Broward County

Florida’s mass shooters were on law enforcement’s radar. Could they have been stopped?

Court hearing for suspect in Broward high school mass shooting

Court hearing for Nikolas Cruz, suspect in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
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Court hearing for Nikolas Cruz, suspect in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Those who knew Nikolas Cruz and his history of anti-social behavior expressed little shock when he was identified as the shooter at Florida’s deadliest school massacre.

“From past experiences, he seemed like the kind of kid who would do something like this,” said former classmate Joshua Charo.

The same could be said — and was, more or less — about Florida’s two most recent mass killers, Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and alleged Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport gunman Esteban Santiago. They seemed dangerous, unbalanced. Mateen said he had connections to al-Qaida. Santiago believed voices in his head were compelling him to fight for ISIS. Cruz hurt animals, according to neighbors and law enforcement, and may have proclaimed on social media that he wished to become a “professional school shooter.”

Fragments of their disturbing lives drifted up through classmates, teachers, co-workers and dark corners of the internet — all the way to the desks of federal law enforcement officials. But no one put the pieces together in time. The three men legally obtained the weapons they used to claim a total of 71 lives.

“There’s not any kind of profile [of mass shooters] because this is so aberrant,” said Wendy Morrison Cavendish, a University of Miami expert on special education and criminology. “This is so unusual.”

Could they have been stopped?

Two years ago, then-FBI director James Comey suggested the answer was no. Before the Pulse shooting, FBI agents investigated Mateen for 10 months — but turned up no evidence of law-breaking.

“We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack,” Comey said in 2016.

“From what I’ve seen, [Cruz] was hiding in plain sight,” said a law enforcement official familiar with the Cruz investigation who asked not to be identified. “But until they do it, you can’t stop it.”

On the radar

Like so many others with suspicious profiles, Cruz left threatening clues along the way that with the benefit of hindsight should have alarmed authorities. But they were missed, even by the FBI.

“Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem,” President Donald Trump tweeted of Cruz, who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High for still unspecified disciplinary reasons. “Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Former classmates would mock Cruz for posting pictures of himself with knives and guns on social media, according to Manolo Alvarez, 17, a student at the campus.

“They would say he looked like a school shooter,” Alvarez said.

Last September, somebody using Nikolas Cruz’s name — with its unusual spelling — left a comment on a YouTube video that read: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.”

The man who posted the video said he was so concerned that he contacted the FBI. But agents could not track Cruz, who on Thursday confessed to killing 17 people a day earlier, according to police.

“We were unable to identify the person who made the comment,” said the FBI’s special agent in charge for South Florida, Rob Lasky, at a Thursday news conference. Lasky said the comment contained no additional information that would “indicate a time, location, or the true identity” of the author.

Another social media post, this time on Instagram, was reported to the Broward Sheriff’s Office in early 2016, according to a CBS News report that cited a law enforcement source. Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said his investigators are now reviewing his social media posts, including one where he said Cruz “splattered” a chameleon.

“We missed the signs,” Broward Mayor Beam Furr, a former teacher, told NPR. “We should have seen some of the signs.”

But experts say those signs can be complicated and scattered, without always providing a clear picture.

As the number of mass shootings has increased in recent years, law enforcement has struggled to get a handle on how to track, and prevent, potential tragedies. Following the slayings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education published what remains the most comprehensive handbook for law enforcement trying to prevent school shootings.

The study looked at 37 school shootings and concluded there was no useful or accurate profile for school shooters. A Columbia University review of mass killings in the United States found that only 22 percent of the shooters suffered from mental illness.

“There is no question there is some mental health aspect to someone who gets to this point,” said a retired FBI agent who specialized in assessing suspect behavior. “But it’s not a question of [whether] they have a mental health problem. A lot of people have mental health problems.”

In June 2016, Duke University psychiatrist Jeffrey Swanson conducted a case study of nearly 82,000 patients with mental illness in Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties and found the number committing crimes with guns was half the overall population. Predicting who’s at risk for committing mass shootings, still a very rare event, remains “an inexact science,” he said.

“The large majority of people with mental disorders do not engage in violence against others,” Swanson wrote in another study, “and most violent behavior is due to factors other than mental illness.”

Cruz, who reportedly received mental health treatment, purchased an AR-15 rifle at Sunrise Tactical Supply in Coral Springs in February 2017. The sale was legal, according to federal law enforcement.

Attorney Douglas Rudman, who represents the shop’s owners, told reporters in front of the store Thursday evening that Cruz purchased the assault rifle off the rack, in a box, and did not purchase any additional ammunition with it other than the magazine that came with the gun.

“It is for that reason that no red flags were raised,” said Rudman. “It seems like Mr. Cruz made a deliberate attempt to not draw suspicion.”

And while his postings on the internet might have tripped alarm bells, the huge volume of online threats is daunting, said former Miami-Dade cybercrimes prosecutor David Seltzer. But the agency certainly has the tools to prioritize the most credible ones.

Subpoenas can be easily issued to YouTube and other social-media sites to obtain IP addresses for users, but pinpointing the actual commenter can be made more difficult if a public wireless account was used. That could involve tracking down eyewitnesses or combing through hours of surveillance footage.

“Issuing the subpoenas is not difficult,” Seltzer said. “It’s everything after that is difficult.”

Dead ends

The FBI does not track the number of cases it investigates that wind up being dead ends.

“You’re not going to find a database of incidents where things could have happened but didn’t,” said the retired FBI behavioral specialist. “There is not a near-miss list.”

The agency has had success using confidential informants and social media to zero in on suspects bent on detonating bombs or shooting up places of worship in the name of terrorism or hate crimes — although some civil rights advocates have criticized the operations as entrapment and counterproductive.

In three stings in South Florida, FBI agents played into the pathology of perpetrators to prevent them from killing innocent people by arresting them before they did it.

Among them: the convictions of Harlem Suarez, who plotted to blow up a bomb on a Key West beach, and James Medina, who targeted an Aventura synagogue. This fall, a Miami handyman, Vicente Solano, was arrested before attempting to set off an explosive at the Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater.

A former prosecutor who specialized in counterterrorism prosecutions cited those examples as textbook cases of prevention.

“As tragic as yesterday’s events were, for every Cruz, Mateen and Santiago there are dozens of potential threats that are sniffed out by law enforcement,” said Miami defense lawyer David Weinstein, who once served as chief of the counterterrorism section at the U.S. attorney’s office.

But when mass shootings do happen, the agony of how they might have been stopped lingers.

Mateen and Cruz obtained their weapons legally — so did Santiago. Then, the Iraq War veteran nearly lost his.

When he walked into an FBI office in Anchorage in 2016 to discuss how the CIA was trying to control his mind, the gun was taken and Santiago sent for a mental health evaluation. A month later, police gave it back. There was no justification to keep it without him being ruled mentally ill, authorities said.

“We’re a country of laws, and [local police and federal agents] operate within them,” said then-Anchorage U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler.

Twenty-nine days after his Walther 9mm was returned, Santiago flew to South Florida and used the gun to kill five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport, prosecutors say. He has pleaded not guilty.

His brother, Bryan Santiago, expressed disbelief about the series of events in an interview with The Associated Press last year.

“How is it possible,” Santiago asked, “that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for only four days, and then give him his weapon back?”

Miami Herald staff writers Kyra Gurney and Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report

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