What started as a frenzied manhunt for a potential school shooter at Columbine High ended Wednesday with the suspect, a young woman from Surfside, apparently killing herself in snow-covered woods near the Colorado school. The early take from law enforcement authorities was that she was a twisted fan of two teens who murdered 12 students and a teacher at Columbine two decades ago, ushering in a continuing string of school massacres.
But in South Florida, the emerging portrait of 18-year-old Sol Pais was more complex. She was known to classmates and teachers at Miami Beach High as a slight, quiet honors student who had no known record of troubles. That image starkly clashed with the tortured, often despairing emotions she spilled out in an obscure online blog in handwritten postings punctuated with drawings and mentions of guns.
“This was a student who, according to some of her colleagues — and I did speak with some of her colleagues just minutes ago — was a well-adjusted student, a happy kid, a brilliant student, very high-achieving student,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said at an afternoon press conference.
Said one 17-year-old classmate in several AP courses: “She was very quiet. I would usually see her doing homework ... she didn’t seem weird.”
So far, Pais doesn’t fit the mold of school shooters like South Florida’s Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida’s worst school shooting. He had a long, documented history of emotional outbursts, discipline problems at school, a public fixation on weapons and threats against fellow students.
Many students and teachers considered him potentially dangerous. No one in the Miami-Dade school system, at least according to initial reviews and interviews, considered Pais a threat to others or herself.
But the case is still likely to put a spotlight again on the adequacy of mental-health screenings for students and gun buyers. Pais was able to purchase a shotgun, which was found next to her body, the same day she arrived in Colorado. Her gender may also raise new questions. Most school shooters are male.
“Just the fact that she is a female is unusual,” said J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, who studies school shooters. He added: “Typically, these kids will have a pattern of social and psychological issues at school and will have been identified as students of concern.”
Pais lived with her family in Surfside, the small oceanside community just north of Miami Beach.
She attended Bay Harbor Elementary School in Bay Harbor Islands and Nautilus Middle School in Miami Beach, according to two students who shared classes with the teen.
Samuel Weintraub, an 18-year-old senior, said he remembered Pais as a soft-spoken student at Bay Harbor who often wore dark clothing but never appeared distressed or prone to violence.
“She looked like she was harmless,” said Sergio Capobianco, an 18-year-old senior who attended Nautilus Middle with Pais.
Pais later attended Miami Beach High, where she was enrolled in AP and honors classes and usually kept to herself.
“She didn’t seem any type of way,” said Justin Norris, 18, a senior. “She was just bad at starting conversations.”
A preliminary analysis of Pais’ academic history showed no documented cases of threatening or disruptive behavior in the school system, Carvalho said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
“Over the past 18 hours or so, we have scoured through documentation specific to this student,” he said. “I can tell you that we have not come across any indication of any connection, any report between this young individual and law enforcement entities or disciplinary measures taken by any school.”
Then, on Monday night, her parents reported her missing. Surfside police officers turned the case over to Miami Beach police detectives, who found her “deeply disturbed” online postings and immediately notified the FBI, according to a law enforcement source.
One of those postings was an online blog replete with scanned handwritten journal entries dripping with laments and drawings of guns. One sketch is of a young man in a coat and a cap holding a small rifle; it looks just like one of the Columbine killers from two decades ago.
“Being alive is overrated,” the blog says.
In one entry from March 2018, she wrote about a dream. “Eye opening. I was only a week away from the day I had my f**kng shotgun.” Included was an apparent sketch of a double-barrel shotgun and a shotgun shell.
In another post, she wrote she had done “quite a good job” of keeping her emotions bottled up. “i feel like a pot of scolding water on the verge of boiling over… so dangerously close to spilling over.”
Her last journal entry was on March 30 of this year, when she quoted the Nine Inch Nails song, “Sunspots.” “Now I just stare into the sun and I see everything I’ve done,” Pais wrote. “I think I could’ve been someone, but I can’t stop what has begun,” she wrote.
Pais may also been behind a series of posts on the National Gun Forum, using the same screen name as the blog. In the posts, the person asked for advice on how to buy a shotgun in Colorado. “The problem is i have no friends in FL who are into guns like me so it’s not as fun having to do all of this alone,” according to one post.
Agents and officers quickly realized Pais had boarded a plane to Colorado, and purchased a pump-action shotgun Monday at Colorado Gun Broker in Littleton, less than two miles from Columbine High.
The store’s owner, Josh Rayburn, said in a Facebook post that she passed every background check. “We had no reason to suspect she was a threat to either herself or anyone else,” he wrote.
The manhunt was on. The FBI and Colorado police released her photos and story on Tuesday night, saying Pais was “armed and dangerous” and believed to be somewhere in Colorado after making “credible” threats days before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High massacre.
The FBI and Colorado police did not detail the exact threats, but they came four days before the anniversary of the April 20, 1999, mass shooting, which left 12 students and one teacher dead. Two seniors at the school — Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — opened fire and killed the 13 people before killing themselves.
Pais was seen wearing a black shirt, camouflage pants and boots.
Just before Miami FBI agents on Tuesday night visited Pais’ home, her father told the Miami Herald: “I think maybe she’s got a mental problem,” he said. “I think she’s gonna be OK.”
Security around Colorado schools had already been ramped up this year because of the constant stream of threats related to the anniversary. The Columbine killers have become a much-studied fascination for some disaffected teenagers and others who go on to become mass shooters.
South Florida’s Cruz researched the Columbine massacre before he eventually shot and killed 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018.
Pais likewise “was infatuated with Columbine,” police said — but she was nowhere to be found as officers searched hundreds of Colorado schools that were shut down on Wednesday. Then police got a report that a woman was running naked through the woods near Mount Evans in Clear Creek County, about 45 miles west of Denver.
A law enforcement source told the Denver Post she was alone and took a ride-sharing service to the area.
Deputies and agents in Clear Creek began searching the Echo Lake Lodge on Wednesday morning, scouring trails. Her body, and the shotgun, were discovered just before 11 a.m., about a half-mile from the lodge, the county sheriff told the Post.
As news spread that she had been found, the FBI tweeted: “THERE IS NO LONGER A THREAT TO THE COMMUNITY.” By the afternoon, deputies were seen carrying her body out of the woods, in a blue tarp.
Back in Miami, Surfside’s police chief and FBI agents informed Pais’ parents of her suicide as reporters waited outside, behind police tape. In downtown Miami, Pais was the first subject that came up at the Miami-Dade School Board meeting on Wednesday.
Board members and the public held a moment of silence for her.
Herald staff writers Charles Rabin, Carli Teproff and David J. Neal contributed to this report.