Homicide

Phoenix serial shootings: Suspect accused of killing nine people identified

Authorities in Arizona announced Monday that they had identified and charged a suspect in a series of shootings that killed nine people over an 11-month period. 

Aaron Juan Saucedo, 23, had been arrested last month in connection with the August 2015 murder of his mother's boyfriend, 61-year-old Raul Romero. He faces 26 felony counts of homicide, aggravated assault and drive-by-shooting related to 12 attacks, which took place between August 2015 and July 2016. 

All but one of the killings took place in Maryvale, a predominantly Latino neighborhood of Phoenix. Police say the shooter stalked the streets with a handgun after dark, picking victims who were either outside of their homes or sitting in cars.

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and city Mayor Greg Stanton appeared alongside other top officials including the county's top prosecutor to announce the break in a case that had appeared largely stalled in recent months as leads and tips dried up.

"This case plagued our community for more than a year ... and left behind a trail of victims that included mothers, sons, brothers, sisters and families still mourning the loss of their loved ones," Williams said.

Authorities said there was no immediate connection between the suspect and his alleged victims and no sign that anyone else was involved.

Police said the killings were unrelated to the 2015 freeway shootings that terrified Phoenix drivers.

But in a strange quirk, the Department of Public Safety said Saucedo's gun from the killing of his mother's friend had been test-fired as part of the freeway shooting probe.

The weapon was the same type used in the freeway shootings -- a High-Point 9mm pistol -- but authorities say Saucedo had nothing to do with that case.

The department said it did not conduct ballistics evidence on the gun and returned it to the pawn shop a few days later because investigators identified who they believed was the suspect in the freeway shootings case.

His case was ultimately thrown out however, but investigators still believe he's the culprit.

Williams credited tips and tireless work by Phoenix police detectives and partner federal agencies for Saucedo's arrest.

"Our hearts go out to the surviving families. Today we are closer to providing them the justice they deserve," Williams said.

Police initially linked nine shooting incidents and seven murders to the so-called "Serial Street Shooter." However, investigators said that they have linked Saucedo to two other killings — the murder of Romero and the New Year's Day 2016 death of 22-year-old Jesse Olivas.  

The first incident of the initial nine linked to a serial shooter happened on March 17, 2016, when a Nissan drove past two teenagers, pulled a U-turn and a man inside the vehicle opened fire, hitting a 16-year-old boy in the arm, abdomen and hip. The teen survived the attack. The suspect struck again the next day but didn't kill anyone.

The next shooting didn't happen until April 1, 2016, when 21-year-old Diego Verdugo-Sanchez was fatally shot in front of a house.

Marina Smith, Verdugo-Sanchez's partner, was seven months pregnant with the couple's child when he was killed.

Smith said she had grown frustrated over the past year as detectives kept her in the dark about the investigation.

"The fact of them finding somebody, at least it was some type of news," Smith said.

Police also have linked Saucedo to the April 19, 2016 death of 60-year-old Krystal White; the June 3, 2016, death of Horacio de Jesus Pena; and to the killings of two women, Angela Linner and Stefanie Ellis, and 12-year-old girl Maleah Ellis on June 12, 2016. He is also accused of killing Manny Castro Garcia on June 10, 2016.

In the most recent attack on July 11, 2016, a 21-year-old man and his 4-year-old nephew escaped injury after the gunman shot at a vehicle they were sitting in.

Rosa Pastrana, the head of a block watch group in the Maryvale neighborhood hardest hit by the killings, was relieved after hearing news of the arrest.

"I'm happy my kids are going to be able to walk outside and I won't have to fear that they're going to get shot," Pastrana said.

Pastrana said she spearheaded a neighborhood effort to encourage residents to talk to police.

Some residents were apathetic at first but many got involved as the shootings continued, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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