PHOENIX – There was a stark difference between the beginning and end of the criminal case against a man accused in a string of freeway shootings in Phoenix that sent a metro area into a frenzy as drivers feared they would be fired at on the interstate.
After the man’s arrest, the governor triumphantly tweeted, “We got him!”
Seven months later on a Friday evening, prosecutors quietly revealed that they were dismissing all charges.
The decision to throw out the case against Leslie Merritt Jr. has kicked up a flurry of questions: Was the case botched? If he didn’t do it, who did? And are those responsible for the shootings still at large?
“I don’t think they’ll ever find this person or persons,” said Mike Black, a Phoenix defense attorney who isn’t involved in defending Merritt but has followed the case.
The charges were formally dismissed Monday at the request of prosecutors after undisclosed questions arose about the case’s evidence.
The shootings sparked so much fear in the Phoenix area that people avoided driving the freeways, school buses took different routes, and signs were posted telling people to be careful.
The head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety said the shootings were the work of a domestic terrorist, and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect.
Merritt, who spent those seven months in jail before his release last week, has maintained he is innocent and that authorities arrested the wrong person.
He filed a legal claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — a month ago demanding $10 million from the state and county. Merritt alleged that authorities rushed to judgment and failed to provide evidence that he was present at any of the shootings.
Prosecutors can refile charges against the 21-year-old landscaper and say more investigation is needed for the case to move forward.
A judge has barred several documents in the case from public release, including a filing that led to Merritt leaving jail. Those documents remain under seal.
There have been no public expressions of regret about bringing the case from prosecutors, investigators or Gov. Doug Ducey’s office since the charges collapsed in court.
Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato pointed out there was wide public interest in the shootings and public safety is among his top priorities. “This is in the hands of the criminal justice system, where it belongs,” Scarpinato said.
Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted Merritt, said it’s not unusual for prosecutors to dismiss charges and refile them after more investigation is done.
Asked whether the dismissal signals that authorities don’t have a viable case against Merritt, Cobb said, “The dismissal speaks for itself.”
The Arizona Department of Public Safety, which investigated Merritt, declined to comment. Jason Lamm, one of Merritt’s attorneys, had no immediate comment Monday on the dismissal.
“They were so eager to resolve this case that they jumped on the first hint of a suspect,” said Dwane Cates, another Phoenix defense lawyer who doesn’t represent Merritt but has followed the case.
Authorities previously said they used ballistic tests to tie Merritt to four of the 11 shootings, but Merritt’s lawyers have recently argued that ballistic tests cast doubt on the claim their client was behind the attacks.
Merritt’s lawyers said phone records and accounts from family members showed that Merritt wasn’t near the scene of the shootings.
Prosecutors have cast doubt on the alibi claim by saying Merritt’s fiancee told investigators that she wasn’t sure about his whereabouts.
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.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud.