Broward County

Florida school shooting suspect was ex-student who was flagged as threat

He preened with guns and knives on social media, bragged about shooting rats with his BB gun and got kicked out of school — in part because he had brought bullets in his backpack, according to one classmate. He was later expelled for still-undisclosed disciplinary reasons.

The portrait of Nikolas Cruz, suspected of fatally shooting 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and wounding 15 others at his former school, is a troubled teen with few friends and an obsessive interest in weapons. Administrators considered him enough of a potential threat that one teacher said a warning was emailed last year against allowing him on the campus with a backpack.

“All he would talk about is guns, knives and hunting,” said Joshua Charo, 16, a former classmate at the high school. “I can’t say I was shocked. From past experiences, he seemed like the kind of kid who would do something like this.”

Late Wednesday, detectives were digging into the past of the 19-year-old who had no previous arrests but had displayed plenty of troubling behavior before officers took him into custody after what ranks as the third-deadliest school shooting in American history.

“Our investigators began dissecting social media,” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel told reporters. “Some of the things that come to mind are very, very disturbing.”

Cruz, who was arrested soon after the shooting and taken to BSO headquarters, could face multiple state charges of first-degree murder and attempted murder.

At Stoneman Douglas High, he was part of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps during his freshman year, classmates said. Charo said he spoke little and “was into some weird stuff.”

“He used to tell me he would shoot rats with his BB gun and he wanted this kind of gun, and how he liked to always shoot for practice,” Charo said.

Cruz’s Instagram page, identified by friends as his but which has since been removed from the popular site, underscored his love of weapons.

In the images, he sported dark bandanas over his face and beanies and baseball caps on his head. In one post, he wielded knives between his fingers as though they were claws. In another, he showed off a small black handgun.

“Pistol fun a-- f--k” he wrote in that post.

One post on his Instagram was for an online ad for a Mossberg Maverick 88 slug shotgun. Another post showed the definition of “Allahu Akbar” — an Arabic phrase meaning God is great. Federal authorities, however, said Wednesday that they did not believe the shooting was connected to terrorism.

On Wednesday, police said, he was armed with an AR-15 rifle.

Friends said he spoke little of his relatives. He and his brother were adopted when they were young by Lynda and Roger Cruz, of Long Island, New York, according to relatives. They raised the boys in Parkland.

Roger Cruz died over a decade ago and Lynda struggled with the boys, said Barbara Kumbatovich, a former sister-in-law. “She did the best she could. They were adopted and had some emotional issues,” she said.

Kumbatovich said she believed Nikolas Cruz was on medication to deal with his emotional fragility. “She was struggling with Nikolas the last couple years,” she said.

After his mother died, Cruz moved in with a friend, whose family in Broward took him in and even gave him own bedroom. He worked at a dollar store and went to a school for at-risk youth, said Fort Lauderdale attorney Jim Lewis, who is representing the family.

Cruz had his AR-15, but the family asked that gun remain locked up in a cabinet, Lewis said. On Wednesday morning, Cruz slept in and gave only a cryptic reason why.

“He said, ‘It’s Valentine’s Day and I don’t go to school on Valentine’s Day,’” Lewis said.

The family had no idea what was going to happen, Lewis said. “Nobody saw this coming,” Lewis said. “They’re shocked.”

Charo, his former classmate, said Cruz had earlier been suspended from Stoneman Douglas High for fighting — and also because he was found with bullets in his backpack. Sheriff Israel said at a news conference that Cruz had been expelled for “disciplinary reasons” but he did not provide any details of what led to that action.

Math teacher Jim Gard remembered that the school administration earlier sent out an email warning teachers about Cruz.

“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” said Gard, who had him in class. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”

Drew Fairchild, a Stoneman Douglas High student stranded at the Marriott Heron Bay, where students were taken after the shooting, said he shared a class with Cruz during their freshman year.

“He used to have weird, random outbursts, cursing at teachers,” Fairchild said. “He was a troubled kid.”

The parent of another student agreed, saying his son, Daniel, had warned him about Cruz.

“If you were to pick one person you might predict in the future would shoot up a school or do this, it would be this kid,” said John Crescitelli, quoting his son.

Superintendent Robert Runcie told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that he did not know of any concerns raised about the student. “We received no warnings,” Runcie said. “Potentially there could have been signs out there. But we didn’t have any warning or phone calls or threats that were made.”

Shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz is arrested on Feb. 14, 2018. Courtesy: Josh Cohen

Runcie, citing federal student privacy laws, declined to discuss the suspect’s school record. But he confirmed that Cruz was still a Broward schools student, despite having been kicked out of Stoneman Douglas High.

Another former classmate, Nicholas Coke, called Cruz a “loner” who left the school and moved away a few months ago. Coke said he recalls an incident in middle school when Cruz kicked out a glass window and ran out of his classroom before getting caught.

“He had a lot of problems in middle school,” Coke said. “You never think anyone you know is going to do something like this.”

Miami Herald staff writers Jay Weaver, Chabeli Herrera, Charles Rabin and Carli Teproff contributed to this report.

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