Amid an outcry on social media that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey jumped the gun by announcing that law enforcement had caught the I-10 shooter, the suspect, 21-year-old Leslie Allen Merritt Jr., claimed innocence during a court hearing earlier today.
“All I have to say is that I’m the wrong guy,” he told the judge, who set bail for Merritt at $1 million.
Merritt was arrested last night outside of a Walmart after the Arizona Department of Public Safety discovered forensic evidence allegedly linking him to four of the shootings.
Authorities are seeking a series of charges against him: four counts each of drive-by shooting, intentional acts of terrorism, aggravated assault involving a deadly weapon, criminal damage, endangerment, discharging a firearm within city limits, and disorderly conduct involving a weapon. In setting bail, the judge scheduled Merritt's next court appearance for Friday, September 25.
Since August 29, 11 vehicles have been hit with bullets or other projectiles, with all but two incidents occurring on I-10. Law enforcement officials have responded to hundreds of calls and reports of similar damage in the last week, but none has been tied to or included in the ongoing investigation.
The DPS has held near-daily press briefings to assure the public that solving the case is its top priority, and just last week, the reward for any information that ultimately leads to the shooter was increased to $50,000.
It’s not clear when or how the DPS began looking into Merritt as a possible suspect, but DPS Director Frank Milstead explained that at least one of the weapons used in some of the attacks was a gun that belonged to Merritt before he pawned it locally.
During his initial court hearing Saturday morning, Merritt told the judge that his “gun has been in the pawn shop for at least two months,” which is long before the shootings began.
Since Merritt’s name was released last night, news reports have been filled with information about him gleaned from Facebook. The page was taken down overnight, but as New Times reported yesterday, it featured “numerous posts related to right-wing conspiracy theories and pro-Second Amendment propaganda [as well as] news stories on the I-10 shooter.”
Many have hinted that this information shows he is the shooter, but others caution against jumping to that conclusion.
Lalit Kundani — a former prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office — explains that the content of Merritt's Facebook page “doesn't prove anything by itself.”
Kundani is the author of the article When the Tail Wags the Dog: Dangers of Crowdsourcing Justice, in which he wrote about the failed attempt to use crowdsourcing to find the Boston Marathon Bomber in 2013.
He’s not surprised that some of the public believes the Facebook material is evidence: “The media is a circus. Social media is a circus on crack, when it comes to getting things right…They will cover it, no doubt. But it's not journalism. It's provocation.”
Merritt’s arrest is “different in the sense that crowd sourcing didn't catch the “'bad guy,’ but it's eerily similar when we make blanket statements of affirmation prematurely,” he says.
He, like many on social media, believes the message Governor Ducey tweeted last night was “inappropriate” because “the words [he] used were wrong” or possibly misleading.
Ducey was the first to break the news of the arrest. “It's very irresponsible for those in authority, like [the governor] to go on record with that kind of brazen display of overconfidence [especially] on Twitter," Kundani says. "To say it on a grand scale to millions, it's a recipe for disaster.”
(Ducey’s tweet was retweeted at least 1,500 times.)
While some people on Twitter mocked Ducey's grammatical error —"@dougducey Wait! The DPS SWAT team is in custody? I had hoped they'd take a suspect into custody, not get arrested themselves!" — most were upset with what one user called his "libelous statement."
Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the governor, tells New Times that he thinks “the tweet was very clear that they had arrested a suspect, and it’s great news.”
When asked if it was irresponsible to write “we caught him?” Scarpinato is quick to respond: “Of course not. We did. We arrested the suspect, and authorities arrested him because of the investigation.”
A spokesman for the DPS declined to comment on the governor’s word choice.
“I understand the news has to be reported, but at least think about what you’re doing to my son’s life,” Merritt’s father told the Arizona Republic in a recent interview. “The public’s crucifying him. The news…is just hanging him out to dry.”
He maintains his son’s innocence but adds that “whether he walks…with no charges or not, anybody who watches the news or sees the news is going to go, ‘oh, there’s the shooter…’ His life is ruined.”
The DPS, which is still looking for the person behind at least some of the seven other incidents, will make a public statement about the investigation later this afternoon.
Update: At press conference this afternoon, DPS spokesman Bart Graves confirmed that the investigation is ongoing and that the $50,000 reward still stands. Graves also explained that there was no public tip that helped lead to Merritt's arrest, that it was the product of "good old-fashion police work."