Chasing a Chameleon: With Phoenix Again Terrorized by Two Serial Shooters, the Hunt Was On

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.
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

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

UPDATE: Aaron Juan Saucedo was indicted for eight more counts of first-degree murder on June 30, bringing to total murder counts against him to nine.

The evening of August 16, 2015, was one of those sticky, restless summer nights in Phoenix, the ones locals wish would end but know they have to endure for another two months. It was the kind of night when people can't help being irritable.

A bare sliver of a waxing crescent moon had set an hour earlier behind patchy clouds. Thermometers still read 105 degrees. Phoenix had missed a record high for the day by one degree.

A stiff breeze rustled the palms and oleanders on a quiet residential street in central Phoenix.

At 9:24 p.m., a series of loud cracks disturbed the dark.

A man crumpled to the gravel parking lot at 920 East Montebello Avenue. A neighbor dared peek out the window to see a dark SUV heading west.

In seconds, the getaway car might be on Seventh Street. From there, just three traffic lights lay between the scene of a dying man and the sanctuary of the accused shooter's home.

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
When Phoenix police arrived, they found Raul Romero. His blood from several bullet wounds painted the gravel.

Paramedics rushed him to a nearby emergency room, where he died.

At Romero's home, detectives started picking up shell casings and found two bullets. They came from a 9 mm handgun. Only a Hi-Point pistol could have fired those rounds, they learned later. It would prove critical.

But at the time, Romero's death became one of those sad, all-too-familiar, all-too-forgettable crimes.

KPHO-TV, Channel 5,  scrambled to get information in time for the late evening news, airing within half an hour. The station didn't have a name of the victim yet. Initial accounts tend to lean on fragments of information, more a jigsaw than a picture. The first report said only that a 61-year-old had been shot and killed, and that police had found a gun and were in the house trying to find a motive.

The online story ran just 104 words.

Ten days later, news crews recorded another familiar scene. Romero's daughter Lora, fighting tears as families do at such events, asked the public's help finding the killer. She described her dad as an amazing, loving, caring, hardworking man.Silent Witness offered a routine $1,000 reward for key information.

Yet, months after his death, Romero played a critical part in stopping one of the deadliest serial killers in Arizona history.

The others had already been stopped a decade earlier. One was Mark Goudeau, now on death row for shooting eight women and one man. He was called the Baseline Killer. Convicted killers Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman shot dead seven men and one woman. Hausner later killed himself in prison while awaiting the death penalty. Deiteman is serving a life sentence after confessing to the crimes. They were the Serial Shooters.

All three struck in 2005 and the haunted summer of 2006. Phoenix police arrested Hausner and Dieteman on August 4 that year. Exactly one month later, they seized Goudeau.

Now, a decade later, another serial killer was just getting started. Nobody knew it on that dark August night in 2015, maybe not even his killer. Raul Romero's death was the first in a fresh string of killings.

It would take almost a year before he got his own label, the Serial Street Shooter. Police were chasing a chameleon.


Memories of Raul Romero's death quickly faded.

It wasn't anybody's fault, not really.

The day after Lora Romero begged for answers, somebody shot at a car on Interstate 10.

On August 29, 2015, the Arizona Department of Public Safety confirmed two shootings on I-10 that day, between 19th and 59th avenues and 11 and 11:30 a.m. By September 1, DPS was now telling the public that four cars had been shot at, three of them struck by bullets.

Nobody noticed or cared much that a skinny, pale Hispanic man in his early 20s who lived on North 10th Street walked into a central Phoenix pawn shop that day on East Indian School Road, and sold his semiautomatic pistol. It was a 9 mm Hi-Point. The store was Mo Money Pawn.

Reports of shootings along the freeways kept coming in.

The Valley was gripped by fear again, as residents had been a decade earlier when Goudeau, Hausner, and Dieteman were roaming the city, killing.

But this new case, the freeway shootings, was different.

Some Valley residents remembered the D.C. Sniper, when, a man and a boy took up concealed positions around the Beltway and shot random people pumping gas.

This felt like that. This felt like you could be next.

People changed routines. Drivers avoided the freeway. So did school buses. By the time DPS reported the last, the 11th, suspected shooting on September 10, nobody had died, but the damage to some people's nerves had been inflicted. DPS Director Frank Milstead didn't mince words.

"Should we be concerned? Absolutely," Milstead said.

On September 14, police bumped the reward from $20,000 to $50,000 for information leading to an arrest of the Freeway Shooter. By then, 1,000 tips had come in.

On September 18, DPS arrested Leslie Allen Merritt Jr. at a Glendale Wal-Mart and announced he was responsible for at least four of the shootings. The ballistics matched his gun, DPS said.

State officials never really explained how they placed it in Merritt's hands at the crime scenes. They didn't seem bothered when Gov. Doug Ducey famously stole their thunder with a pre-emptive tweet, announcing "We got him!"

Right away, Merritt told reporters he was completely innocent. Normally defendants don't give interviews, but he repeated the claim as often he could.

Milstead acknowledged at the press conference that he thought some of the shootings may be unrelated or the act of a deranged copycat. A judge ordered Merritt held on $1 million bond.

Targets of the Freeway Shooter shared their relief with news teams.

Merritt's gun now became the focus of attention.

It was a 9 mm Hi-Point pistol. He, too, sold it to Mo Money Pawn.

Investigative records showed that Merritt, a 21-year-old landscaper, had been to the store five times in six weeks, according to DPS documents the Arizona Republic requested. On July 19, he sold the gun, a store receipt showed. Five days later, he returned and picked it up. On August 1, he pawned it again, only to buy it back on August 22. On August 30, he sold it for the last time.

It didn't take long for cracks to appear in the case. DPS amended the timeline and couldn't link all 11 shootings. Doubts surfaced. The judge lowered Merritt's bail to $150,000. DPS insisted they had the right guy, but the case and the reward were still up for grabs. Maybe another shooter was out there. Any sense of relief was fading with the light in the fall of 2015.

The cracks widened, like those in a mud flat in the Arizona sun.


Reports of the freeway shootings stopped just as abruptly as they had started.

So when the new year rang in, the media focused on the seasonal favorite, the first baby of 2016.

Amy Guadalupe Mercado was born at 12:01 a.m. at Banner University Medical Center to be the New Year Baby, the Republic reported.

Phoenix's first murder of the year received little coverage. It happened 43 minutes later in Maryvale, one of the city's 15 villages.

Jesse Olivas was walking home at 2225 North 58th Drive, after popping out to the store. He was nearly home. Somebody pointed a gun out the window of a passing car and shot him several times. He was 22.

click to enlarge Jesse Olivas was killed just a few minutes after midnight on January 1, 2016. - SILENT WITNESS
Jesse Olivas was killed just a few minutes after midnight on January 1, 2016.
Silent Witness
Then the shooter drove off into the still, chilly, clear moonless night, in what police told broadcasters was a gray, four-door sedan.

Olivas was driven off in an ambulance.

He died later, leaving his mother to mourn the kind of young man any mother would love and be proud of. She later told the Republic he had a good heart and always asked her for money to help feed homeless people in and around the gritty neighborhood of tightly packed bungalows. He would give them shirts and shoes.

Now somebody else would have to help them.

But, as usual, the case quickly faded from the public.

Since 2000, Phoenix police had investigated 332 cases of Hispanic men in their 20s shot dead by a handgun, a Phoenix New Times analysis of FBI data shows. Of those, 126 were unsolved a year later. Many died in Maryvale.

Jesse Olivas fit the pattern.


Like so many cases before, the leads dried up. Winter gave way to spring.

March 17, 2016, was one of those days that make people love Arizona. There was a gentle breeze, clear skies, and mild temperatures. Perfect Cactus League weather.

At 10:47 p.m., as a half-moon flew high overhead and crept downward toward the White Tanks, two Hispanic boys, 16 and 17, were walking back from the park. The roar and hiss of freeway traffic was loud. Just on the other side of a sound wall, traffic on I-10 was heading out of the Deck Park Tunnel in downtown Phoenix.

On this side of the sound wall, along the 1000 block of East Moreland Street, a menace was approaching.

The boys stopped near the 12th Street bridge over the freeway to play with rocks in front of the house of one boy's grandmother, the Republic reported.

A car passed them heading west, made a U-turn and stopped in front of them. A man in the car fired at the boys, striking the 16-year-old twice in the arms, once in the abdomen and once in the thigh. His companion was unharmed.

click to enlarge A stock photo of a black BMW sedan was circulated as the vehicle the Serial Shooter had been seen in. - PHOENIX POLICE DEPARTMENT/SILENT WITNESS
A stock photo of a black BMW sedan was circulated as the vehicle the Serial Shooter had been seen in.
Phoenix Police Department/Silent Witness
Once again, the driver disappeared into the night.

Later, the boys told police they saw a gray four-door Chevy Malibu or maybe a dark-brown Nissan Maxima. They said their attacker was an 18- to 20-year-old Hispanic man, wearing a black baseball cap and black shirt.

Police later found seven shell casings from a semiautomatic 9 mm handgun at the scene.

But the initial reports were almost cliché: shots fired, no one killed, no suspects or named victims. It got little media attention. Nobody knew the shooter didn't even know the boys.

So when it happened again the next night, in another part of town about 15 miles west, in Maryvale, nobody saw any connections.

This time, a 21-year-old Hispanic man was standing next to his car on the 4300 block of North 73rd Avenue. It was 11:24 p.m. when a car rolled up, shot and wounded him, and drove away.

It was about two miles from where Jesse Olivas had died 11 weeks earlier. The latest victim was one year younger than Olivas. TV news accounts later said he was so scarred by his brush with random death that he moved away.


Until now, nothing on the radar suggested anything extraordinary was afoot, nothing beyond the usual mayhem in a big city. Life in Maryvale can be hard, and these things happen, not just there, but in central Phoenix.

The back-to-back attacks in March resembled a third, seven months earlier, in August 2015. Four days before Raul Romero had been gunned down in his parking lot, somebody drove up to a house a mile away. At 10:56 p.m., the driver rolled along the comfortable tree-lined 300 block of East Colter Street, aimed a pistol at one of the well-kept bungalows behind a deep front lawn, and squeezed the trigger.

Nobody was hurt. Police didn't suspect then that any of the random drive-bys were related.

They do now.

The same man, police believe, was pulling the trigger and driving the same or similar cars. In central Phoenix, Seventh Street was the spine of his nocturnal rage. All the shootings were a few blocks off the street, one of Phoenix's main arteries.

click to enlarge Diego Verdugo-Sanchez's fiancee was expecting a baby. - SILENT WITNESS
Diego Verdugo-Sanchez's fiancee was expecting a baby.
Silent Witness
About 15 miles west, a clearer, more sinister pattern was taking shape on the night of April 1.

The attack came earlier in the evening than any previously. At 8:23 p.m., a car rolled up to the 5500 block of West Turney Drive. Diego Verdugo-Sanchez, a 21-year-old Hispanic man, was standing there, in front of the house of his future in-laws, the Republic later said. He and his fiancée were expecting their "miracle baby" after a string of miscarriages. He had left a family taco dinner for a second to lock his car.

The driver in the dark car spied him. He fired a handgun and drove off, leaving behind the neighborhood of modest homes, chain-link fences, dirt yards, and older cars. Again there were no witnesses. Again there was no apparent motive. Again the ambulance came, took the stricken man to the hospital. And again he died.

Police and loved ones tried to make sense of it. Verdugo-Sanchez's family described him as a gentle giant who would always put others first.

Now there had been three random shootings of young Hispanic men in and around Maryvale, seemly centered around the Grand Canyon University Golf Course at 59th Avenue and Indian School Road.

Nobody was looking for the clues to the pattern, not yet.


Criminologists and FBI profilers often say serial killers evolve.

They dabble, practice, then develop a taste for killing. Whatever their motives, they need to satisfy their hunger. They develop a pattern, improve it, and then improvise. Sometimes they change their methods.

Sometimes they change their targets. Sometimes they change routines because they get bored. Or they have an unhealthy instinct for thrill-seeking. Some battle twisted psycho-sexual compulsions. For them, killing is an act of sexual gratification. Or sometimes they are clever and, defying Hollywood misconceptions, don't want to get caught.

"It's been said that a serial killer is like a chameleon, and that's what made this case so frustrating," David Gonzales, the U.S. Marshal for Arizona, would say much later.

On April 19, the chameleon changed his color.

click to enlarge Krystal Annette White was killed near Sky Harbor Airport. - SILENT WITNESS
Krystal Annette White was killed near Sky Harbor Airport.
Silent Witness
This time, police found Krystal Annette White, a black woman aged 55, dead on the side of the street, face down. Her corpse was at 512 North 32nd Place, not far from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. It was 4:35 a.m. A nearly full moon was setting when police arrived on that mild, clear night.

Initially there were no witnesses. Police didn't say until later she had been shot. Acquaintances told the Republic she'd been working the streets, as she had done for 30 years, this time to help pay for her daughter's wedding.

She'd gone out at 1 a.m. and got in a car. When neighbors reported gunfire, one said they saw a man get in a car and drive off. Police thought the shooting was around 1:30 a.m.

Hours later, the news was drowned out by another serial shooter case.

A judge had ordered the bond for suspected Freeway Shooter Leslie Merritt Jr. be reduced again. To nothing. 

That evening, he walked out of Lower Buckeye Jail and told reporters: "I told you guys when I first got arrested I didn't do it. I'm telling you now that I'm going home, I didn't do it."

The state's case was unraveling. Defense attorneys raised serious doubts about the ballistic evidence upon which the Merritt case hinged. They now knew that his gun was locked up at Mo Money Pawn on one of the days he was accused of firing it at cars.

Nobody was talking about Krystal White. The only serial shooter that was on anybody's radar was the one that had seemed to get away with terrorizing motorists the summer before. Increasingly, it appeared that person was not Merritt. A week later, the judge dismissed the case.

Unknown and unseen, there was a far deadlier serial shooter afoot. The chameleon scampered back to safety and blended back into the city.

Safely camouflaged, he resurfaced again on June 3. It was his eighth attack and it claimed a fifth life.

Horacio de Jesus Peña was standing in front of his house near 6700 West Flower Street. The Grand Canyon University Golf Course in Maryvale was a mile away.

The shooter showed up at 9:50 p.m. He was back to hunting youthful Hispanic men.

click to enlarge Horacio de Jesus Peña, who was one of seven victims killed by Maryvale, linked to the Phoenix Serial Shooter, stands with his sister Nancy at an Arizona Coyotes hockey game. - COURTESY OF NANCY PEÑA
Horacio de Jesus Peña, who was one of seven victims killed by Maryvale, linked to the Phoenix Serial Shooter, stands with his sister Nancy at an Arizona Coyotes hockey game.
Courtesy of Nancy Peña
Police found Peña dead when they arrived.

He had been a symbol of health. He was an avid runner, and that day he was showing people with cerebral palsy that a well-balanced diet could be tasty, too. He was a nutritionist at an organization that helped people with disabilities, the Republic said.

Yet again, witnesses reported gunshots but nobody saw the deadly deed. Somebody reported seeing a white Cadillac or Lincoln just before the shots and said it fled west on Flower Street. Few other details emerged in the day after the shooting.

One week later and a mile to the south, at about the same time of day, a car drove up. A gun emerged. Victim Six was dead, in front of his house near 6500 West Coronado Road.

This time, on June 10 at 9:25 p.m., the killer picked out a 19-year-old Hispanic man, Manuel Castro Garcia. Initial reports were scant.

People described "Manny" Garcia to reporters as a gentle giant, too. A man full of hugs and smiles, he'd graduated from nearby Maryvale High School not so long before.

He had been waiting in his car for his girlfriend when a car pulled alongside. After a brief exchange of words came the flash of gunfire.

The chameleon was getting bolder. Or more compulsive. In March, he had attacked twice in a day, but never before had he killed in such quick succession. He was escalating.

On June 12, just two days later, at 2:15 a.m., somebody reported finding a shot-up car on the 6200 block of West Mariposa Street.

It was about two miles west of the golf course in Maryvale and a little more than three miles north of where Manny Garcia died.

Few details were reported.

Within an hour came the call that shocked an already nervous community, and trained the spotlight on the shooter.

At around 3 a.m., police responded to a shooting just a couple hundred feet and around the corner from where Garcia had been slain. A waxing half-moon was rising in a clear, still night. The thermometer stopped falling at 80.

click to enlarge A neighborhood in Maryvale near where three victims were killed on West Berkeley Road. - JIM LOUVAU
A neighborhood in Maryvale near where three victims were killed on West Berkeley Road.
Jim Louvau

This time, two black women and a girl had been shot in a car in the driveway of a house on the 6300 block of West Berkeley Road.

They were Stephanie Ellis, 33, and her 12-year-old daughter Maleah, and Ellis' best friend, Angela Linner, 31. Stephanie and Maleah were dead. Linner was bleeding from 14 bullet wounds. Paramedics took her to hospital where she lay in critical condition.

The Republic said Maleah wanted to be a cheerleader, like her mom. It was a tight family. Both lived with the grandparents. Linner loved music. All three were listening to music in the car when they were shot.

Police said witnesses reported seeing a man leaving the area in a light-colored vehicle right after they heard the shots rip through the night.

Fear and frustration grew, nowhere more than Maryvale.

There, one woman said she was too scared to go out at night after Garcia was killed near her home. She asked not to be named and questioned if police were paying her neighborhood enough attention.

"I know they're trying to do their best. But the thing is, just because we're not on the Anglo side of town, you know, doesn't mean that they should not be patrolling," she told New Times last year. "We need as much protection as anybody." 


The deadly night of June 12 slammed home the magnitude of what Maryvale, and the police sworn to protect it, were now facing. The streets were not safe and it was obvious.

Two days later, the Phoenix Police Department went on the public offensive, putting out a statement asking the public to help them stop the bloodletting.

"Detectives ... have noticed an increase in violent crimes in areas of West Phoenix," the department said. "Phoenix Police Department is encouraging everyone to be aware of their surroundings and report suspicious activity. This may include unfamiliar vehicles stopped or repeatedly driving through neighborhoods."

Officers fanned out through Maryvale and knocked on doors.

The Phoenix Police Department first acknowledged they were chasing a serial killer nine days later, on June 21. They thought he was responsible for five slayings on the west side.

Four days later, Silent Witness put out a press bulletin offering a $1,000 reward for information to capture the murderer of Jesse Olivas on New Year's Day and Krystal White, the woman who was slain in April near the airport. The flier made no suggestion the two were connected.

On July 7, Angela Linner died after being in a coma. Silent Witness raised the reward to $16,000.

click to enlarge Police sketches of the Serial Shooter. - PHOENIX POLICE DEPARTMENT
Police sketches of the Serial Shooter.
Phoenix Police Department
Nobody was linking more than the four Maryvale shootings in April and June. All had occurred on weeknights and involved a man shooting from a vehicle in front of a home. All were within a four-mile radius.

There were no obvious connections to the nonfatal shootings, nor to the three deaths before April, nor to attacks in other parts of town.

On July 11, at 5:26 p.m., police responded to reports of a drive-by shooting on the 3000 block of East Sheridan Street. It was in the neighborhood of Creighton Elementary School, and about a mile north of the Krystal White shooting. A 22-year-old man and a 4-year-old boy were in a car. Neither was hurt. Both were Hispanic.

It was the first time this chameleon had struck since the triple murder a month earlier, and earlier in the day than ever before. But this time police suspected who was behind it.

The hunter was now the hunted. He still didn't have a name.

The next day, he got a face. Police released their first artist's sketch of their suspect, who had been described as a light-skinned Hispanic man in his 20s. Sometimes witnesses described him as "lanky." The reward climbed to $30,000, and by now, the FBI was involved. There was a task force.

It gave the chameleon his official name: the Serial Street Shooter. Some had started calling him the Maryvale Monster, but as often as not, people spoke of the Maryvale Shooter. Police now acknowledged the Maryvale slayings, the nonfatal drive-bys, and White's murder were all the work of the same man.

They said investigators thought the shooter was changing vehicles. Police said a white Cadillac or Lincoln and a black late '90s or early 2000s 5 Series BMW were the most promising sightings.

The FBI raised the reward to $50,000.


By mid-July, Maryvale, where seven had been killed, had the jitters and the whole world knew it.

The Daily Mail, a London-based tabloid, wrote, "A Phoenix community has turned into a ghost town," noting a serial killer "has sent residents hiding in their homes."

But the predator, so brazen and bloody in June, changed again. The descriptions of him and his car were coming too close to the mark.

"He has told us after that he changed his appearance and stopped driving his BMW," Phoenix Police Sgt. Jonathan Howard said months later. "It made sense that he laid low."

The chameleon blended back into the city. Invisible. Silent. Waiting.

The community waited, too. And it was not a good wait. It was an anxious, fearful wait. As the summer temperatures climbed, nerves frayed. Over the past year, two serial shooters had been on the loose, targeting regular people seemingly at random, one on the freeways, one on the city streets.

Stefanie Ellis: Facebook; Maleah Ellis: GoFundMe; Angela Linner: Silent Witness

It was not new. It was like that sweltering summer of 2006 all over again, when the Baseline Killer and Serial Shooters tried to outdo each other's bloodlust.

The chameleon had already equaled Baseline Killer Mark Goudeau's grim record of nine deaths.

The attacks had stopped, but for how long? There had been lulls before.

On August 20, Maryvale came together in Marivue Park, near the epicenter of the still-unsolved violence.

Krystal White's sister, Sabrina, showed up and captured the mood.

"He's going to be caught," she told the audience. "Just stay aware. We've got to watch our surroundings and the people in our neighborhood. We never know where he's going to strike next."

The Republic quoted her saying, "What I've been doing is praying for the officers. All this is in their hands now."


The case was in the police's hands, but the Serial Street Shooter was slipping away. The case was stalling.

The August 20 vigil ended early with a monsoon-season tempest: thunderclaps, rain, and 40 mph gusts of wind.

Five days later, police bumped the reward to $75,000, to reignite the case. Time froze. Tips came in. Officers logged more hours. Still, no breaks came.

click to enlarge Manuel Castro Garcia was a "gentle giant," friends said. - SILENT WITNESS
Manuel Castro Garcia was a "gentle giant," friends said.
Silent Witness
The calendar turned again. Bloody 2016 became stagnant 2017.

In March, news outlets reported the anniversary of the Serial Street Shooter's spree. At the time, police believed it all began with the drive-by shootings that wounded the teenager near I-10 and a man in a car in Maryvale the next night.

Experts speculated that the killer had been cooling off or was lying low to avoid getting caught. He might someday get discovered from a tip, they said. But it was all speculation. Nothing concrete was sticking. And there was still no name.

Finger-pointing set in. News readers complained the papers were glamorizing the killer, giving him the reward of publicity he craved. Others said the case would have gotten more attention if it had started in a more upscale neighborhood than Maryvale. Guest columns appeared suggesting police didn't have the right tools, training, or temperament to bring in such a big case. People wondered if detectives should have seen the deadly patterns sooner.

Two months ago, there was no reason to think they would catch their quarry.


And then, almost as suddenly as the flurry of killings a year before, rumors swirled. Police had a suspect, a person of interest, a name.

Last month, DPS turned over to Phoenix police its case files and ballistic reports from its still unsolved Freeway Shooter investigation. Detectives knew they had two serial shooters using 9 mm Hi-Point semiautomatic pistols in overlapping sprees and the guns were bought at Mo Money Pawn.

Could there be a link?

TV stations thought so, and said so on April 25. The stories were speculative and based on anonymous sources. They ran the name of a 23-year-old laborer who lived in central Phoenix. He was in jail, facing a first-degree murder charge in what they described as an unrelated case.

That case was the death of Raul Romero back in August 2015.

The accused was Aaron Juan Saucedo, the light-skinned Hispanic man who sold the 9 mm Hi-Point pistol used to kill Romero two weeks after his death.

Television broadcasts aired his mug shot alongside the artist's sketch of the Serial Street Shooter. There was a resemblance, sure, a better one than often emerges. But was it enough to say this was the Maryvale Shooter? Had the chameleon been flushed out of hiding?

Skepticism and caution prevailed. With reason.

click to enlarge Aaron Juan Saucedo was already in jail when he was first linked to the Serial Street Shooter killings. - PHOENIX POLICE DEPARTMENT
Aaron Juan Saucedo was already in jail when he was first linked to the Serial Street Shooter killings.
Phoenix Police Department
People remembered what happened to Leslie Merritt Jr. By now, he had filed a $10 million civil rights lawsuit against the county that jailed him for 222 days and told Dr. Phil, and thus the world, about his plight.

"This is not a case against police," Merritt's attorney David Don told reporters. "This is a case against poor police work."

So over at 620 West Washington Street, nobody was popping corks at police HQ. They definitely weren't tweeting they'd got their man. Saucedo was in jail and they had time. Police kept the lid tight.

TV crews didn't hold back their speculation. They hinted, based on the similarities of the guns, that the Freeway Shooter, Saucedo, and Maryvale shooter could all be one and the same.

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams felt compelled to post on Facebook.

"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.

DPS dismissed the rumor.

"At this time there is no evidence linking the two cases," DPS said in a press release, saying they compared ballistics and "there was no match."

Plus, the timing was off. The patterns didn't fit.

Raul Romero, police said in court, was killed with a 9 mm Hi-Point by the son of a woman he was dating, Maria Saucedo. Just before the shooting, the son and the boyfriend had quarreled. They were at a home at 4620 North 10th Street, where Aaron Saucedo and his mother both lived.

The house was only one mile south of Romero's.

If police were right, the killer knew his victim. That was unlike any attack in either the Freeway Shooter or Serial Street Shooter cases.

Also, a dark SUV was seen fleeing the Romero shooting. Witnesses in the Serial Street Shooter case described a dark BMW or sedan, or sometimes a light sedan like a Cadillac.

Romero died 11 days before the freeway shootings began. Saucedo sold the pistol to Mo Money five days later, after most of the shootings originally attributed to Merritt had occurred.

There the gun remained until June 28, 2016, when it was sold to a different owner. That owner cooperated with detectives, who tested the weapon. The gun was either with the new owner or locked up at the pawn shop during the entire time the Serial Street Shooter was terrorizing central Phoenix and Maryvale.


On May 8, police called a hasty press conference with the chief, members of the Serial Street Shooter Task Force, and elected officials. This promised to be a big announcement.

It delivered on expectations.

Aaron Saucedo was the serial shooter, Chief Williams and Mayor Greg Stanton announced. The chameleon had been revealed by a tip from the public, one of 3,300. Police had logged "tens of thousands" of hours chasing him.

The evidence "goes on and on to link him to our series," Sergeant Howard told reporters, listing forensics, witness statements, ballistics, and physical evidence.

None of it linked Saucedo to the freeway shootings, Williams said.

Nor did any evidence suggest anyone else was involved, Howard said

click to enlarge Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams at the press conference revealing who police believe is the Serial Street Shooter. - SEAN HOLSTEGE
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams at the press conference revealing who police believe is the Serial Street Shooter.
Sean Holstege
No evidence existed showing Saucedo knew his victims, other than Romero, or that the victims knew each other, Howard said.

It was now clear that the death of Jesse Olivas, who was walking home from the store 44 minutes into the new year 2016, was the Serial Street Shooter's first random victim, police said.

Police and prosecutors were eager to point out the story is still unfolding.

"This is an ongoing case. This is an open investigation. This is an active investigation," Sergeant Howard said.

The next day, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery moved up his regular press conference a day to tell reporters, "There may be more out there."

New Times asked Montgomery to compare the caliber of evidence against Saucedo to that against Merritt. Montgomery allowed a slight smirk, and said, "Two very different cases."

Saucedo remains behind bars. A judge denied him bail. On top of the murder charge against him from the Romero killing, he faces a new set of 26 felony charges, including eight counts of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, and five counts of varying forms of aggravated assault.

On May 9, the suspected chameleon had a new guise. He stood in a blue-and-white ringed jail jumpsuit, shackled as he listened to a judge read the charges. He didn't wait to be asked.

In a low, but clear, strong voice he blurted out:

"I'm ... I'm innocent."

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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