PHOENIX – A landscaper who is the suspect in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge Saturday that authorities have "the wrong guy" and he hasn't even been in possession of a gun for two months.
Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., 21, was charged with counts including aggravated assault, criminal damage, disorderly conduct, carrying out a drive-by shooting and intentional acts of terrorism. In a brief court appearance, the prosecutor said he presents a danger to the community after drivers spent the last three weeks on edge.
"The suspect presents a dramatic and profound threat to the community," the prosecutor said.
Judge Lisa Roberts set bail at $1 million, and Merritt asked to speak to the court.
"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.
Merritt was arrested at about 7 p.m. Friday after a SWAT team swarmed him at a Wal-Mart in the suburb of Glendale. Minutes later, Gov. Doug Ducey took to Twitter to proclaim "We got him!" and the head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety held a news conference to outline the four shootings detectives linked to Merritt.
Merritt was behind the shootings of a tour bus, an SUV and two cars on Interstate 10 on Aug. 29 and 30, said DPS director Frank Milstead. No one was injured. Eleven cars in all were hit while driving along Phoenix freeways starting Aug. 29.
"Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible," said Milstead. He said the investigation continues.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the suspect's father was adamant that his son had nothing to do with the shootings and anyone who says he was involved is a "moron."
Leslie Merritt Sr. said he believes his son is being made a scapegoat by police who were desperate to make an arrest under immense public pressure.
"He has way too much value for human life to even take the slightest or remotest risk of actually injuring someone," the elder Merritt said of his son.
He said his son worked as a landscaper and likes guns but is not a criminal.
Merritt Jr.'s Facebook page, confirmed by his father, has two video clips on his Facebook page that show him firing guns into the desert toward a palm tree, exclaiming "whoo" after squeezing off a round.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who received updates about the arrest from police, said the suspect tried to pawn the gun used in the shootings.
Brandon Copeland said he witnessed the arrest of the suspect as he did some Friday night shopping at the Wal-Mart. He was struck at the military-style response as officers stormed the crowded store and came out with the man in handcuffs.
"My girl goes, 'maybe we should leave,' and I'm thinking we should leave. And as soon as she says that, like five, six unmarked units just rolled up with blue and reds flashing everywhere," he said.
Since Aug. 29, there have been 11 confirmed shootings of vehicles in the Phoenix area involving bullets or other projectiles, such as BBs or pellets. Most occurred along I-10, a major route through the city. The Wal-Mart where the suspect was arrested is 6 miles north of some of the shootings.
There have been no serious injuries, although a 13-year-old girl's ear was cut by glass after a bullet shattered a car window.
There has not been a confirmed shooting in the case since Sept. 10.
The shootings prompted several school districts to keep their buses off freeways, and some motorists altered their commutes to avoid driving I-10.
Authorities offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case. They recently distributed thousands of fliers in neighborhoods along the freeway to raise awareness about the shootings and the reward, and electronic signs along the highways have urged drivers to phone in tips.
DPS said state troopers stepped up patrols, while other agencies assisting in the investigation have included Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa police as well as the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Meanwhile Friday, a judge ordered the release of a 19-year-old man who was detained Sept. 11 and questioned regarding the shootings. Authorities have declined to explain why the man was questioned about the shootings, but they have said he was not a prime suspect.
He was arrested on an alleged probation violation stemming from marijuana found in the man's house after a tip that he was violating probation by possessing a gun. The man had been sentenced to probation for excessive speeding and fleeing from police.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed to this report.