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Arizona freeway shooting suspect: Police got 'the wrong guy'

A landscaper arrested in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge Saturday that authorities have "the wrong guy" as investigators stood by their detective work that traced the gun to the suspect after he took it to a pawn shop.

'Act of terrorism' included in charges against Leslie Allen Merritt Jr.

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., makes his initial appearance before a judge at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office on Saturday. The landscaper, a suspect in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings, was arrested Friday. (Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic/Pool/Associated Press)

A landscaper arrested in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings told a judge Saturday that authorities have "the wrong guy" as investigators stood by their detective work that traced the gun to the suspect after he took it to a pawn shop.

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, a prosecutor said the accused should face a high bail after drivers spent the last three weeks on edge.

"The suspect presents a dramatic and profound threat to the community," said Ed Leiter of the Maricopa County attorney's office.

Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Roberts set bail at $1 million, and Merritt, who had remained quiet during the proceedings, asked in a soft-spoken voice to address 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 as he stood handcuffed in a black-and-white striped jail uniform.

Merritt 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!"

Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves said the break in the case was the result of exhaustive investigative work in which detectives test-fired weapons from local pawn shops at the state crime lab and ran ballistics tests.

'Incredible police work'

Graves said a gun Merritt pawned matched the weapon used in four of the freeway shootings on Aug. 29 and 30. A tour bus, SUV and two cars were hit by bullets on Interstate 10 on those days.

"Today we are seeing the end result of some incredible police work," he said at a news conference.

Graves declined to comment on Merritt's statement in court that his gun was in the pawn shop at the time of the shootings.

A man who identified himself as a manager at Mo-Money Pawn declined to comment Saturday beyond a post on a Facebook page that said detectives contacted the shop Wednesday looking for a certain caliber and make of handgun and examined several weapons.

Eleven cars 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.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the suspect's father was adamant that his son had nothing to do with the shootings and that anyone who says he was involved is a "moron."

Father claims son made a scapegoat

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," he said of his son.

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr.'s Facebook page, confirmed by his father, indicated he worked as a landscaper and was a gun enthusiast, but there was no indication as to why he might have been shooting at cars on the freeways.

It wasn't clear who was responsible for the other shootings.

"Are there others out there? Are there copycats? That is possible," Milstead said, adding that the investigation continues.

Phoenix City Coun. Sal DiCiccio, who received updates about the arrest from the police department, 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 with semiautomatic weapons and came out with the man in handcuffs.

Col. Frank Milstead, director of the Department of Public Safety, announces the arrest of Leslie Allen Merritt Jr.'s in connection with the Phoenix freeway shootings. (David Wallace/The Arizona Republic via AP)

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