Crime

Florida school shooter arrived by Uber, escaped to Walmart after, cops say

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.

Nikolas Cruz confessed to the worst school shooting in Florida history, according to police accounts released late Thursday that paint a chilling narrative of a calculated mass murder.

It started with the killer arriving in an Uber. It ended with his peaceful arrest, after he escaped to a Walmart, where he bought a drink at the Subway inside.

An arrest report makes it clear that staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High immediately recognized Nikolas Cruz as a “former troubled student” as he emerged Wednesday from a small gold Uber car, carrying a black duffel bag and wearing a black hat. One staffer radioed a co-worker to alert authorities that Cruz was “walking purposefully” toward the school in Parkland.

But within seconds, it was too late. Cruz, according to an arrest report, methodically began firing an AR-15 assault rifle that had been stashed in the bag, methodically mowing down students and adults in the hallways. As chaos ensued, Cruz admitted to homicide detectives, the gunman ditched the gun to “blend into the crowd” fleeing the school.

The charging document filled in some details of the shooting that left 17 people dead and 15 wounded but did not address perhaps the biggest question — why. Cruz, who fellow students and former teachers say had a troubled history of fighting and had once been suspended for bringing bullets in a backpack, had been formally expelled from the school a year earlier. Many at the school speculate that’s why he picked out his old school as a target for revenge.

But whether Cruz, who made his first court appearance in Broward County criminal court on Thursday and was held with no bond, gave detectives a clear or coherent motive for the crime during hours of questioning remains unknown. He said little during a brief hearing as a judge declared there was probable cause for him to be held on 17 counts of first-degree murder.

He is now on suicide watch at the Broward County jail. The details of his mental health and his tumultuous life could become a factor as lawyers begin to mount a defense. Broward chief assistant public defender Gordon Weekes, whose office represented Cruz at the brief hearing told reporters: “He is deeply troubled.”

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Suspected school shooter Nikolas Cruz makes a video appearance in Broward County court before Judge Kim Theresa Mollica. Cruz is facing 17 charges of premeditated murder in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Susan Stocker Sun Sentinel

That was no surprise to his former neighbors in Parkland, who recalled a troubled child.

Police repeatedly visited his Parkland home because of his erratic, sometimes violent behavior, which included pelting a neighbor’s car with eggs. Jug-eared with freckles, he sometimes sat on the curb alone, avoided by neighborhood kids. He tormented animals, shooting at rodents and chickens with a BB gun.

“That child had an extremely cold stare,” said neighbor Rhonda Roxburgh. “He was going to hurt somebody. I just didn’t know it would be this bad.”

While the exact nature of Cruz’s mental state remains unknown — one relative said he suffered from autism — it is clear the teenager struggled with deep emotional outbursts for years, providing plenty of warning signs preceding the worst school shooting in Florida history. How Broward schools dealt with his episodes, and whether anything could have prevented his rampage, remain shrouded in secrecy because of federal student-privacy laws.

Cruz and his young brother, Zachary Cruz, were adopted at a young age by Lynda and Roger Cruz, who moved to South Florida from New York. Lynda was a stay-at-home mother, while Roger worked in advertising before his death nearly 15 years ago, relatives said.

As Nikolas got older and acted out, Cruz’s adoptive mother was always “very apologetic,” said former neighbor Shelby Speno, whose car was pelted by eggs hurled by the boy.

“I think she had her hands full,” Speno said.

His adoptive father died in 2004, according to court records. And Cruz’s troubling behavior grew worse as he got older in a quiet neighborhood of spacious homes, some gated or fenced off from the street. Speno said she once saw him shooting at a neighbor’s chickens. Other neighbors reported him shooting at squirrels, poking a rabbit hole with a stick and setting his family’s dog on another neighbor’s piglets.

He was “just a little bit creepy,” Speno said. “I would wave and he would stare back.”

Cruz’s younger brother, Zachary, was quiet and caused no problems, often skateboarding around the neighborhood, residents said. The Cruz family sold the home for $575,000 in early 2017, according to Broward County property records.

Melisa McNeill, the defense attorney for Marjory Stoneman Douglas suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz, tells the media that her client is a broken human being and feels remorseful for his actions.

At school, classmates knew Cruz as a loner who talked mostly about his love of weapons. In his social media posts, 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.

In one image, Cruz appeared to wear a red Make America Great Again cap, boasting the campaign slogan of President Donald Trump. But what ideology, if any, Cruz espoused is unclear — he also posted an image of an Arabic phrase meaning “God is great.”

The leader of a Florida white militant group on Wednesday claimed Cruz was a member, but offered no proof and acknowledged he himself had not met the teen.

Speaking on WIOD-610 AM radio Thursday morning, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said Cruz’s social media posts were troubling.

“We saw a pic yesterday where he took a chameleon and he splattered the chameleon,” Israel said. “Things like this, that’s not normal behavior.”

His posts certainly caught the attention of fellow students at Douglas High, where Cruz joined the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps but was known for having few friends.

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Nikolas Cruz is the 19-year-old suspect charged with the shooting in Parkland. Broward County Sheriff's Office

Cruz had a troubled history there, where he had been suspended for fights and having ammunition in his backpack, leading administrators to ban him from having a backpack, according to students. He was later expelled for “disciplinary reasons” — although exactly why remains unknown.

Despite his alarming behavior over the years, Cruz had no record of arrests. He was able to purchase a .223-caliber rifle from Sunrise Tactical, a gun shop in Coral Springs in February 2017 after instantly clearing an FBI background check, according to police.

Ironically, Cruz could not have bought a handgun such as a 9mm Glock pistol because the purchaser has to be at least 21 years old under U.S. law. Yet, anyone who is at least 18 and clears a criminal background check can legally buy a rifle or shotgun in the United States.

There was another warning sign across the country later that year.

Cruz appeared to have left an ominous comment on a Mississippi man’s YouTube channel in September. Ben Bennight, a Gulfport bail bondsman who goes by “Ben the Bondsman” on YouTube, said in a video posted Wednesday night that he spoke to FBI agents in September about a comment left on one of his videos by someone with the username “nikolas cruz.”

“Im going to be a professional school shooter,” the commenter wrote.

In the video, Bennight says he immediately reported the comment to YouTube and to the local FBI field office.

But South Florida’s FBI Special Agent in Charge told reporters that investigators — after “reviews and checks” — could not identify the user behind the YouTube comment.

“We were unable to identify the person who made the comment,” Rob Lasky said at a news conference, adding that no other information included with that comment would “indicate a time, location, or the true identity of the person who made the comment.”

On Wednesday, FBI agents in Mississippi and South Florida contacted Bennight again in the hours after the shooting to ask questions about the disturbing comment.

“I wish that the information could have prevented this from happening,” he said near the end of the video. “But it was a generic comment, and you know, people say things. Keyboard commandos type things all the time that they don’t mean.”

In November, just a few months after the online comment was made, Lynda Cruz died. She succumbed to a respiratory illness, according to a relative in New York.

Weekes, the defense lawyer, said: “Emotionally, he has gone through a lot in a very short period of time with the loss of his mother.”

By January, Cruz had enrolled at Pompano’s Cross Creek School — a campus specifically for emotionally troubled students — where employees had to escort him from class to class. He also moved in with a friend in Pompano Beach, attending class and working at a nearby Dollar Tree store in Parkland.

The friend’s father, James Snead, asked him to keep the AR-15 locked in a cabinet. However, Cruz did not go to school Wednesday morning, delivering a cryptic remark to a friend.

“He said, ‘It’s Valentine’s Day and I don’t go to school on Valentine’s Day,’ ” said attorney Jim Lewis, who is representing the Snead family.

That afternoon, Broward authorities say Cruz took the Uber to his former school, carrying a black duffel bag with his rifle and plenty of extra ammo.

According to Israel, the shooter at 2:19 p.m. entered the east stairwell of building 12, walking back and forth into classrooms firing. He went to a second story, fired into classroom 1234, then fled to the third story, where he dropped the bag and the weapon.

Cruz, police said, ran down the stairs and ran across a field — along with other students. “With others who were fleeing, he tried to mix in,” Israel said.

Then Cruz walked into a Walmart, where he bought a drink at the Subway there. At 3:01 p.m., Cruz walked into a nearby McDonald’s and sat down for awhile. By 3:41 p.m. as police were scrambling to find the slender teen wearing a burgundy polo, Coconut Creek patrolman Michael Leonard spotted Cruz while scouring the neighborhood.

Cruz surrendered peacefully.

“He looked like a typical high school student,” Leonard said.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel details the official timeline of events during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.

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