Florida school shooting suspect charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder

Thursday , February 15, 2018 - 10:45 AM

Lori Rozsa, Mark Berman and Moriah Balingit

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

PARKLAND, Fla. - Police on Thursday vowed to make sure that “justice is served” after a gunman wielding an assault-style rifle killed 17 people at a high school here, even as they sought to piece together what could have motivated one of the country’s deadliest school shootings.

What police do know suggests that the carnage unleashed at a South Florida high school on Valentine’s Day was planned and carried out with chilling precision. The shooter, wielding an assault-style weapon and carrying extra ammunition, was said to have pulled the fire alarm to draw victims into the hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

What followed was another war zone erupting in a quiet suburban community, as a city known more for its sprawling homes and bucolic parks was transformed by a hail of bullets and a torrent of anguish.

In the aftermath, investigators sifted through the troubled history of the 19-year-old they named as the suspected shooter seeking answers. Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled from the same school now turned into a crime scene, had a history of disciplinary issues, unnerving behavior and a fascination with guns.

Early Thursday, Cruz was booked on 17 counts of “murder premeditated.” He was set to appear in court later Thursday, and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel vowed that law enforcement officials would make sure he was convicted on all charges.

“This community is hurting right now. . . . Today’s a day of healing,” Israel said at a briefing Thursday morning. “Today’s a day of mourning.”

Israel said police had identified all of the victims and planned to release their names later in the day. Some were students, while at least one staff member - a beloved football coach who had attended the school before returning to work there - was among the dead.

The coach, Aaron Feis, was shot after throwing himself in front of students, the school’s football team said on Twitter, writing that he had “selflessly shielded students from the shooter” and “died a hero.”

In addition to the 17 killed in the school and outside, another 15 were wounded, authorities said. Three of those remained in critical condition Thursday, while some others were still hospitalized.

Israel said that it was “a pretty good assumption” that the shooter had unspecified mental-health issues. But while school officials, students and others who knew him had sensed that something was off with Cruz, none of that was enough to stop the teenager from purchasing the gun officials said was used in the attack.

Cruz bought the AR-15 himself, and so far it is the only gun authorities have recovered as part of the investigation, said Peter Forcelli, special agent in charge of the Miami field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“He purchased the firearm legally,” Forcelli said in an interview Thursday morning. “No laws were broken in his acquisition of the firearm.”

In his social media postings, Cruz has been seen wielding other firearms, so officials continue looking for any additional weapons, but they have not found any so far, Forcelli said. Investigators are also reaching out to gun shops across the region to see if Cruz had attempted to buy other weapons.

Federal authorities were looking Thursday into whether Cruz had come up on their radar before. The FBI said Thursday that agents investigated a comment on YouTube last year that threatened a school shooting but were unable to identify the person who posted it.

“The comment simply said I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” Robert Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami division, said at the news briefing Thursday. “No other information was included in that comment.”

Lasky spoke after BuzzFeed News reported that a YouTube user had contacted the bureau after seeing someone with Cruz’s name post that same message. Lasky said that authorities, who investigated the comment last year and were looking at it again after the Parkland shooting, still do not know if the comment was posted by Cruz.

According to police, Cruz fired upon students outside and inside the school before trying to blend in with those who were fleeing the carnage. He was taken into custody in nearby Coral Springs, not far from the school.

Israel said Thursday that there was an armed school resource officer on the Douglas campus when the shooting occurred, but “he never encountered Cruz,” the sheriff said.

The bloodshed inside Douglas, which would remain closed at least through the rest of the week, was staggering even for veteran law enforcement professionals. Forcelli, a homicide detective in New York before he joined ATF, described what he saw as particularly horrifying.

“This is a bad crime scene,” said Forcelli, who was at the school for hours on Wednesday. “I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. Seeing kids, defenseless kids, piled up, it weighs on you. . . . I can’t imagine the pain the families have. There’s a lot of victims here.”

In televised remarks at the White House, President Donald Trump pledged that his administration would help “tackle the difficult issue of mental health” and said the issue of improving safety in schools would be the top priority during a meeting later this month with governors and state attorneys general.

“I want you to know you are never alone and never will be,” Trump said during brief remarks in the Diplomatic Room. “Answer hate with love. Answer cruelty with kindness.”

Even as the shooting was followed with questions about whether the country would revisit its gun control laws, Trump, much like Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, when he spoke earlier near the shooting scene, made no mention of that issue. Both officials instead stressed the importance of focusing on mental health in response to Florida’s third mass shooting in as many years.

Israel, the sheriff, said the shooting was “catastrophic.” He also warned of copycat threats made at other schools in the area. His officers responded to a report of a shooting at another school in the county, and while no threat was found, one of those deputies accidentally fired his own weapon and injured his leg.

The threat spoke to the tension still lingering across South Florida as it became the latest region to grapple with a seemingly endless procession of shooting rampages that have cut down Americans in their schools, churches, offices and movie theaters.

Investigators remained focused on the teenager identified as the shooter, as a portrait emerged of him as an increasingly erratic and troubled soul before he was expelled last year and transferred to another school.

He “started progressively getting a little more weird,” said 17-year-old Dakota Mutchler. Cruz, he said, was selling knives out of a lunchbox, posting on Instagram about guns and killing animals, and eventually “going after one of my friends, threatening her.”

“When someone is expelled,” Mutchler told The Washington Post, “you don’t really expect them to come back. But, of course, he came back.”

Jim Gard, a math teacher at Stoneman Douglas High School, which is named for an icon of the South Florida environmental movement - said he taught the shooting suspect last year.

“I had him almost all year. He just looked like a regular high school kid. Nothing outstanding. He didn’t act up in class, wasn’t loud or boisterous,” Gard said.

But at some point during the school year, Gard said, the school administration sent out a note with a vague suggestion of alarm, asking teachers to keep an eye on Cruz. “I don’t recall the exact message, but it was an email notice they sent out.”

An Instagram account that appeared to belong to the suspected shooter showed several photos of guns. One appeared to show a gun’s holographic laser sight pointed at a neighborhood street. A second showed at least six rifles and handguns laid out on a bed with the caption “arsenal.” Other pictures showed a box of large-caliber rounds with the caption “cost me $30.” One of the most disturbing appeared to show a dead frog’s bloodied corpse.

Cruz and a half brother were adopted as babies by Lynda and Roger Cruz, according to a relative in New York. Roger died years ago and Lynda died last fall, the relative said. Around Thanksgiving, Nikolas Cruz moved in with the family of a friend from Stoneman Douglas High School, said Jim Lewis, an attorney representing the family.

“The family brought him into their home. They got him a job at the local dollar store. They didn’t see anything that would suggest any violence,” said Lewis, who declined to identify them. “He was depressed, maybe a little quirky. But they never saw anything violent.”

Lewis said Cruz already owned the AR-15 rifle when he moved in with the family. “It was his gun. . . . It was secured in a gun cabinet in the house, but he had the key to it,” Lewis said.

Cruz was enrolled in a program to obtain a GED, Lewis said. But on Wednesday, he didn’t attend it, telling the family something to the effect of “I don’t go to school on Valentine’s Day,” Lewis said.

Ryan Gutierrez, 18, a senior, left Douglas on Thursday and walked two miles to a 7-Eleven in Coral Springs - the nearest spot where his parents could meet him. Police cars blocked every other road leading to the school.

His parents had already been reunited with his sister, Nicole, a freshman at the school.

As Gutierrez approached, his mom ran up, hugged him hard and started crying. Gutierrez held her tight, comforting her. His father came up and hugged them both.

“This has been so horrible, the most horrible day anyone can imagine,” Gutierrez’s mother, Diana Gutierrez, said, trying to stop her tears. “It’s unreal, just unreal. I still don’t believe it. You don’t think it will ever happen to you and your children.”

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Balingit and Berman reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Brian Murphy, Fred Barbash, William Wan, Jennifer Jenkins, Sarah Larimer and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report. David Weingrad reported from New York.


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