As Florida town mourns, authorities revisit possible warning signs before school massacre

Nikolas Cruz appears in a police booking photo after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder following a Parkland school shooting, at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. February 15, 2018. Broward County Sheriff/Handout via REUTERS

PARKLAND, Fla. – Grieving families prepared for burials and private memorials Friday even as authorities struggled with questions over whether powerful warning signs were missed before the suspected shooter began his bloodbath in Building 12 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Nearly every investigation into random violence uncovers some past moment or comment that loom large in hindsight. But the backtracking after Wednesday’s massacre in South Florida turned up a potentially stunning harbinger – a YouTube post with the message “Im going to be a professional school shooter” by a user “nikolas cruz,” the same name as the 19-year-old suspect accused of killing 17 students and staff in the South Florida school he once attended.

A tipster in Mississippi alerted the FBI in September to the online post, but the bureau checked public and law enforcement databases for any Nikolas Cruz who might be of concern. The FBI said it turned up nothing.

Still, revelations of the dead-end FBI probe added another element to the now-familiar debates over gun control and assault-style weapons after each grim spectacle of mass violence in America. This time, a sharper light was placed on difficult issues of how far law enforcement should reach in following leads as part of pre-emptive policing.

“Did they do enough in this case? Quite clearly, if you see what happened yesterday, presumably tied to this killer, the easy answer to that is no,” said Ron Hosko, a former FBI assistant director. Hosko, however, said that the bureau receives a flood of tips and must make decisions about which to pursue.

President Trump and others have tried to steer the aftermath of the Parkland shooting away from gun control measures. Yet some Democrats have pushed back – suggesting that issues such as assault-style weapons could become more prominent in this year’s midterm elections.

“Enough is enough,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

“When is the right time?” asked Nelson, a Democrat. “How many more times do we want to do this? How many more folks have to die?”

Cruz remained held without bond on murder charges Friday. The school campus, meanwhile, was a crime scene with forensic teams scouring the grounds and retracing the steps of the shooter as described by witnesses: first firing an AR-15 assault-style rifle into classroom after classroom before slipping away amid the chaos.

Cruz then went to a Walmart, bought a drink, sat at a McDonald’s, and eventually left on foot before he was captured.

Besides the dead and dying, more than a dozen people were wounded. Some remained in critical condition on Friday.

“This community is hurting right now,” Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Thursday. “Today’s a day of healing. Today’s a day of mourning.”

The country mourned with Parkland, living through what has become a grim routine. Names slowly emerged on Thursday, revealing that the bullets cut down victims apparently indiscriminately, including a student who had recently gotten into the state’s flagship college, a senior who had just gained U.S. citizenship and a football coach who was working at his alma mater. Those killed ranged in age from 14 to 49, and the dead included nine males and eight females, police said. Most were teenagers, just one of them old enough to vote. Three were staffers.

“President Trump, please do something!” Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter Alyssa, said in emotional remarks broadcast on CNN. “Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”

In Florida, Cruz’s past revealed a pattern of disciplinary issues and unnerving behavior. People who knew him said that for years, Cruz had a habit of attacking animals like squirrels and chickens. When he got older, he became isolated, angry and withdrawn, losing his parents and eventually moving into friends’ houses.

At Douglas, his problems began with suspensions. A teacher said administrators had sent out a message suggesting they keep an eye on him. Cruz was expelled last year. On Wednesday, he came back.

New details about the shooting emerged Thursday in court documents and from police officials. Cruz took an Uber to the school, police said in a probable-cause affidavit, wearing a black backpack and carrying a black duffel bag. A staffer recognized him and radioed a co-worker to say that Cruz was approaching. Within a minute, he heard gunshots and called a “Code Red,” which announced an emergency.

Police say Cruz began firing into a series of rooms, returning to two of them as he continued pumping round after round at the huddled, terrified teachers and students. Cruz then went up the stairs, allegedly firing at another room as he traveled through the school building.

As students began to flee the carnage, police say Cruz dumped his rifle and bag of extra ammunition and joined “others who were fleeing and tried to mix in with the group . . . fearing for their lives,” Israel, the sheriff, said Thursday.

Cruz made his first court appearance Thursday, facing 17 counts of premeditated murder. He mostly looked down at his hands and answered the judge in a low voice. His attorneys did not specifically say that he had confessed to the shooting, nor did they explicitly deny his involvement, describing him as a “broken young man ” who is “very saddened” by what happened.

“This is an emotionally broken young man,” Gordon Weekes, the public defender, told reporters, adding that Cruz was on suicide watch. “He has been through a lot of trauma. He has suffered significant mental illness, and significant mental trauma.”

Investigators already have interviewed more than 2,000 people as part of the probe and hope to speak to unnamed others who “might enlighten us as to why he did what he did,” Israel said, though he emphasized that a day into the investigation, police did not believe Cruz had any accomplices.

Cruz bought the AR-15 himself legally in Coral Springs, Florida, officials said. So far, it is the only gun authorities have recovered as part of the investigation, said Peter J. Forcelli, special agent in charge of the Miami field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The court filing Thursday said Cruz bought the gun about a year before the rampage.

Federal authorities were facing questions about whether they had missed a chance to encounter the gunman before. The FBI was contacted last fall about a comment left on YouTube that mentioned becoming “a professional school shooter.” The YouTube user’s name was Nikolas Cruz. FBI agents spoke to the person who submitted the tip, searched law enforcement databases and were unable to determine who posted the comment, said Robert F. Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami division. Officials now believe Cruz posted that message.

FBI investigators looking into the shooting were pursuing information Thursday suggesting that Cruz might have been associated with a Florida-based white supremacist group, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the probe. But agents were still trying to determine the extent of his involvement with the group, if any, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation. A spokesman for the group told the Anti-Defamation League that Cruz had participated in some of its training exercises; the group could not be reached for further comment.



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