For more than a year, a phantom gunman lurked in Phoenix.
The case confounded investigators, who struggled to square the conflicting descriptions of the suspect and the vehicle used in the crimes.
Most of the slayings took place in West Phoenix, a predominantly Latino area. As month after month went by without an arrest, volunteers started conducting safety patrols. Parents kept their children inside, away from the windows. When evening fell, streets would clear.
It bore a striking resemblance to the fear in the D.C. region stoked by a series of sniper attacks in fall 2002 that claimed 10 lives before two men were arrested and ultimately convicted.
On Monday, after running down thousands of tips from the community, Phoenix police said they finally found the person they were looking for.
Aaron Juan Saucedo, 23, of Phoenix, was arrested and charged with 26 felony counts of homicide, aggravated assault and drive-by shooting, Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams announced.
Investigators had initially focused on seven fatal shootings they believed were connected. But police said Monday that Saucedo had killed nine victims in 12 separate shootings. All but one of the victims were strangers to Saucedo, according to police.
“This case plagued our community for more than a year,” Williams said, “and left behind a trail of victims that included mothers, sons, brothers, sisters and families still mourning the loss of their loved ones.”
“We hope that our community will rest a little easier and that our officers will get a little more sleep knowing that the wheels of justice are finally in motion,” she said.
Saucedo has been in police custody since last month, when he was arrested and held in connection with the fatal shooting of his mother’s boyfriend, 61-year-old Raul Romero.
Police did not identify a motive, nor did they offer details about what specifically had convinced them that Saucedo was connected to all nine slayings. But Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Jonathan Howard told the Arizona Republic that a “wide host of evidence” — including ballistics, surveillance and witness testimony — made clear he was the killer.
“It goes on and on,” Howard said.
A defense attorney for Saucedo did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Monday night.
Saucedo did not have a previous criminal record in Arizona. According to the Republic, he worked briefly as a municipal bus driver and was employed at a temp agency around the time of his arrest in April.
Authorities said Saucedo’s violence began on Aug. 12, 2015. That night, police said, he shot into a stranger’s house. No one was injured.
Four days later, Saucedo gunned down Romero, the only victim he appears to have known personally, according to police.
Several months passed before another victim was felled by gunfire. Police said in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2016, Saucedo shot and killed Jesse Olivas in a drive-by shooting as the 22-year-old was standing in front of a home.
The rest of the victims were gunned down between March and July 2016, in a four-month rampage that terrorized the city. Among those killed were Stephanie Ellis and her 12-year-old daughter, who were shot to death along with a family friend as they sat listening to music in their car.
Ellis’s mother, Sylbia Ellis, said police told her Monday morning that they had arrested her daughter’s and granddaughter’s killer. She told the Republic she was still trying to process the news.
“My mind is all over the place. My body is in shock,” Ellis said. “I’m trying to get myself together.”
When the shootings stopped last July, investigators said Saucedo likely changed his appearance and started driving a different car. Earlier reports said he was driving a late-1990 to early 2000 BMW.
“It’s been said that a serial killer is like a chameleon, and that’s what made this case so frustrating,” U.S. Marshal for Arizona David Gonzales told the Phoenix New Times.
Investigators pursued some 3,300 tips, while federal authorities conducted behavioral analyses and ballistics testing.
Police notified all the victims’ families Monday before publicly announcing Saucedo’s arrest.
“Our hearts go out to the surviving families,” Williams, the police chief, said. “Today we are closer to providing them the justice they deserve.”
During the height of Saucedo’s alleged killing spree, in the summer of 2016, locals described West Phoenix as a “ghost town.” Residents were clearing out of public spaces around dusk. Some even reported sleeping in back bedrooms to stay safe.
Rosa Pastrana, the head of a neighborhood watch group in the area where most of the shootings took place, told the Associated Press she felt relieved after hearing about Saucedo’s arrest.
“I’m happy my kids are going to be able to walk outside,” she said, “and I won’t have to fear that they’re going to get shot.”
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