Seven Nagging Questions in the Case Against Serial Street Shooter Suspect

Aaron Saucedo faces 20 felony counts, including nine murder charges.
Aaron Saucedo faces 20 felony counts, including nine murder charges. Maricopa County Sheriff's Office
Photo Illustration/Tom Carlson

As Aaron Juan Saucedo returned to court this morning,  pleading not guilty to eight new murder charges,  not one, but at least seven questions hover over the case against him.

Prosecutors now accuse Saucedo of 12 attacks between August 2015 and July 2016, which left nine people dead. They charged him with 20 felony counts last week.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office took two months to bring the new charges since the Phoenix Police Department outlined the case in court filings and at a triumphant press conference naming Saucedo the Serial Street Shooter.

That delay, plus the timing of the police announcement, left former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley flummoxed. He wonders if the evidence was not airtight or if scars from the collapsed case against the accused Freeway Shooter played into the decision.

“It’s really, really odd,” Romley said. “I cannot explain it. I do not understand it.”

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s spokeswoman, Amanda Jacinto, said legal ethics limit what prosecutors can discuss, but noted, “The time the office took on making a charging decision was not outside the normal time frame for a case like this.”

The county attorney’s office waited three months to fully charge convicted Baseline Killer Mark Goudeau after his arrest in 2006. Goudeau was convicted of nine murders, the same number that Saucedo has been charged with.

Phoenix Police Department spokesman Sergeant Jon Howard said, “As cases go, they don’t get much more complex or serious than this. Little is gained by working quickly, especially when the suspect is already in custody. The investigative team is confident in the evidence at this time.”

But Romley has his doubts.

“It tells me something wasn’t right. Otherwise, they would have filed charges right away,” Romley said. “Something must have been going on behind the scenes we do not know about. Maybe his prosecutors were saying, 'Maybe it’s not here yet.'"

Or maybe, Romley suggested, “All of a sudden, people got cold feet because of the Freeway Shooter case,” adding “they blew that one.”

That case started in a similar vein.

Somebody was shooting at traffic on Interstate 10 in Phoenix in late August 2015. Weeks later, the Arizona Department of Public Safety arrested Leslie Merritt Jr. and named him the suspect. Governor Doug Ducey famously tweeted “We got him!”

DPS said the ballistics from Merritt’s gun matched bullets used in some of the shootings. Other attacks, they said, were probably at the hand of copycats. Merritt declared his innocence in court and in subsequent interviews.

The lab work proved faulty, the ballistics didn’t match, Merritt was freed and the charges against him dropped. DPS never answered how they placed the gun in Merritt’s hand at the time and place of the shootings.

click to enlarge Aaron Saucedo faces 20 felony counts, including nine murder charges. - MARICOPA COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Aaron Saucedo faces 20 felony counts, including nine murder charges.
Maricopa County Sheriff's Office
That’s also still a key question in the case against the 23-year-old Phoenix laborer Aaron Saucedo.

Police said they recovered 14 shell casings in two cars Saucedo drove. The casings could only have come from any of three guns he owned at the time of the shootings, they said in court documents. Critically, casings and bullets found at the crime scenes match the caliber and rifling characteristics as well, and he bought the same ammo before the shootings, police said.

The evidence is stronger than in the Merritt case. Police have video footage and eyewitness descriptions of a man matching Saucedo’s description and a car resembling his at some of the crime scenes.

But a close look at the hundreds of pages of police reports from seven of the Serial Street Shooter attacks leaves room for doubt and raises questions.

Answers may be known to authorities, but not reported. Police have not released many investigative documents, and those they did release are heavily redacted in some critical parts.

Question 1: Was Saucedo really alone?

On April 1, Diego Verdugo-Sanchez was locking his car at 5501 West Turney Avenue, when somebody opened fire. His pregnant girlfriend held his hand as he lay dying. He was 21.

One witness said she saw a hand point the gun from the back window on the driver’s side of the getaway car.

She got a good enough look to tell police she thought the hand around the pistol might have been gloved and to say that all the other windows were rolled up.

If that’s true, and witness accounts are notoriously unreliable, that means the shooter had a driver and an accomplice.

Most witnesses to this and other shootings told police they saw one person in the car, or that the windows were tinted.

Question 2: Does DNA put Saucedo at the scene?

On June 3, 2016, Phoenix police found Krystal Annette White dead in the side of the street at 518 North 32nd Place. She was 55. She had been a prostitute for 30 years and was working that night to scrape up some money for her daughter’s upcoming wedding.

Police never recovered her shoes. Her socks were clean. She had no purse, but police found $20 in $5 bills. Hours earlier, she was seen getting into a car.

click to enlarge Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery  was quick to hold a press conference but slow to bring charges against the alleged Serial Street Shooter. - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was quick to hold a press conference but slow to bring charges against the alleged Serial Street Shooter.
Sean Holstege
Next to her body, police recovered a brown Cover Girl eye pencil, an opened condom wrapper, and a used condom.

Police ordered DNA tests on the seminal fluid inside. Technicians recovered usable evidence from 14 of the 23 chromosome pairs. Detectives say they consider it is strong evidence if they get around six hits.

Police did not release the results, so there is no way of knowing whether the DNA came from Saucedo. If it did, the evidence would go a long way toward putting him at one of the murder scenes.

But if the DNA belongs to someone else, that suggests three possibilities:

— Somebody else was the killer.
— There was an accomplice.
— The killer coincidentally arrived soon after the john had left.

So where is the purse? Did police test and recover White’s DNA or other forensic evidence from Saucedo’s car?

And if the DNA in the condom is not his, that presents a big potential problem for prosecutors. Ballistic evidence links all 12 shootings. So if the DNA suggests a different shooter at one crime scene, it throws into question the identity of the shooter at all of them.

Question 3: How solid were the eyewitness descriptions?

There are only two attacks in which anyone saw the shooter in the act.

One was on March 17, 2016. In that attack, two teenagers near a bridge over I-10 reported a dark sedan doubling back on them before shouting something in Spanish to get their attention. Then he fired. It’s not known what was said, because police redacted that description from the report. The shooter’s face was partially concealed by the gun, but one of the boys told police “there was something about those eyes.”

The boy pointed to one picture in a photo lineup, but wasn’t sure enough to swear to it.

The description the boys gave generally fit an overall picture from witnesses from the series of attacks. Police were looking for a skinny young man who was either white or Hispanic with a pale complexion. He was right-handed, but hair and facial hair descriptions varied.

The best — and key — description came from another survivor, and the victim in what police believe was the Serial Street Shooter’s last attack. It happened on July 11, 2016, on North 30th Street at East Sheridan Street.

The attacker made a right turn onto 30th Street and pointed a pistol right at Arnol Castillo Rojas and his 4-year-old nephew. Then he fired. Several bullets struck the car, but no one was hurt.

Rojas also described a young, light-skinned Hispanic man with short hair. He was right-handed and driving alone in an older box-shaped black BMW, which had been reported in earlier shootings. Rojas helped police artists render a composite sketch.

Over the next three days, Phoenix police released composite sketches to the public. Police credit that sketch with the shooter laying low and with a key tip from a coworker that led them to Saucedo.

Police have not released information whether  Rojas or any of the survivors or witnesses have identified Saucedo in a lineup since his arrest.

Question 4: Did police test DNA or fingerprints from the bullets?

There are other facts not yet made public.

We do not know the results of any DNA or forensic testing.

Did the police recover and analyze DNA or fingerprints from any of 14 shell casings they recovered from the black 2001 BMW 540I and a 2003 gray Hyundai Sonata which Saucedo drove? What about any of the numerous casings, bullets, and bullet fragments recovered from the crime scenes and the victims’ bodies?

That evidence could be key, because it’s hard to load bullets into a magazine of a semiautomatic pistol without leaving partial prints or DNA. If those match Saucedo’s, prosecutors would know he loaded the bullets used in the shootings. If there is no match, it throws the case into doubt.

And if they didn’t recover that evidence, potential jurors will want to know why.

“They should test it. If they don’t, that’s sloppy investigation. The lab tests have to be good. You have to put the gun in his hand,” Romley said. “If you don’t have fingerprints, that’s a concern because that means somebody cleaned them beforehand. If all his shell casings are clean, that’s weird.”

Question 5: What did search warrants turn up?

Police have said little about any search warrants. None have been unsealed in Maricopa County Superior Court records.

Reporters watched police search Saucedo’s house on North 10th Street, where he lived with his mother. And police disclosed in court records that they searched his two cars and recovered bullet casings. But what else they found in any of these locations remains a mystery.

Likewise, it remains obscure whether police searched other locations.

They did search, either by permission, a search warrant or as recovered evidence, the cellphones of a number of victims. Police have not publicly disclosed what information they recovered.

That could be important because investigators have never said what they think Saucedo’s motives were. They have only said that, after shooting Raul Romero, all his other targets were seemingly at random.

Question 6: What were the killer’s motives, and did the pattern of killings make sense?

The Romero killing makes the case unusual, criminologists agree. It’s backwards.

Typically, serial killers act out their rage by building up to it. They tend to start with easy, weak prey, often animals, and then get bolder. That is what convicted Phoenix serial killers Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman did before they roamed the streets shooting people.

click to enlarge Raul Romero, the Serial Street Shooter's first victim. - SILENT WITNESS
Raul Romero, the Serial Street Shooter's first victim.
Silent Witness
Often it’s repressed anger against the target of their rage. Many serial shooters get caught before they get that far.

If Saucedo is the latest serial street shooter, he started with somebody he knew and then went to seemingly random victims.

The Serial Street Shooter’s victims fall into two categories, in two places. He targeted young Hispanic men and African-American women. All of the shootings were within a two-mile radius in Maryvale and a three-mile radius in central Phoenix.

Nothing else has surfaced to date that suggests any connection among the victims.

But what if phone records turn something up? And what about the backgrounds of some of the people who were gunned down? Police reports suggest some had petty criminal histories or associated with people who might have motives to kill them. What if the shootings weren’t random?

Krystal White was a prostitute, with a taste for meth.

The drive-by shooting of the teenage boys on East Moreland Street was initially investigated as gang-related, and police reports indicated a gang affiliation.

Diego Verdugo-Sanchez, gunned down by his car on Turney Avenue, had been a heroin addict and done time for a robbery, police said. Family members told police he had been hanging around some “tweakers,” had been dealing pot, and that his supplier thought Sanchez had robbed him.

On June 12, police responded to a triple homicide at the corner of West Berkeley Road and 63rd Avenue. Dead or dying inside the car were Angela Linner, 31, Stefanie Ellis, 33, and her daughter Maleah Ellis, 12. It was three in the morning. Police found nearly 230 pills and nearly $3,000 in cash, including 20 $100 bills.

Police described interviews with the patriarch of the house as “uncooperative.” One man in the family told police he thought the killing was a setup and that people out to get him, although the report questioned the man’s mental stability.

click to enlarge The body of Raul Romero, the Serial Street Shooter's first victim, was found in the parking lot on East Montebello Avenue on August 16, 2015. - JIM LOUVAU
The body of Raul Romero, the Serial Street Shooter's first victim, was found in the parking lot on East Montebello Avenue on August 16, 2015.
Jim Louvau

Angela Linner made a living buying old cars and flipping them for a profit. One officer who responded to the scene reported seeing a silver Mercedes SUV parked across the street three days before the shooting and noted that it matched a car from an armed robbery the night before that.

Question 7: How much did Saucedo’s family know?

All of the central Phoenix shootings took place less than five miles from Saucedo’s house on 10th Street, where he lived with his mother, Mara Ramos.

All of the Maryvale shootings occurred within three miles of the house of Aaron Saucedo’s father, Jose Juan Segura Padilla. That house is on North 52nd Avenue, and Orlando Saucedo, the suspect's older brother, appears on property records for that house and another across the street.

Maricopa County Superior Court records show Orlando Saucedo, now 29, was caught up in a juvenile court case in 2006. Ramos paid $265 in court fees.

In 2008, Orlando Saucedo was pulled over near Picacho Peak driving a car without a valid license, according to a statewide database of court cases and media reports at the time. Those records show that DPS officers seized $36,100 in cash from a lockbox in the car, which he tried recover in civil court. Online records show he pleaded guilty to the traffic charge and another of possession of a deadly weapon.

Police recovered from Segura one of handguns they say is linked to the New Year’s Day shooting death of Jesse Olivas in 2016. Segura told police he confiscated the Bryco Arms 0.380 from Aaron Saucedo for his safety, court records show.

But it was never made clear when he confiscated the gun, only that it was at his house. Nor is it clear exactly how police got the weapon. Court records indicate only that on April 22, after Aaron Saucedo was arrested in connection with the first killing, “a witness informed police” that Segura had the weapon. The witness gave the gun to police, the court filing added.

But how? Was the witness Segura? Or did police serve a search warrant on the house?

If Aaron Saucedo was the serial shooter, how much did his family know about his activities?

Orlando Saucedo, Maria Ramos and Jose Segura were not immediately available for comment. Calls to known phone numbers were not returned or answered, or were the numbers were no longer valid.

But we know what Saucedo says.

“I’m innocent,” he blurted out when he was arraigned in the first shooting, that of 61-year-old Raul Romero in August 2015.

He'll get his chance again in court Thursday.

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Sean Holstege is a freelance reporter with a 30-year career in print news. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege