When the cops thought they had captured the Freeway Shooter in 2015, Governor Doug Ducey famously tweeted: "We got him."
This time, this week, the authorities are acting with a little more circumspection to a flurry of TV reports about another serial shooting case, and hints of a link to the scourge of Interstate 10.
Various Valley TV stations have been reporting that Phoenix police are holding a man in connection with the “serial street shooter” case. They say the man is a “person of interest” in the spree of gun slayings in 2016, often known as the Maryvale Shooter case, because that's the Phoenix neighborhood where it all started.
These broadcast accounts, citing unnamed sources, suggest that the 23-year-old who has been charged in an unrelated shooting death of his mother’s boyfriend in 2015, used the same type of gun as was used in the unsolved murders.
The reports go on to speculate if the same man can be linked to the equally unsolved I-10 Freeway Shooter case because of a weapons match. The reports claim Arizona Department of Public Safety investigators tested eight of the Hi-Point 9 mm handguns, but halted when the ballistics matched a gun at one time owned by Leslie Merritt Jr., the state’s named suspect in freeway shootings.
(Phoenix New Times isn't naming the suspect because there has been no official confirmation of a connection to other cases.)
The reactions to the two cases could hardly be more different.
Back then, before DPS named Merritt, Ducey told the world by tweet the case was cracked. State police said at a press conference that they’d matched Merritt’s gun to some of the shootings, but never really elaborated.
Merritt publicly maintained his innocence throughout. Ultimately, the case fizzled and was thrown out in court.
By stark contrast, this week, in a string of written statements by e-mail and on Facebook, DPS has denied any connection between the cases and the Phoenix Police Department has stayed mum about it.
Police Chief Jeri Williams issued a Facebook statement Tuesday.
“By now, most of you have seen news reports that a person of interest has been identified and related to the Serial Street Shooter series. Investigations of this complexity are rare and take time to properly investigate. We cannot allow the release of unconfirmed information to jeopardize justice for anyone,” Williams wrote.
Separately, police spokesman Sgt. Jonathan Howard remarked, “All I can say is that we are actively and aggressively investigating and have recent developments. The evidence will guide our timeline of potential release."
DPS was more forthcoming.
“At this time there is no evidence linking the two cases,” DPS said in a press release.
“Information from both cases was submitted to the National Integrated Ballistics Network database. There was no match,” DPS added.
Here’s what is known from court records:
On April 19, police arrested a 23-year-old laborer who lives on North Tenth Street. Two days later, county prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder in the killing of Raul Romero, who was gunned down in the driveway of his East Montebello Avenue home on August 16, 2015, just 11 days before the freeway shootings began.
Romero dated the suspect’s mother, police said. Just before the shooting, Romero was over at his girlfriend’s house, where the suspect also lived at the time.
According to the booking sheet filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, Romero died from multiple gunshot wounds and a witness saw a dark SUV driving away shortly after. No eyewitnesses reported seeing the gunfire.
Police recovered what they described as “several expended 9 mm shell casings along with two projectiles.”
Weapons technicians concluded only a Hi-Point gun could produce the markings they found, the report went on to say.
After that, police said, investigators learned that the 23-year-old had sold a Hi-Point 9 mm handgun to a pawn shop 16 days later, on September 1, 2015.
Last week, detectives followed up with the pawn shop, whose employees reported that the same type of gun had been sold on June 28, 2016. After recovering the gun from the new owner and testing it, police matched casings to those at the scene of Romero’s death.
The suspect refused to speak to detectives, other than to say he didn’t do it, police said in court records. He is due in court for a preliminary examination on Monday, May 1.
The circumstances don’t perfectly fit either the Maryvale or freeway shooter cases.
In both, the shootings appeared to be at random. In the recent arrest from 2015, the accused knew the victim.
The 2015 shooting involved a dark SUV. Most of the Maryvale shooting reports described a dark BMW sedan car. Other reports described different vehicles used by the shooter.
The Maryvale Shooter was first known to strike on March 17, 2016. The last known shooting attributed to him was on July 11, 2016. That means the man police are questioning now sold his weapon to the pawn shop nearly five months before the Serial Street Shootings began.
In the Freeway Shooter case, DPS said the shootings took place between August 27, 2015, and September 10, 2015.
Only one shooting happened after September 1, 2015, the day the pawn shop told police it sold the gun. This occurred on September 10, 2015, on I-10 near 83rd Avenue. The car window shattered and at the time police said a BB gun could be to blame.
At the press conference a week later, DPS Director Col. Frank Milstead told reporters there were possible copycat shooters.
This week DPS insisted its investigation remains open.
And there are some similarities: same type of gun, possibly similar vehicles, and a plausible resemblance between an artist's rendering and the man in custody.
Time will tell if the arrest is a genuine break in either of the serial shooter cases, or another distraction, like Merritt's appeared to become.
Tuesday, Merritt issued a new statement.
"My life was ruined when I was falsely accused of horrible crimes I didn't commit. To know that the gun of an accused murderer was in the hands of police, but not examined, adds insult to injury. I hope that an independent and unbiased look at this new evidence will now show the world that I am not the I-10 shooter and that the person who really committed these crimes gets what he deserves," he wrote.
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