PHOENIX — For months, metropolitan Phoenix residents lived in fear as shots were fired at motorists on the freeway at random. Drivers avoided highways, school buses took different routes and signs were posted telling people to be careful.
The head of the Arizona Department of Public Safety called the shootings the work of a "domestic terrorist," and authorities heightened patrols and surveillance in pursuit of what appeared to be a serial shooter.
Now the case has been dropped against the only named suspect. Maricopa County's top prosecutor won't say why, except that the decision was made after hearing from an additional forensic expert.
County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined to give any details Wednesday when asked basic questions about the investigation at a news conference. It's unclear whether those behind the shootings are still at large and what authorities plan to do next.
"Wherever the evidence leads is where we go," Montgomery said. That could mean refiling charges against Leslie Merritt Jr., a 21-year-old landscaper.
The charges Merritt faced have a statute of limitations of seven years, Montgomery said.
But dismissing the charges makes some think the investigation was botched. That includes Robert McDonald Jr., who was hurt in one of the shootings.
"Of course Mr. Montgomery is going to say that potentially charges could be filed against Mr. Merritt because at this point in time, that's the only way they're going to keep the public from getting freaked out," McDonald said Wednesday.
When asked if the public should be on guard when driving Interstate 10, where most of the shootings occurred, Montgomery said people should just be aware in general.
"You're much more likely to get hit with a piece of flying debris," he said. "You cannot in this day and age protect yourself against every potential threat."
Ulises Ferragut Jr., one of Merritt's defense attorneys, said Wednesday that he thinks prosecutors and law enforcement were under pressure to make an arrest and soothe the community's fears.
He also said being labeled a "domestic terrorist" has ruined his client's life.