Theory on killings suspect barred at freeway shootings trial

Man was jailed for seven months before charges were dismissed

By Jacques Billeaud
Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Lawyers for a landscaper once accused in metro Phoenix's 2015 freeway shootings are barred from telling jurors at their client's upcoming false-arrest trial that it's highly likely a car belonging to a man later charged in nine killings had been near two of the shootings.

Attorneys for Leslie Merritt Jr., whose charges in the freeway shooting case were dismissed, had said license plate readers picked up a plate matching six of the seven characters from killing suspect Aaron Juan Saucedo's BMW near two of the shootings on Interstate 10 on Aug. 29, 2015.

Merritt's lawyers theorized Saucedo could have carried out two freeway shootings during the 16 minutes between when he bought 50 rounds of ammunition at a pawn shop and the back-to-back interstate shootings. They argued authorities should have examined Saucedo further.

U.S. District Judge David Campbell wrote in an Aug. 21 ruling that it could be marginally relevant that the Arizona Department of Public Safety failed to investigate another suspect, but the Saucedo theory "would devolve into a minitrial (or a major trial) on the investigation of Saucedo, and that any probative value of the Saucedo evidence would be substantially outweighed by the danger of wasting time and confusing the jury."

The claim about the license plate data came nearly three years after it was revealed that officers investigating the freeway shootings had seized the gun that police have said Saucedo used to carry out his first killing. Investigators test-fired Saucedo's gun, but they never conducted ballistics tests comparing it to evidence in the freeway shooting investigation.

A total of 11 shootings hit Phoenix-area 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 motorists avoided driving on freeways, school buses took different routes and signs were posted telling drivers to be careful.

Investigators said Merritt's handgun was linked to four of the shootings, but Merritt insisted he's innocent. Merritt was jailed for seven months until his charges were dismissed in 2016 after ballistics evidence came under heavy criticism. No one else has been arrested in the freeway shootings.

Earlier this month, a judge 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 against the Department of Public Safety, Merritt says 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. The agency has denied the allegations.

Saucedo, a former bus driver, was arrested on charges that he killed nine people during a dozen nighttime shootings from August 2015 until July 2016 that unnerved neighborhood residents.
He was dubbed by Phoenix police as the Serial Street Shooter.

Saucedo has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Saucedo was connected by Phoenix police to those killings after he became a suspect in the August 2015 fatal shooting of 61-year-old Raul Romero, who had a relationship with Saucedo's mother.

Phone and email messages seeking comment from Thomas Glow, one of the lawyers defending Saucedo, were not immediately returned.

Evidence from the freeway shootings showed that the culprit used a Hi-Point 9-mm handgun. Investigators began seizing that type of gun from pawn shops around Phoenix in hopes of finding a match to the freeway case. Police have said Saucedo sold a Hi-Point 9-mm pistol to the same pawn shop where Merritt also pawned his weapon.

Shortly after Saucedo was arrested in 2017, Phoenix police refused to comment about what efforts, if any, they undertook to investigate Saucedo in the immediate aftermath of the first killing.
Phoenix police have said he left behind bullet fragments and shell casings and knew the victim, but they didn't examine his weapon until 20 months later.

Phoenix police declined on Thursday to comment on the criticism of how it handled the Saucedo investigation.

Merritt's civil trial had been scheduled for the spring but was postponed due to the pandemic. No new trial date has yet been set.