I-80 sniper sentenced to at least 20 years
RENO, Nev. – A former high school honor student was sentenced Tuesday to at least 20 years in prison for a sniper attack on Interstate 80 that he said was to start a cross-country shooting spree.
Washoe District Judge Steven Kosach imposed the sentence on Christopher Merritt, 21, of Mankato, Minn., who earlier pleaded guilty to six counts of attempted murder in last winter’s shooting rampage.
An Olympic Valley man was hit in the chest and hospitalized but no one was killed.
”You have to live with this,” Kosach told Merritt. ”You committed a cowardly act and pulled the trigger at least 12 times. Thank God you’re a bad shot.”
Merritt, handcuffed and shackled in a jail jump suit, appeared somber throughout the hearing and declined a chance to address the judge.
Kosach sentenced him to a range of 20 to 55 years. Merritt won’t be eligible for parole until serving the minimum.
Six vehicles were hit by gunfire that shut down a 10-mile stretch of I-80 west of here for four hours on Jan. 4, 1999.
Merritt had rifles, a knife and 3,000 rounds of ammunition when he was arrested later in the day near Las Vegas while driving a pickup truck he stole from his grandfather in Fairfax, Mo.
Public Defender Maize Pusich, who sought a minimum 12-year sentence for Merritt, said she was pleased with the sentence.
But Deputy District Attorney Tom Barb, who urged a minimum 102-year sentence, wasn’t happy.
”(Merritt) can still give no good reason for why he did it,” he said. ”What’s he going to do when he gets out? … He’s a terrorist. He doesn’t deserve any leniency.”
The sentencing came after emotional testimony by Merritt’s mother and grandmother, who said they were shocked by his arrest because he was a good kid with no prior criminal record.
He was physically abused as a child while living with his father after his parents’ divorce, but made the high school honor roll and attended church while living with his mother in his teens, they said.
After attending college in Mankato for a year or so, he was a part-time hog farmer, insurance salesman and telemarketing employee at various times.
But his family acknowledged he appeared more withdrawn than usual only days before the attack, possibly because his mother was in the process of divorcing his stepfather.
”He didn’t seem to be himself,” said Joni Bressler, his mother. ”He was more quiet and didn’t sit with us a lot.
”But I’ve seen a change in attitude (since his arrest). He feels very remorseful toward the victims. He said he would never do something like this again.”
Letters of support were written on Merritt’s behalf by 20 other people, including his former minister and Sunday school teachers.
Pusich said she, family and friends are still baffled over Merritt’s attack.
”He doesn’t have a rational explanation for it and we have no idea why he did it,” she said.
Merritt said in a series of jailhouse interviews with reporters the next day that the rampage was intended to be the start of a cross-country killing spree partly to mock violence in the media.
He said he planned to kill at least 10 people for his ”own amusement,” and that he picked Reno and Las Vegas to begin the spree because violence there has been glamorized in books and movies.
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Eastbound Interstate 80 is closed at Floriston after a big rig flipped on its side, blocking both lanes.