Civil trial to begin over arrest in Phoenix freeway attacks

PHOENIX (AP) — Leslie Merritt Jr. was jailed for seven months after he was charged in four of the 11 shootings that terroritzed motorists five years ago on metro Phoenix freeways.

He steadfastly maintained his innocense and the case against him was finally dismissed in 2016 after ballistics evidence came under heavy criticism.

The 26-year-old landscaper later filed a lawsuit alleging false arrest by authorities. The civil trial is set to begin Wednesday.

No one was seriously injured when bullets struck eight cars in late August and early September of 2015. Three other vehicles were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets. A 13-year-old girl was struck by glass in one of the attacks.

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 triumphantly tweeted, “We got him!”

Investigators from the Arizona Department of Public Safety had said Merritt’s handgun was linked to four of the shootings. But an outside forensic firearms examiner later said bullets from those shootings couldn’t be “excluded or identified” as having come from Merritt’s gun.

The judge presiding over Merritt’s lawsuit has said the firearms examiner and two other ballistics experts found insufficient evidence to link Merritt’s gun to the four shootings. No one else has been arrested in any of the shootings.

Merritt’s attorney, Jason Lamm, and Ed Novak, a lawyer representing Department of Public Safety employees in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case. A judge has barred attorneys from commenting on the arrest and the actions of investigators.

In his lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety, 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 those allegations.

This summer, another judge took the rare step of issuing an order declaring that Merritt had been officially cleared of criminal allegations in the freeway shooting case.

Most of Merritt’s legal claims against the Department of Public Safety 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 late 2018 to settle legal claims against then-County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s office, which prosecuted Merritt, county officials said.