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Breaking down the charges in the Phoenix Interstate 10 shooter case

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., waits to make his initial appearance before a judge at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Phoenix. The landscaper is the suspect in a series of Phoenix freeway shootings and was arrested Friday after trying to sell a gun at a pawn shop. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)

LISTEN: Monica Lindstrom

On Friday, the people of Phoenix and Maricopa County breathed a collective sigh of relief when news broke that DPS had arrested a suspect in the Interstate 10 shootings.

Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., a 21-year-old landscaper, was charged in four of the shootings on I-10 that occurred Aug. 29 and 31.

We do not yet know why he allegedly shot at innocent people traveling on the highway, but we do know investigators believe they arrested the right man.

Leading up to the arrest, the Arizona Department of Public Safety collected bullets and bullet fragments from the four incidents and determined a Hi-Point firearm was involved. The police scoured Valley pawn shops for that type of weapon.

Once located, those firearms were confiscated and tested. There was one firearm that, according to investigators, unequivocally matched the bullets and fragments. It was determined that firearm was allegedly pawned by Merritt, leading to his arrest.

The testing coupled with the fact Merritt allegedly admitted he had been in possession of the gun since he bought it and always carried it with him until he pawned it for extra money — the gun was not pawned at the time of the four shootings — led to his arrest.

At this point, we do not know the rest of the story nor do we know who is responsible for the other seven incidents on I-10, but we do know the charges Merritt faces. It’s important to note charges do not equal guilt and the state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Until then, Merritt is innocent. With that being said, here is what he is looking at:

Four counts of each of the following (four counts because there were four incidents):

  • Drive by shooting — Class 2 felony
  • Intentional acts of terrorism — Class 2 felony
  • Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — Class 3 felony
  • Criminal damage — Class 5 felony
  • Endangerment — Class 6 felony
  • Discharging a firearm within city limits — Class 6 felony
  • Disorderly conduct with a weapon — Class 6 felony

Most of these are exactly what they sound like, but here they are in plain English:

  • Drive-by shooting — He allegedly shot into a vehicle while driving
  • Aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — He allegedly put a person in reasonable apprehension of harm while using a gun
  • Criminal damage — He allegedly damaged the property of another in an amount of $2,000 or more
  • Endangerment — He allegedly recklessly endangered another with substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury
  • Discharging a firearm within city limits — This is known as Shannon’s Law
  • Disorderly conduct with a weapon — He allegedly intended to disturb the peace and quiet of a person by recklessly handling/discharging a deadly weapon.

The most interesting charge (not listed above) is intentional acts of terrorism.

Most would think this type of crime has to do with the government or someone who hates America. That is true in many cases; however, under Arizona Revised Statutes section 13-2308.01, an act of terrorism can be defined as any felony using a deadly weapon with intent to cause substantial damage or disruption of public transportation.

There are other parts to the definition, but this one seems to be the most appropriate based on the facts: Merritt allegedly used a gun to shoot at motorists on I-10. I think we can all agree this caused a substantial disruption.

The next question: How much time is Merritt looking at? The short answer: A lot.

The math can be confusing and is dependent on whether he has any allegeable priors. One thing to keep in mind, since we are dealing with four separate incidents and separate victims, any punishment he receives for each of the incidents can be stacked. For example, if he were convicted of the all the drive-by shootings, he could receive the presumptive of 10.5 years for each of the four counts. Since they happened at different times with different victims, the 10.5 years could be stacked for a total of 42 years in prison. There is also an issue of whether each shooting after the first could be considered a repetitive offense, which could up his sentence.

Additionally, under Arizona law, each terrorism count could result in a life sentence because he allegedly used a deadly weapon, damaged property and laid in wait for unsuspecting victims.

Suffice it to say, if Merritt is found guilty by a jury for each of the counts, it is highly likely he would never take a breath as a free man again.

Although law enforcement can recommend charges, it is Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery who has the final say. Once more facts are learned, it’s possible the charges could be added or subtracted. Merritt’s next court date is a status conference on Friday.

Kudos to law enforcement for working diligently to get at least this much resolved and to the public for helping and calling in to 602-644-5805 and 480-WITNESS with tips.

Although we breathed a sigh of relief on Friday, we must remain cautious and vigilant because, unfortunately, the majority of the shootings on I-10 have yet to be solved.

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