PHOENIX (AP) — A former city bus driver suspected in a string of nine deadly shootings that spread fear in Phoenix declared “I’m innocent” as residents of the terrorized neighborhoods Tuesday expressed relief over the arrest and frustration that it took so long.
Aaron Saucedo, 23, spoke up during a brief court appearance late Monday night after his arrest on suspicion of being the killer dubbed the Serial Street Shooter. A judge ordered him held without bail.
Police say Saucedo killed nine people and carried out 12 shootings from August 2015 to July 2016, gunning down victims after dark as they stood outside their homes or sat in their cars. Most of the killings were in a diverse, mostly Latino neighborhood.
Police gave no details on a motive. Saucedo knew only the first victim, and the other killings were random, authorities said.
Because of the shootings last summer, some residents stayed inside after dark. Others were afraid to come forward because many are immigrants in the U.S. illegally or don’t have their paperwork in order.
In interviews with families of victims and residents, people said they were happy that police made an arrest but questioned whether it would have happened sooner had the killings occurred in a different neighborhood.
“They didn’t look for him at all. They didn’t care. You know why? Because there were no white people dying,” resident Sirwendell Flowers said. “Look at the faces on the news. The police didn’t care.”
Parents and family members of the victims said they were still reeling from the brazenness and randomness of the attacks and because frustrated police couldn’t make an arrest sooner. The mother of a young man who was the second person killed wished police could have connected her son’s death to the case earlier, potentially taking Saucedo off the streets before more killings were committed. His case was only recently added to the serial killings investigation.
“If they would have looked more into it, looked closer to home, it would have prevented a lot of other deaths,” said Lydia Lopez, whose son Jesse Olivas, died on New Year’s Day 2016 in the neighborhood.
The hunt for the killer yielded more than 30,000 tips, and authorities said it was tipsters who provided the break in the case. They would not elaborate, and details of the evidence assembled against Saucedo were sealed by a judge at prosecutors’ request.
Witnesses described the shooter as a young, lanky Hispanic man who drove a BMW, helping authorities develop a sketch that bears a striking resemblance to Saucedo. Police said Saucedo stopped driving the BMW and changed his appearance after the final shooting.
A call left Tuesday for Dean Roskosz, Saucedo’s court-appointed lawyer, wasn’t immediately returned.
Two weeks after the first killing, authorities seized the weapon used in that crime from a Phoenix pawn shop. At the time, investigators were looking into a separate string of shootings that targeted drivers on Phoenix-area freeways.
Detectives with the Arizona Department of Public Safety didn’t conduct ballistics tests on the gun and returned it to the pawn shop five days later once they ruled out the weapon in the freeway shootings.
Phoenix police refused to comment on whether the evidence could have led them to Saucedo.
Experts said some of the circumstances surrounding the case are unusual, including Saucedo’s young age.
Jack Levin, a retired professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of several books on serial killings, said most serial killers are in their 30s and 40s and their crimes rarely involve guns.
“Multiple homicides are much more likely to be committed by someone who is older, who has led a life of frustration over decades and has decided to get even with society,” Levin said.
Saucedo was a bus driver for the city of Phoenix through a temp agency for several months in 2015, police said.
Police previously said they would pay out a $75,000 reward offered for information that could help solve the case but declined to say how many people would get the money.
The break in the case came when Saucedo was arrested last month in connection with the August 2015 fatal shooting of 61-year-old Raul Romero, who had a relationship with Saucedo’s mother. Authorities investigated Saucedo more closely and connected him to the other killings.
Holly Cortes, who lives a few doors down from the house where one victim was fatally shot, said she was relieved police made an arrest. She said her husband and his friends began hanging out in the backyard instead of the front after the shootings.
“I’m glad they finally got — hopefully — the person that’s responsible,” Cortes said.
Graciela Beltrán broke down in tears as she looked back at the life and accomplishments of her only son, Horacio de Jesus Pena, who was killed outside his home on June 3, 2016, after coming home from work. She remembers hearing the gunshots and not letting her daughter go outside to see that he had been killed.
Beltran believes police did a good job investigating the case, but added: “It was about time.”
Associated Press writers Brian Skoloff, Josh Hoffner and Paul Davenport contributed to this report.