PHOENIX - Have serial shootings really stopped on Valley freeways since Leslie Merritt Jr. was put in jail?
That's the question so many of you have asked us over and over again this week now that Merritt is a free man and all charges against him dropped.
Merritt had been facing prosecution in 4 of the 11 shooting cases that plagued the Valley in August and September of last year. Eight of those incidents were said to involve a gun being fired into vehicles, while the other three were connected because of projectile damage.
While Arizona's Department of Public Safety has remained tight-lipped since a court's gag order was dropped this week, the quick answer to the question of more shootings is yes.
In the past seven months, and while Leslie Merritt Jr was sitting in jail, there have been at least two new freeway incidents involving projectiles and 28 other incidents that ABC15 has been tracking.
TWO NEW INCIDENTS
This week, the Arizona Department of Public Safety confirmed two additional incidents from November of projectiles hitting vehicles in the East Valley.
On Nov. 18, a driver was traveling on the Loop 202 at Priest Drive when their vehicle's rear window was blown out. According to DPS notes obtained by ABC15, the driver felt scared and unsafe and did not stop at the scene. Instead, the driver stopped once at work and reported the incident to DPS.
Just this week, DPS confirmed that the vehicle's window was in fact blown out, most likely by a projectile. The word projectile is a universal classification DPS has started using for any shattering, whether that's from a BB, rock or something else entirely, until proven otherwise.
Strangely, a report was never written up at the scene even though DPS officials said the incident was turned over to Criminal Investigations Division for review.
Exactly one week after this November 18 incident, another projectile hit a vehicle in the East Valley. DPS officers told ABC15 the vehicle was hit with a projectile on Nov. 25 while driving on the Loop 101 at University Drive.
In the minutes after the incident, ABC15 was the only station to travel to the scene. The driver of the vehicle told ABC15 he heard a loud bang and his passenger side window shattered. According to DPS, there was no evidence of any bullets or road debris inside the victim’s vehicle, so it's unknown what caused the shattering and the case was seemingly closed.
In both of the above incidents, DPS is adamant that neither is connected to the 11 confirmed freeways shootings from August and September. But what connects the original 11 shootings together is also somewhat unclear all these months after the shootings first happened.
11 ORIGINAL FREEWAY SHOOTINGS
Since Leslie Merritt Jr. was arrested, DPS has not released any information about the 11 freeway shootings. Keep in mind that Merritt was accused in just 4 of the shootings, leaving the other 7 incidents without a named suspect.
After Merritt's arrest, DPS officials stopped holding press conferences related to the shootings and essentially stopped asking for the public’s help to solve the other 7 shootings, including taking down ADOT signs promoting a tip hotline.
Now that Merritt is out of jail, DPS continues to say they will not speak about the four shootings he was in custody for because it is an “ongoing investigation.” They also have not released any new information on the other 7 shootings.
DRIVERS ON EDGE
Even though officials have told drivers the shootings have stopped, ABC15 continues to follow up on and hear almost daily reports come in from drivers saying they think they've been shot at.
Most of the incidents have been ruled “road debris” by DPS troopers who respond to the scenes, but several have been turned over to investigators because troopers have been unable to determine the cause of the damage.
ABC15 has compiled a list of those incidents, including drivers reporting their back window or sunroof hit by unknown objects on the freeway. You can see the full list below, as well as a map detailing all 30 incidents.
September 18: Loop 101/Via de Ventura, two window damage calls
September 18: Caller reports shots fired on Loop 101/75th Ave
September 30: Gun found on Interstate 10 and Chandler Blvd
November 18: Rear window shattered at Loop 202/Priest, DPS: Investigating trooper determined the rear window was blown out most likely by a projectile, separate from 11 freeway incidents.
December 17: Gun found by ADOT worker on Interstate 10/59th Ave
December 24: US 60/Val Vista, back window shattered, DPS reason: road debris
December 29: Interstate 10/US 60, back window shattered, DPS reason: road debris
January 1: Interstate 10/Elliot, passenger front window shattered, DPS reason: road debris. Notes from DPS: “RP (driver) heard a loud explosion and passenger front window was blown out. RP very shaken up.”
January 4: Loop 202/US 60, driver in a truck heard a loud pop, back window shattered where his head was. Driver scared and continued driving with hole still intact. DPS final note: “Just wanted to let us know.”
January 6: Loop 202/McClintock, driver “heard loud bang”, pulled over and his sunroof was shattered, DPS: No debris in sunroof area other than broken glass
January 6: US 60/Val Vista, back window was shattered, DPS note: “No additional damage, broken window only.”
January 8: Interstate 10/Sky Harbor, sun roof shattered. Driver reported someone possibly shot out sunroof. DPS notes: “It was not a gun shot.”
January 12: Loop 202/44th Street, back window shattered, DPS: “No bullet holes, looks like debris only.”
January 13: Interstate 10/Chandler, DPS notes: Driver “heard a loud pop and passenger window shattered with circular hole.” DPS told ABC15 it was road debris, no mention of road debris made in DPS notes obtained by ABC15.
January 21: Interstate 10/43rd Avenue, SRP driver called 911, believed his back window was shot out by a .22. DPS says window damage caused by a rock.
February 3: Loop 202/Price, broken driver side window, DPS: Road debris
February 8: Loop 101/McDowell "road rage" shooting, ABC15 has asked for latest information on shooting, no official report has been filed. ABC15 has a public records request pending.
February 26: Loop 101/McDowell, back window shattered, DPS says no signs of debris or damage.
February 28: Interstate 17/Bell, back window shattered, DPS: “Damage likely caused by road debris.” Incident is still under review by Criminal Investigations Division.
March 3: Loop 202 (Red Mountain)/Alma School, DPS report: “Unknown object struck the left rear passenger window and shattered the glass.” DPS says the entire glass panel was broken out, "damage was caused by unknown debris which may have dropped down from the roadway of an overpass in the area."
March 21: Dobson/Southern, driver stopped and called DPS off the freeway, side window caused by road debris.
March 24: US60/Val Vista, DPS: “Driver side window damage by road debris.”
March 25: SR51/McDowell, DPS: Driver reported seeing a hole on passenger side window, trooper determined damage was caused by a rock.
March 31: 51st Ave/McDowell (Damaged occurred on I-10), rear window damage caused by a rock.
April 1: Loop 101/US 60, shattered sunroof, DPS: Road debris
April 14: Interstate 10/83rd Ave, window shattered, DPS: caused by debris.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
It may sound like a cliche, but it's true. There are more questions than answers in the case of the freeway shootings.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety continues to defend that no new serial freeway shootings have happened since September. But when you look at 30 incidents with unusual causes, it seems only fair to continue asking DPS questions.
You can count on ABC15 to keep those questions coming in the days and weeks to come.