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FBI was warned — twice — about Florida shooter’s deadly threats. It bungled the case

Nikolas Cruz (Twitter)

The FBI received two alarming tips about Nikolas Cruz in the past six months: Someone who knew him well believed he was capable of murdering teachers and students. And an online commenter using the handle “nikolas cruz” professed his desire to become a “professional school shooter.”

But somehow no one at the FBI connected the dots or shared information about Cruz with the agents who might have stopped him before Wednesday, when he killed 17 people at a high school in Broward County.

The day following the massacre, the FBI said it had no way to trace the chilling online comment, flagged in September by a tipster in Mississippi, to South Florida.

Then, in a shocking admission Friday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the tip from the person close to Cruz — delivered in a Jan. 5 phone call to a bureau hotline — was never passed along to the FBI’s field office in Miami, as official protocol required.

The inability of federal law enforcement to identify Cruz exposes a disturbing lack of communication within the FBI, as well as a cursory initial inquiry that should have been pursued more aggressively, according to law enforcement sources and grieving survivors.

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If the leads had been passed along to federal agents in South Florida, “they would have run them to ground and possibly prevented the school shootings,” said a law enforcement official who asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation.

A former federal agent agreed: “Absolutely, it would have made a difference. Even if they had just gone to interview him at his home, they could have confronted him about his guns and taken them away” because of his violent threats to school children.

Cruz, 19, is the third person in Florida who had been on law enforcement’s radar before embarking on a deadly killing spree, after Omar Mateen at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 and Esteban Santiago at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last January.

Jim Gard, a math teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who hid students in his classroom during the shooting rampage, said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the FBI’s handling of the investigation.

“I’m sick to my stomach just hearing this right now,” Gard said.

Cruz, who plans to plead guilty, was a former student at the school.

Longtime Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office is representing Cruz, ripped the FBI — and Broward County’s school and mental-health system — for ignoring the “red flags” about his client over the years.

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“What we have is one of the worst crimes ever committed in America and it didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened,” Finkelstein. “If our system was working, it would not have happened.”

On Friday, responding to the FBI’s admission, Gov. Rick Scott called for Wray to resign. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of how the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice handled the investigation.

But Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, at a Friday news conference with FBI officials, defended the response of law enforcement: “At the end of the day, make no mistake about this, America, the only person to blame for this incident is the killer himself.”

Missed leads

The January tipster to the FBI hotline said Cruz owned guns. The person told the FBI’s Public Access Line, located in Clarksburg, West Virginia, that Cruz “had a desire to kill people” and could potentially conduct a school shooting, according to the bureau. The tip line received 766,888 calls in 2017. This one was not deemed a credible threat, as it should have been, and sent to Miami for follow up, the FBI said.

The flouted warning came after a Mississippi man informed the bureau in September of a YouTube comment that stated: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The comment was posted by a user named “nikolas cruz.”

Ben Bennight, who sent the tip, said FBI agents from the Jackson field office interviewed him at the time — and again after the shooting. Bennight knew nothing of the poster’s identity or whereabouts.

But it’s possible that Google, which owns YouTube, may have kept electronic data on the commenter. That digital trail could have led to Cruz in South Florida — and his history of erratic behavior that frightened neighbors, classmates and teachers.

To untangle the web of violent threats, not all of them credible, sprouting on the Internet, the FBI maintains cybercrime and counter-terrorism units. Federal authorities routinely issue subpoenas to Internet companies so they can link threatening comments posted online to a physical location and an individual laptop or smart phone — and locate the perpetrator.

“The FBI can find anybody with a little shoe leather and a subpoena,” said defense attorney Richard Della Fera, who represented Harlem Suarez, a South Florida man convicted of terrorism after his online rantings about ISIS led to an FBI sting operation. “If the FBI had reached out to (Cruz) in some way, they could have engaged him and maybe he would have taken the bait.”

The FBI has not revealed if it subpoenaed YouTube. Google’s corporate office did not respond to questions Friday.

“We are still investigating the facts,” FBI Director Wray said in Friday’s statement. “I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public. It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly.”

Michael German, who left the FBI in 2004 and did undercover domestic terrorism work, said it was a mistake for the FBI to bill itself as being able to prevent all incidents of mass violence.

“They encourage the public to make reports, you know see something say something, and then you get a system where you’re just responding to the flood as best you can,” German said. “You’re dealing with false alarms every day, and this becomes routine and you’re just checking boxes.”

Even if the FBI had followed proper procedures, including a 90-day assessment and interviewing the subject, that doesn’t mean the threat will be stopped, German said, citing the case of Mateen, the Orlando shooter who was interviewed by the FBI prior to an attack that killed 49 people.

“Unless that person is going to confess to planning a crime, there’s not a whole lot you can do,” German said.

Puzzle pieces

Nikolas Cruz is not a particularly common name. The Miami Herald searched public records and found 23 people named Nikolas Cruz in the country, although minors don’t always appear in databases. They live in eight states. Without acquiring data from YouTube, the FBI may not have been able to pinpoint Cruz in Florida.

“No other information was included in the comment, which would indicate a time, location, or true identity of the person who made the comment,” Robert Lasky, FBI special agent in charge for South Florida, told reporters Thursday. “The FBI conducted database reviews, checks, but was unable to further identify the person who made the comment.”

Brett Carr, an FBI spokesman at the Jackson, Miss., field office, said “there was no connection found to South Florida.”

Asked if the FBI contacted or subpoenaed YouTube, Carr said he could not comment because of the ongoing investigation. He said he could not explain why agents in Mississippi could not locate Cruz and said a review was underway.

The FBI opens roughly 10,000 threat assessments per year based on tips, according to the Associated Press. Sorting through them — and determining which ones should constitute the highest priority cases — isn’t easy.

But once the second tip about Cruz’s potential violence came in to the FBI’s hotline in January, all of the information should have been passed along to agents in South Florida, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation.

“Every one of these leads has to be pursued from soup to nuts,” said one official.

The identity of the tipster has not been made public.

There was another stumbling block that may have prevented quicker action: a 1986 federal law that prohibits the creation of a national gun owner registry. The law effectively prevents investigators from learning if potentially dangerous people own deadly firearms.

Last February, Cruz legally purchased an AR-15 rifle at a gun store in Sunrise. He passed an instant federal background check because he had no criminal record. Soon after, the record of that background check would have been destroyed, as mandated by federal law.

If FBI agents later investigating the tips about Cruz had learned that he bought a semi-automatic rifle — or even that a gun shop had done an FBI background check — would that information have helped prioritize the case?

“As an investigator, I want all the information I can get,” said William Vizzard, a former special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and now a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento. “It’s a small piece of information, but there’s no question it would be helpful.”

Authorities are, after all, able to track far more mundane items like a car, home or boat using public records.

Vizzard acknowledged that some Americans object to anything resembling a national gun registry — and that’s why Congress decided in 1986 to purge the criminal background checks so quickly. A Gallup poll from October found 29 percent of Americans were opposed to gun owners being required to register firearms with police. Seventy percent of those polled favored the idea.

“If you think someone is a real and present danger, it would be quite useful,” Vizzard said. “You could look it up and say hey, the guy has an AR-15 in the house.”

©2018 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.