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This Parkland dad blamed gutlessness, not guns, for tragedy. For that he faced vile abuse

Meadow Pollack one of 4 slain seniors honored at Parkland prom

Meadow Pollack's friends honor their best friend, a senior who died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. at the school's prom on Saturday night.
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Meadow Pollack's friends honor their best friend, a senior who died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. at the school's prom on Saturday night.

The sprawling, ranch-style home in Coral Springs is nearly vacant now — Andrew Pollack and his wife, Julie, will be leaving for good in a couple of days, and there’s not even a chair for him to sit in during this interview — and when Pollack plays videos from his cell phone, they give off a hollow, distant echo that make the place sound haunted. Which, of course, it is.

Sirens. Static. “Shots fired! Shots fired!” The sounds crackle forth as a blurry set of images unspool on the phone’s screen. A roadway, then a locked car trunk, then a pair of hands, leisurely retrieving a vest that’s stenciled SHERIFF. A series of spinning, unstable views as the law officer — it’s now obvious this footage is from a cop’s body cam — shrugs the vest over his shoulders and fastens it. More pictures of hands moving onto and off of the camera. Ninety seconds have elapsed and the car trunk is still visible; the deputy has not moved an inch toward Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a scene of terrible carnage.

And throughout that 90 seconds, a series of sharp retorts have sounded in the background of the video.

“Hear that? Hear those noises?” says Pollack, snapping the video off. “Those are gunshots. That’s my little girl being shot. That’s my little girl being murdered. While this deputy gets dressed. It took them 11 minutes to get to the hallway where she died.”

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Meadow Pollack was looking forward to the prom, graduation and college. Nikolas Cruz’s rampage ended all that.

Meadow already had been shot, she and others gushing blood as first responders were fumbling with their gear and waiting outside for precious minutes.

“So you wanna know why I don’t care about high-capacity clips and bump stocks and all this gun-control stuff? This is why. Eleven minutes! The guy who killed my daughter could have done it with a musket, that’s how much time it took for them to get there. He could have done it with a knife. We had plenty of laws to prevent this. What we don’t have is individual accountability.”

Andrew Pollack’s daughter, Meadow, was one of the 17 students and educators who died in the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine’s Day, nine bullets fired into her body. Like many of the friends and parents of the day’s victims, Pollack has been politicized by his loss; unlike most, he’s veered not left but right, not toward gun control but away from it.

Pollack was on stage when Republican Gov. Rick Scott formally announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate, and he appeared in a campaign ad for Scott’s successful senatorial campaign. (Title: “Meadow.”) He made ads — even taped a robocall for Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis — and now is a member of DeSantis’ transition team.

In the process, he’s been heaped with vicious abuse — more than one, many more than one, Twitter troll has said losing his daughter was a just reward for supporting President Donald Trump — and has lost friends. Worse yet, he’s lost faith in his neighbors. Last week, he and Julie finished packing, climbed into their camper and set off for parts unknown. It’s very unlikely he’ll ever live in Broward County again.

“There’s a culture of lenience here, a lack of responsibility,” he said. “So many mistakes were made that led to these killings, but nothing is happening to the people who made them. The people of Broward are OK with these people. And I don’t need to be around this anymore. I don’t know how many more years I’m going to be around, and I don’t want to spend them in this kind of an environment.”

***

At 18, less than four months from her graduation, bubbly Stoneman Douglas senior Meadow Pollack was looking forward to her prom, commencement and college in that order. But the last day of her life, pieced together from phone records and security-camera footage, was short and anguished.

At 2:21 p.m., as the school day neared its end, some kind of a racket broke out on the first floor. Even up in her third-floor classroom, Meadow was certain the sounds — there were about 90 of them — were gunshots. She texted her boyfriend; then, two minutes later, sent him another message: Oh my God, the fire alarm is going off.

With some other students, she dashed into the hallway, a deadly mistake. The gunman, a 19-year-old former student named Nikolas Cruz, had left behind 11 corpses on the first floor and walked up the stairs to the third, where he opened fire again.

Meadow, hit four times, scrambled to get inside a room to safety. But everything was locked. She crawled along the bloody hallway and used her body to cover that of another girl, freshman Cara Loughran.

It was a gesture as futile as it was brave; the five bullets Cruz fired at point-blank range went through Meadow’s body and into Cara’s, killing them both. Cruz tossed his rifle aside, walked downstairs and blended into the crowd of kids fleeing the campus. About an hour later, he was arrested two miles away.

It would be months before Meadow’s father knew all this detail. But he knew something ugly was going on almost immediately, even though he was miles away from Parkland. Out in the Everglades, he was having a Valentine’s Day picnic with Julie — they had recently married — when his cell phone erupted with a geyser of panicky calls. “First I heard from one of my sons,” Pollack recalls. “Then, from everybody. But all anybody knew was that there had been a shooting.”

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Andrew Pollack, father of slain Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Meadow Jade Pollack, joined by his sons, speaks during a listening session with President Donald Trump, high school students, teachers and others in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) Carolyn Kaster AP

Julie, an emergency room physician, led an hours-long search for Meadow through Broward hospitals. “By 6 p.m., when she hadn’t called, I knew,” Pollack said. “I knew she was murdered. But all we could do was wait.” It was another eight and a half tortured hours before homicide detectives arrived at Pollack’s home with confirmation.

“Grief,” Pollack said, recalling the moment. “I was destroyed. My little girl. Now, I have anger. But then it was grief. I didn’t know the facts. Now I do, and now I have anger.”

***

The anger began, probably, with the tale of the security monitor. Pollack, like most of the Stoneman Douglas parents but perhaps more strongly, had been pushing to find out how the school’s security could have failed so catastrophically.

“I think he suspected instinctively that something had gone wrong,” said Max Eden, a research fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think-tank in New York, who’s coauthoring a book on the shootings with Pollack.

“He didn’t like the way the investigation was unfolding. He wanted to know what happened and why. And after he learned what happened with the security monitor, everything changed.”

Pollack, trying to learn how the killer Cruz — who’d been kicked out of Stoneman Douglas for anti-social, threatening behavior — got onto campus that day, learned that Cruz had been spotted immediately by Andrew Medina, a school security monitor and baseball coach.

Medina, as he readily admitted to police interrogators, immediately recognized Cruz as the kid Stoneman Douglas staff and administrators knew as Crazy Boy, the one who always wore black clothes and swastikas. “We had a meeting about him last year and we said, ‘If there’s gonna be anybody who’s gonna come to this school and shoot this school up, it’s gonna be that kid,’ ” Medina obligingly told the cops.

Crazy Boy entered the school grounds through a gate Medina had left open in violation of security rules and, carrying a bag, strode rapidly toward the classroom buildings.

“He’s bee-lining. He’s got his head down. He’s on a mission,” Medina described him. Nonetheless, Medina didn’t try to stop Cruz or challenge him in any way. “Something told me not to approach him,” Medina said. “I don’t know if he had a handgun. He could have had a handgun.”

What Medina also didn’t do: Sound a co-called Code Red, a security alert that would warn everyone inside the school buildings to close and lock their doors — an alert that would have kept Meadow Pollack and others from running into the hallways a couple of minutes later when Cruz deliberately triggered a fire alarm to lure potential targets outside, where he could gun them down.

All that struck Pollack as lethal incompetence and gutlessness. But what pushed him over the line into untrammeled rage was when he learned that Medina shouldn’t even have been working at Stoneman Douglas.

A school disciplinary panel, the previous year, had recommended that he be fired for sexual harassment of students. One of them: Meadow Pollack, to whom Medina had whispered: “You’re fine as f--k.” But the school-district administration reduced the penalty to a three-day suspension.

Pollack these days maintains, nearly always, a steely, expressionless visage. But his face goes visibly more rigid when he talks about the matter of the security monitor.

“If that liberal school board and superintendent would have just listened to the panel, Medina would have been fired and he wouldn’t have been working that day,” Pollack said.

“And if he’d been replaced by a competent person, that gate would have been closed, and the shooter [Pollack never speaks Cruz’s name] wouldn’t have gotten in.

“And if he did, maybe a competent replacement would have called the Code Red and the doors would have been locked and my daughter wouldn’t have gone into the hallway and gotten killed.”

Pollack didn’t press for the monitor’s firing at the time because he didn’t know about it. Meadow told her mother, Pollack’s ex-wife, who didn’t pass it on to him. “Because she knew how I would have handled it,” he said. “If I had known, he wouldn’t have been working there any more. Or he wouldn’t have been walking any more, one or the other.”

***

The stories of the sheriff’s deputy who wouldn’t approach the scene of the shooter (or, rather, one of the deputies who wouldn’t approach; there were eight who took cover outside rather than enter the buildings where the killing fields lay) and the security-monitor who didn’t to stop Crazy Boy are part of a tapestry of individual failures that have convinced Pollack that much of the reaction to the Stoneman Douglas killings has been willfully wrongheaded.

Too much time and effort has been spent trying to re-engineer American into a gun-free society, Pollack believes, an improbable and likely impossible task in a country with something near 400 million firearms out on the streets.

Instead, he thinks, the effort to make schools safer should concentrate on things closer to home: getting rid of incompetent people and enforcing laws already on the books.

“Nancy Pelosi [Democratic congresswoman from San Francisco and likely incoming speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives] gave a speech here and said the Democrats are going to offer a whole bunch of gun-control laws to Congress,” Pollack said.

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Andrew Pollack and parents of students killed in the Parkland massacres speak during a news conference Thursday, where they call for changes in the school system, naming the school board’s “poor performance” as a specific target at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. The Broward County School Board has failed to properly secure the county’s 234 schools for the upcoming school year, according to a statement from Stand With Parkland, the National Association of Families for Safe Schools. “Their lack of leadership and constant reversal of policy positions has put our students and teachers at risk for the beginning of school next week.” The shooting on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killed 17 students and staff. Taimy Alvarez, South Florida Sun Sentinel ...SOUTH FLORIDA OUT; NO MAGS; NO SALES; NO INTERNET; NO TV... Taimy Alvarez South Florida Sun Sentinel

“Well, great. Go argue about guns for the next 200 years and it will still be a stalemate and then argue 200 years more. But what about all the kids who are going to be shot while that’s going on? There were plenty of laws that should have kept that shooter away from Stoneman Douglas. We just don’t have people with the will to enforce them.”

Summoning videos and newspaper stories on his cell phone, waving it like a baton, Pollack wearily checks off a list of could-haves and should-haves:

“The school never had [Cruz] arrested, even though he threatened to kill kids, rape kids, killed animals. It got so bad kids didn’t want to ride the school bus for fear he’d be there; parents were driving them so they could avoid him. You know what happens if he gets arrested? He can’t buy that rifle he shot my daughter with.

“He underwent mental exams, but even though he threatened suicide and drank gasoline, nobody ever Baker Act-ed him. You know what happens if he’s Backer Act-ed? He can’t buy that rifle.

“The Broward Sheriff’s office got more than 40 calls to the address where he lived with his mother. They got two tips warning them he was likely to be a school shooter. The FBI got two tips. He knocked out his mother’s teeth and held a gun to her head. But he never got arrested. If he had been, he can’t buy that rifle.

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Gov. Rick Scott signs into law gun and school safety legislation on Friday, March 9, 2018 in Tallahassee, Fla. as family members of those who died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting look on. Left is Jennifer Montalto. Right is Andrew Pollack. In back right is Hunter Pollack. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times/Zuma Press/TNS) Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

“So I’m telling you all these things, anyone of which could have stopped him. But all anybody wants to talk about is guns. How can they say that this is all about guns? It’s about a whole lot of things.”

Nothing gets Pollack wound up quite like the frequently leveled accusation that he’s a gun nut whose response to the shooting of his daughter is to flood the market with more firearms.

“I’m not a gun nut,” he insists. “I don’t tell people they should buy guns. I don’t talk about the Second Amendment or the NRA. Guns were not a big thing for me before Stoneman Douglas, and they aren’t a big thing for me now. I’m not ideological about guns. ...

“What I do know, though, is that passing new laws against guns is not going to solve this problem. We have laws against opioids, too, and people are dying of opioid overdoses at a record rate. That’s a fact, whether you like it or not.”

***

Pollack is not a man who gives ground easily. An entrepreneur seemingly from the moment he was born 52 years ago on Long Island (“I’ve never worked for anybody a day in my whole life”), he went from teenage newspaper routes to manufacturing and selling headbands to construction-site cleanup to the scrap-metal business, making more and more money each step of the way.

“But you know, it was a lot of work,” Pollack remembers. “And I had three little kids. I wanted to see them more.” Though only in his 30s, he was in a position to go into semi-retirement; he moved his family to Florida and began playing the stock market, with disastrous results.

He switched to the real-estate business and rebounded spectacularly, then tanked again in the wake of a market crash and a toxic divorce that eventually forced him into bankruptcy. The last few years, he’s been administering a few dozen properties held in a family trust.

***

Pollack’s reputation as a gun advocate seems to stem almost entirely from his fervid support for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which ironically contained so many gun control provisions — upping the age for the purchase of firearms, making them easier to confiscate from mental health patients, and banning so-called bump stocks that make semi-automatic weapons shoot faster — that the NRA opposed it.

But the act, which was signed into law in March, raised the ire of anti-gun forces because it also allows schools to arm some of their staff members. “Though Andy worked hard on the bill, he didn’t ask for that particular provision to be included,” says his coauthor, Eden. “The bill was a collaborative effort, and that was somebody else’s pet project. But Andy’s taking the blame from people who don’t like it.”

Though Pollack rejects the gun fanatic label, he cheerfully acknowledges a growing attachment to the Republican Party.

“I was never that political before,” he said just after returning from the White House Hanukkah party earlier this month. (He was back in Washington Tuesday as the White House school safety panel issued its recommendations, which called for reinstituting school discipline measures rolled back under President Barack Obama in an effort to eliminate racial disparities.) “I was a registered Republican, and I voted for Trump in 2016, but I wasn’t any kind of activist.

“After the shooting, I tried to stay bipartisan as I worked on everything, because I thought that would be the most effective way to do it. But over and over, the people who reached out to me were the Republicans. Gov. Scott called. DeSantis called. They wanted to talk about some of my concerns — especially personal accountability in the schools and the mental health system.

“All the Democrats wanted to talk about was guns. That’s what’s on their agenda, and they wanted to hijack the shootings to advance their cause. They don’t want to look at the actual facts.”

Pollack’s single-minded pursuit of his ideas about making schools safer — and his stark rejection of the other side — are in sharp contrast to those of nearly all the other Stoneman Douglas parents, who like most of the rest of Broward County are generally liberal Democrats who believe gun control is the answer.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, there’s been no conflict between the two sides. Fred Guttenberg, a Parkland real-estate agent who lost his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, in the school rampage, is the political polar opposite of Pollack: He got a standing ovation during his daughter’s funeral when he accused Trump of exploiting the shootings, then got national headlines when he tried to approach the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, to talk about gun violence during the contentious Senate hearings over the nomination.

“There’s no backbiting or infight among us,” Guttenberg said. “We all get along. Andrew has made his politics clear, and the rest of us have gone about doing what we do... . We’re all members of the same horrible, miserable club, 17 families who all experience the absolute worst. And we’re all grownups.”

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Andrew Pollack father of Meadow Pollack posed with her daughter’s best friend Carley Ogozaly next to a pink (Meadow’s favorite color) limousine with messages to honor her written by friends before heading to the prom, Meadow was one of four seniors killed in shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, on Saturday, May 05, 2018.

The conflicts that triggered Pollack’s decision to leave Broward have nothing to do with the other parents, but what he sees as a cover-up of the responsibility for the shootings. Most of the deputies who waited outside the building during the shootings inside still have their jobs.

So does Broward School Superintendant Robert Runcie, who Pollack (as well as some other parents who don’t share Pollack’s political leanings) believe was the flagpole of the “culture of lenience” that allowed Cruz to commit his murders. Broward’s teachers’ union has lined up solidly behind Runcie and helped ensure that a couple of Runcie critics who Pollack backed for the school board were defeated in August elections.

The election was really what sealed Pollack’s decison to leave, Eden believes. “He put heart and soul into that,” Eden said. “His perspective was, ‘These people imposed a culture that killed my daughter, and now they’re covering it up.’ And when you lose in that situation, it’s devastating.”

Pollack is even more blunt: “The parents of Broward school kids don’t care about the shootings. They saw what happened, and they just let it go, gave a vote of confidence to the people who let it happen.”

But he also admits he might have left anyway. Even if the school board campaign had been successful, it couldn’t replace what he lost on Valentine’s Day.

“If you look through old photos of me, you’ll see I smiled a lot,” he reflected in his final hours in the home he was abandoning. “That’s because I was a happy guy. Why wouldn’t I be? I had a great family and a great life.

“If you look at pictures taken of me the past 10 months, though, they’re different. You won’t find a one where I’m smiling, not a one. Because I don’t smile anymore, ever. My life is ruined. And it’s not coming back.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this story.
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