns drawn and arrested a 19-year-old man they called a person of interest.

"It was good police work," Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said at the time.

The man was released a week later. No connection.

The investigation continued with a renewed sense of urgency.

Experts examined bullets retrieved from the crime scenes until they say they determined the exact type of weapon used in the shootings. Detectives fanned out to pawn shops, hoping for a lucky break, retrieving every one of those guns and running tests until the DPS crime lab found a match. It was Sept. 17. The firearm was traced back to Merritt.

He was arrested a day later.

"I was convinced that Leslie Merritt was the guy," McDonald said. "I was, like everybody else, sure. Ballistics doesn't lie."

That, in fact, would soon be put to the test as the gun became the lynchpin of the case.

Merritt was only charged with the first four shootings. The rest remain unsolved. But the tip line signs came down.

As the case weaved through the courts, Merritt languished in jail unable to come up with the money for his $1 million bond or expensive attorneys. He pleaded not guilty to numerous charges, including drive-by shootings and aggravated assault.

That's when two high-profile lawyers say they saw holes in the case and stepped in to represent Merritt.

As prosecutors prepared for trial, they had their own forensics expert re-test the bullets against Merritt's gun. The results were damning — but not in the way authorities hoped.

The expert found the DPS crime lab came to a faulty conclusion, noting the bullets "could neither be excluded or identified" as having come from Merritt's gun.

Merritt's attorneys began to dig deeper. Based on measurements of the heights of vehicles that were struck and the height of Merritt's car, along with examining the trajectory of the bullets, they say it is fantasy that their client fired the shots.

"The only way Leslie Merritt could have perpetrated this shooting on I-10 ... is if he was driving down the freeway in broad daylight standing on the roof shooting downward. Impossible," defense attorney Jason Lamm said of one of the shootings.

Prosecutors also enlisted the FBI to use Merritt's cellphone to track his movements on the days of the shootings. Defense lawyers say that was strike three, indicating he was nowhere near the crime scenes.

The case went back to court and based on the evidence now being presented, the judge reduced Merritt's bond to zero, allowing for his release pending trial. Soon, prosecutors themselves sought a dismissal of charges without prejudice, meaning they can arrest Merritt again.

They have declined to provide explanations about the contradictory evidence and say the investigation is ongoing and Merritt isn't off the hook.

"I'm not guaranteeing that we're going to re-file charges in this case. I'm also not guaranteeing that charges would not be re-filed in this case," top prosecutor Bill Montgomery said this week.

DPS Director Frank Milstead said Friday he stands behind his crime lab's findings.

"I believe we have enough evidence to develop probable cause to believe that he is the correct suspect," Milstead said.

Defense attorneys remain on the attack, despite the fact that Merritt is still considered the only suspect, and he has not been vindicated.

"There was a public thirst for blood," Lamm said, "a public thirst for accountability, and that thirst was quenched by the arrest of Leslie Merritt Jr."