Sniper pleads guilty
RENO, Nev. (AP) _ A part-time hog farmer who said he planned a cross-country killing spree partly to mock violence in the media pleaded guilty to six counts of attempted murder in a shooting rampage last winter on Interstate 80.
Christopher Merritt, 20, Mankato, Minn., had pleaded innocent to the charges in March. He entered the new guilty pleas in the sniper attack Friday in a plea-bargain with prosecutors who agreed to drop six charges of battery with a deadly weapon.
“Guilty as charged, your honor,” Merritt replied as Washoe District Judge Steven Kosach read each attempted murder charge.
The lanky, part-time farmer and film buff who studied astronomy and philosophy at a college in Mankato faces up to 255 years in prison. Kosach scheduled sentencing for Jan. 11.
John Morrison of Olympic Valley was shot in the chest and several other vehicles were hit by the gunfire that shut down 10 miles of I-80 from Reno to California for four hours on Jan. 4.
Merritt had rifles, a knife and 3,000 rounds of ammunition when he was arrested later in the day near Las Vegas because a tail light was out in the pickup truck he stole from his grandfather in Fairfax, Mo.
Described by the local sheriff as a “goofball,”
Merritt said in a series of jailhouse interviews with news reporters the next day that the sniper attack was intended to be the start of a cross-country killing spree. He said he planned to kill at least 10 people for his “own amusement.”
Maize Pusich, the public defender representing Merritt, said Friday she believes Merritt was insane at the time of the shootings but there is no such defense to attempted murder in Nevada.
“He hasn’t given any stated reasons for what he was doing since he gave the interviews,” Pusich told reporters after the hearing.
“Personally, I think you have to be crazy to do this but the state of Nevada found him sane,” she said.
Merritt, handcuffed and shackled in a jail jump suit, smiled and chuckled with his lawyer before he signed the plea agreement in the courtroom. He grinned and waived at a photographer and nodded at a reporter.
Merritt originally told detectives he shot at the cars just west of Reno on I-80 with the idea of making them crash so he could rob the motorists.
But he later told reporters he was picking out Western sites for his shooting spree to make some kind of “satirical” statement about America’s fixation with violence in books and movies. He said he likes to write poetry, describing his work as a cross
between Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
He said he picked Reno, Las Vegas and Gallup, N.M., to begin his shooting spree because violence in those places has been “glamorized and romanticized” in books and movies.
“The popular American has chosen to feed off of whatever violent stories. Either they read the story and vicariously live through it or they read the story and they somehow find interest in disliking and hating someone like myself,” he said in January.
Prosecutor Tom Barb said he would seek the maximum penalty, anywhere from 112 to 255 years, depending on whether the sentences run consecutively.
Barb said Merritt told a former employer who refused to rehire him in Missouri that, “I’ll just go out on the interstate and shoot a bunch of people and the state will take care of me the rest of my life.”
“The randomness makes this scary for everybody. He had no intended victim. He just wanted to kill somebody,” Barb said.
“It was a ridiculous crime. Not that every attempted murder is not ridiculous, but generally you are angry at somebody,” he said.
Merritt, who has been in the Washoe County jail since his arrest in January, has been a model inmate, Pusich said. He reads a lot and plays chess.
“There’s only one or two people who can beat him” at chess, she said. “He read `War and Peace’ in less than a week.”
“He’s very bright but that doesn’t mean he is not insane.”
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Motorists on Interstate 80 should expect delays today as the California Department of Transportation continues work on the $2.5 million Farad rockfall project.