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Tentative settlement reached in suit over freeway shootings

November 29, 2018
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FILE - This Oct. 1, 2015, file photo shows Leslie Allen Merritt Jr. at a court hearing in a now-dismissed criminal case in which he was charged in four of the 11 freeway shootings in metro Phoenix during the summer of 2015. Maricopa County and County Attorney Bill Montgomery tentatively agreed to settle the false-arrest lawsuit filed by Merritt, who insists he was innocent. The Department of Public Safety remains as a defendant in the lawsuit. (Tom Tingle/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — The top county prosecutor in metro Phoenix has tentatively agreed to settle a false-arrest lawsuit filed by a landscaper once charged in some of the freeway shootings that set the metro area on edge during the summer of 2015.

U.S. District Judge David Campbell said in an order Tuesday that Maricopa County and County Attorney Bill Montgomery agreed to settle the lawsuit filed by Leslie Merritt Jr., who was jailed for seven months on charges stemming from four of the 11 shootings. His criminal case was dismissed at the request of prosecutors after ballistic evidence in the case came under criticism.

The dollar amount of the settlement, which still needs approval from county officials before the deal can be completed, hasn’t yet been publicly revealed.

Merritt’s lawsuit didn’t specify the amount in damages he was seeking. But his lawyers said in an earlier notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — that he was seeking $10 million from the state and county.

Amanda Steele, a spokeswoman for Montgomery’s office, and Merritt attorney Jason Lamm declined to comment.

The tentative settlement doesn’t include other targets of Merritt’s lawsuit, including the state of Arizona and its Department of Public Safety.

A total of 11 shootings occurred on Phoenix-area freeways in late August and early September of 2015. No one was seriously injured when eight cars were hit with bullets and three others were struck with projectiles such as BBs or pellets. The only injury occurred when the ear of a 13-year-old girl was cut by glass.

Merritt insists he was innocent and that authorities arrested the wrong person.

While authorities say the investigation into the freeway shootings remains open, no one else has been arrested as part of the case.

The shootings sparked so much fear in the Phoenix area that people avoided driving the freeways, school buses took different routes, and signs were posted telling people to be careful. The head of the Department of Public Safety had said the shootings were the work of a domestic terrorist, and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of a suspect.

The lawsuit alleged the only evidence linking Merritt to the shootings was a statement by a Department of Public Safety criminologist who examined the case’s ballistic evidence and concluded that Merritt’s gun was the firearm that fired bullets in four of the shootings. Merritt’s lawsuit also alleged that prosecutors misled grand jurors about the reliability of the ballistics evidence.

Attorneys for the state, Maricopa County and Montgomery denied those allegations.

The criminal case against Merritt was dismissed in April 2016 after an outside ballistics expert said bullets from the four shootings couldn’t be “excluded or identified” as having come from Merritt’s gun.

Merritt’s lawyers tried unsuccessfully to force Gov. Doug Ducey to testify about his calls with Department of Public Safety Director Frank Milstead around the time of the arrest. Merritt’s attorneys had argued that Ducey inserted himself in the case when he triumphantly tweeted, “We got him!” minutes after Merritt was arrested.

Campbell had ruled Merritt’s lawyers weren’t likely to get valuable information about Milstead’s demeanor from the calls. Instead, Campbell said Merritt’s attorneys could seek the information from other people who worked on the investigation.

Though Merritt’s lawyers sought to interview the governor in a deposition, Ducey wasn’t a target of the lawsuit.

The tentative settlement is subject to the approval of the county’s Board of Supervisors. It’s not clear when the board will vote on the agreement, but its next formal board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 12.

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Follow Jacques Billeaud at www.twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud.

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