Charges dismissed in Phoenix freeway shooting case

FILE - In this Oct. 1, 2015 file photo, accused freeway shooter Leslie Allen Merritt, Jr., appears in Maricopa County Superior Court for his arraignment in Phoenix. A judge has dismissed a criminal case against Merritt, who had been accused of carrying out freeway shootings in Phoenix last summer that put drivers on edge. The ruling came Monday, April 25, after prosecutors had asked for charges against Merritt to be dismissed amid undisclosed questions about evidence. (Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — The dismissal of a criminal case against a man accused in freeway shootings that caused panic last summer in metro Phoenix has raised questions about whether authorities have a handle on those responsible for the attacks.

The case against Leslie Merritt Jr. was dismissed Monday at the request of prosecutors after undisclosed questions arose about the case’s evidence. Prosecutors can refile charges against the 21-year-old landscaper and say more investigation is needed for the case to move forward.

“I don’t think they’ll ever find this person or persons,” said Mike Black, a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix who isn’t involved in Merritt’s case.

Authorities previously said they used ballistic tests to tie Merritt to four of the 11 shootings that occurred on freeways between Aug. 22 and Sept. 10.

No one was seriously hurt after eight cars were hit with bullets and three were struck with projectiles, such as BBs or pellets. The only injury was to a 13-year-old girl whose ear was cut by glass.

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.

Minutes after Merritt was taken into custody, Gov. Doug Ducey declared, “We got him!” on Twitter.

Merritt, who spent seven months in jail before his release last week, has maintained that he is innocent and that authorities arrested the wrong person. The landscaper 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.

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 when the case was dismissed. He has contended that ballistic tests cast doubt on the claim by authorities that Merritt was behind the shootings.

Dwane Cates, another defense lawyer in Phoenix who doesn’t represent Merritt, said he knew the case against Merritt was over when prosecutors passed up chance to seek bond for him last week, when they had sought bail for him earlier in the case.

“That’s code for ‘I don’t have a case,'” Cates said.

Merritt’s lawyers said phone records and accounts from family members showed that Merritt wasn’t near the scene of the shootings. They also cited a shifting timeline for one 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.

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