Crime

Parkland shooter researched Columbine as he planned attack, state commission reveals

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz in court in February.
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz in court in February. South Florida Sun Sentinel

Radios were so badly jammed as police responded to the worst school shooting in Florida history that sheriff's deputies and Coral Springs police clearing buildings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had to communicate by hand.

Teachers tasked with locking their students inside their rooms to protect them during the six-minute assault were forced to lock their doors from the outside.

And Nikolas Cruz — whose attack was so heinous that one of his victim's parents will call him only by his prison number — researched the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School as he planned a Feb. 14 attack that killed 17 and wounded 15 more. When he carried out his plan, Cruz was able to move "unfettered" onto campus and into a "fishbowl" of a freshman building before he opened fire in an attack so relentless the smoke from his gun's muzzle set off the fire alarm.

Those details were part of the new information released Tuesday as a state commission created to investigate the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland met for the first time. The commission also revealed that teachers' snap judgments on whether to treat the incident as a fire drill or "code red" active shooter incident ended up being the difference between life and death on the second and third floors.

The 20-member commission, created by the Florida Legislature as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act and led by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, plans to pore through thousands of documents, parse the entire life of shooter Nikolas Cruz and lay out how policies and procedures affected the incident and who is responsible for any lapses.

A report is due in January. The commission includes three parents whose children were killed in the attack.

"Today was just designed to set the stage," Gualtieri said.

He laid out a broad and emotional task for a state-appointed body that intends to investigate how police responded to the shooting, how the school district and a behavioral center handled Cruz's outbursts, and Cruz's entire life, from cradle to incarceration. Armed with subpoena power, the commission intends to review thousands of documents, witness statements and police reports, call its own witnesses, and potentially review the disturbing video captured by the body cameras of the first responders.

The school district's own training, the on-site school resource officer, school layout and a national history of school shootings are among the issues to be reviewed. Henderson Behavioral Health, where Cruz received treatment, is also part of the review.

For parents Ryan Petty, Max Schachter and Andrew Pollack, it will be a gut-wrenching task. They've been asked to decide whether they want to view video captured on the body cameras of the first police to enter the building where Cruz attacked. Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, died in the shooting, referred to Cruz during the meeting as "18-19-58," the number assigned his criminal case by the Broward Clerk of Courts.

"I can’t call him by name," Pollack said. "That’s his prison ID number."

Already Tuesday, they watched a crude video reenactment of the shootings, in which dots were used to represent Cruz and his victims, with colors representing those who lived and died.

"The presentation reminded me of a video game," said Okaloosa Sheriff Larry Ashley. "How many kills can I get?"

Media reports and public records have shown that police and mental health professionals had multiple opportunities to address Cruz's plans to attack his former high school. Public records and video obtained through a lawsuit have made clear that police at the school waited while Cruz shot up a freshman building and then were confused about where and when he was located while watching time-delayed video of the attack.

But Gualtieri, who led the discussion Tuesday at Broward College's north campus in Coconut Creek, said the commission will use the available information to come to its own conclusions and findings. He gave an inkling of how the school's training and physical layout may have played a role in the shooting, discussing how no one died on the second floor of building 12 because all the classrooms treated the incident as a code red.

Cruz, who never once entered a classroom, did all his shooting and killing from the building's hallways. It's been previously reported that he tried to shoot out the windows of a third-floor teachers lounge in order to shoot students in a courtyard below, but was thwarted by impact-resistant glass. Gualtieri said Tuesday that Cruz had brought a bipod with him.

One issue that may have hampered teachers trying to lock themselves in, Gualtieri explained, was that the school's doors only lock from the outside.

"One of the things that occurred in that school is, to lock those classroom doors, the only way to lock those doors is from the outside," said Gualtieri. "The teacher had to go out into the hallway and take a key and lock the door. That’s messed up. No matter how you slice it."

Gualtieri made clear that the commission already has an overwhelming amount of video, police documentation and witness testimony on the event. But he also said there's more to glean, and suggested that there are some agencies that are not fully cooperating.

"There’s two ways to do it. The easy way and the hard way," Gualtieri said, declining to name names. "We’re going to get it. We’re going to figure this out."

The commission was created under the purview of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which will provide investigative staff to pursue much of the work requested by its members. The commission also meets under the rules of Florida's Sunshine Laws, but held a portion of its meeting Tuesday in private at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, citing the confidentiality of aspects of the ongoing criminal investigation.

At one point, Pollack asked whether BSO had received all of Cruz's disciplinary records yet. When he was told the answer isn't clear, Pollack asked if it was "normal, two months after an investigation [started], not to have all his disciplinary records."

The response: "I don’t know that any of this is normal."

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