Former Phoenix freeway shooting suspect takes witness stand
PHOENIX (AP) — A landscaper once charged in metro Phoenix’s 2015 freeway shootings took the witness stand Monday in a civil trial in which he alleges he was wrongfully arrested, telling jurors that he didn’t have any involvement in the attacks and that publicity from his now-dismissed criminal case has caused deep problems in his life.
Leslie Merritt Jr., 26, got choked up as he recalled his arrest, and described a police interview in which investigators rejected his claims of innocence and instead falsely claimed they had video of the shootings. Even after his charges were dismissed amid heavy criticism of the case’s ballistics evidence, the Arizona Department of Safety conducted surveillance on him and still considered him a suspect, Merritt said.
“They wanted to make me into this monster,” said Merritt, who spent seven months in jail before he was released.
Authorities say 11 shootings were carried out on metro Phoenix’s freeways in late August and early September 2015. No one was seriously injured when bullets struck eight cars. Three other vehicles were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets. The only injury was a 13-year-old girl cut by glass. The shootings sparked so much fear that people avoided driving the freeways, school buses took different routes, and signs were posted telling people to be careful.
Then-Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead had said the shootings were the work of a domestic terrorist, and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect. Minutes after Merritt was arrested, Gov. Doug Ducey had triumphantly tweeted, “We got him!”
Investigators said Merritt’s handgun was linked to four of the shootings, but an outside forensic firearms examiner said bullets from those shootings couldn’t be “excluded or identified” as having come from Merritt’s gun. No one else has been arrested in the shootings.
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 had told investigators that he was just following the investigation through news coverage.
Merritt told jurors that the arrest has caused him nightmares, contributed to his breakup with the mother of his children, made it harder for him to find work, and led strangers to recognize him as the suspect in the freeway shootings, even after the charges had been dismissed and he had moved out of Arizona. “Everyone knows me for something I didn’t do,” Merritt testified.
Under questioning by an attorney defending investigators, Merritt acknowledged giving inaccurate information in an interview with a psychologist hired by the state, such as overstating the number of hours he worked as a landscaper before his arrest and claiming that he didn’t speak with other inmates while in jail.
Merritt also acknowledged not being truthful when he told friends and family that he was OK while in jail, when he was fearful of attacks by other inmates. Merritt said he didn’t want his loved ones to worry about him. “I wouldn’t tell them about my well-being,” Merritt said. “You’re right.”
Detective Ron Baroldy, one of the two lead investigators on the case, testified he used deception when he falsely told Merritt that there was video evidence against him. “In this case, that is the technique I am using,” Baroldy said.
This summer, a judge who is not connected to the civil case took the rare step of issuing an order declaring that Merritt had been officially cleared of criminal allegations in the freeway shooting case.
In his lawsuit, Merritt alleged authorities pursued charges even though they knew his handgun was at a pawn shop during the last of the four shootings with which he was charged. He also accused the Department of Public Safety of changing the timeline of the shooting to fit a theory that a bullet from Merritt’s gun got lodged in the sidewall of a tire. The agency has denied both allegations.
Most of Merritt’s legal claims were dismissed in late 2019. But he can still seek damages on his claims of false arrest and false imprisonment for the six-day span between his arrest and indictment.
The judge presiding over Merritt’s lawsuit has said a jury could reasonably conclude police lacked probable cause to detain Merritt during that six-day period. But the judge also ruled Merritt’s subsequent indictment was supported by a presumption of probable cause.
Maricopa County paid Merritt $100,000 in 2018 to settle legal claims against then-County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s office, which prosecuted Merritt, officials said.