The expelled student accused of killing 17 people at his former South Florida high school is “sad, mournful, remorseful” and “he’s just a broken human being,” one of his attorneys told reporters Thursday.
After a judge ordered Nikolas Cruz, 19, held without bond as he faces 17 counts of premeditated murder, defense attorney Melissa McNeil said that Cruz was “fully aware of what is going on,” but had a troubled background and little personal support in his life before the attack.
Cruz appeared via video, in an orange jumpsuit and with his head slightly bowed, for an initial Broward County court hearing Thursday.
Meanwhile, investigators were scouring Cruz’s social media posts for possible motives or warning signs of the attack. Several social media accounts bearing Cruz’s name revealed a young man fascinated by guns who appeared to signal his intentions to attack a school long before the event.
Nine months ago, a YouTube user with the handle “nikolas cruz” posted a comment on a Discovery UK documentary about the gunman in the 1966 University of Texas shooting that read, “I am going to what he did.”
Other past comments by YouTube users with Cruz’s name reportedly included one remark in September, saying: “Im going to be a professional school shooter.” At a news briefing in Florida, Robert Lasky, the FBI special agent in charge, confirmed that the FBI had investigated that comment. But he said the agency couldn’t identify the person in question.
In another post on Instagram, where he posted photos of himself in masks and with guns, Cruz wrote anti-Muslim slurs and apparently mocked the Islamic phrase “Allahu Akbar,” which means God is greatest.
Confusion also swirled after the leader of a white nationalist militia said that Cruz had trained with his armed group, a claim that drew wide attention but could not be immediately verified.
The leader of the Republic of Florida militia, Jordan Jereb, told researchers at the Anti-Defamation League that Cruz had been “brought up” into the group by one of its members, the ADL said in a blog post. ABC News also claimed to have spoken to three people who verified Cruz’s membership, but some white nationalists expressed concern that the news outlet may have been targeted by a coordinated hoax.
The Republic of Florida calls itself “a white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics” on its website, adding that its “current short-term goals are to occupy urban areas to recruit suburban young whites” in pursuit of “the ultimate creation of a white ethnostate.”
A training video the group posted online shows members practicing military maneuvers in camouflage clothing and saluting each other, along with music with the lyric: “They call me Nazi / and I’m proud of it.”
In the weeks before the attack, on Gab, a social media network sometimes used by white nationalists, Jereb had recently praised Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik as a “hero.” He also posted a diagrammed strategy for using the Republic of Florida militia to create “lone wolf activists.”
Jereb later told The Associated Press that he didn’t know Cruz personally and that the group had no knowledge of his plans for the violent attack. “He acted on his own behalf of what he just did, and he’s solely responsible for what he just did,” Jereb said.
President Donald Trump, in a televised address to the nation, decried the “terrible violence, hatred and evil” embodied by the attack.
“No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning,” he said, speaking from the White House. The president hailed first responders, offered to assist Florida officials “any way we can” and said he would visit Parkland soon. He urged social solidarity in the face of tragedy, but he did not call for any tightening of the country’s gun laws.
Earlier, Trump tweeted a call for public vigilance.
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
On Thursday, authorities combed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, for more clues, struggling to piece together the chaotic and lethal series of events that unfolded the day before as the shooter stalked the halls and classrooms with an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon.
As during many mass attacks in recent U.S. history, this one was documented by shaky cellphone video and desperate texts sent by those in fear for their lives.
David Hogg, 17, head of the student TV station WMSD, said he started recording videos of students while they were barricaded inside a classroom, “in case we died.”
“I didn’t know if any of us were going to make it out alive,” he said as he stood by police cars and tape in front of the closed school Thursday.
Vows to prevent such bloody episodes in the future abounded.
“We want to make sure this never happens again,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a news briefing. “The violence has to stop. We cannot lose another child in this country to violence in a school.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking at a sheriffs conference in Washington, said the key issue was “effective enforcement” of existing gun laws, but made no call for changing or tightening them.
“We’ve got to confront the problem — there’s no doubt about it,” Sessions said, saying the shooting exemplified “something dangerous and unhealthy” happening in the country.
But nearly 24 hours after the attack, the central mystery — why? — was no clearer.
“I have no idea” of the shooter’s motive, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said at a news briefing.
After Cruz’s mother, Lynda Cruz, died on Nov. 1, Nikolas and his brother stayed with family friends in Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. Unhappy at that home, Cruz asked a former classmate from the school if he could move in with him and his family. He had been living with them in northwest Broward County, about three miles from the school, since Thanksgiving.
“He was a little depressed because his mother had just died, but he seemed to be coming out of it and doing better,” said Jim Lewis, an attorney representing the family.
Cruz had gotten a job working at a Dollar Tree store, and he was going to school at an adult education center to get his GED, Lewis said.
Cruz, who underwent hours of questioning by federal and state authorities before being charged early Thursday, was to appear before a judge later in the day. He was taken into custody Wednesday in nearby Coral Springs about an hour after the shooting, having slipped away among other students after the attack.
Images of students filing from the school in long lines with hands over their heads or on one another’s shoulders, and of terrified parents sobbing as they awaited word, have taken on a numbing familiarity in a country that has seen such scenes play out in nearly every corner of the land.
Authorities painted a picture of a gunman who methodically plotted the attack, equipping himself with a gas mask and smoke grenades. Those who knew Cruz — former classmates, neighbors, acquaintances — depicted him as an eccentric and sometimes threatening figure. Like a trail of electronic breadcrumbs, social media posts by him showed a fascination with guns.
Former neighbors, whose acquaintance dated back to when Cruz’s mother was alive, said police were frequently called to the family home after complaints that included harassment and threats against those living nearby.
Wednesday’s massacre was the largest death toll in a school shooting since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., which killed 26 people, 20 of them first-graders. Like so many attacks since, this one appeared to target students along with teachers and staff.
Authorities were looking into the circumstances of Cruz’s acquisition of the weapon. The Associated Press on Thursday cited a law enforcement official saying the AR-15 rifle was legally purchased about a year ago. Under federal law, such guns can be legally purchased by people over 18.
The Broward County school district began offering grief counseling for students, staff and others affected by the shooting. Condolences poured in from near and far, including a telegram from Pope Francis, sent to the archdiocese of Miami, in which the pontiff said he was “deeply saddened.”
But much of the outside world remains baffled by the grim phenomenon of regularly occurring school shootings, virtually unknown among developed nations.
Moving stories emerged of self-sacrifice and heroism amid the terror.
The school’s football program tweeted that Aaron Feis, an assistant coach who also worked as a security guard, had been killed as he attempted to protect students. Feis was a 1999 graduate of the school.
“He died a hero,” the tweet said. “He will forever be in our hearts and memories.”
Hogg, of the student TV station, said one of the heroes of the day was a janitor he didn’t know who turned him and other fleeing students around and herded them into a classroom with help from a teacher.
“They saved all of our lives,” he said.
(Times staff correspondent Hennessy-Fiske and special correspondent Jarvie reported from Parkland, Fla.., and Pearce reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer Laura King contributed from Washington, and staff writer Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed from Los Angeles.)
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