Education

Commission studying Nikolas Cruz rampage told of all the warning signs missed

Listen to the conversation between Nikolas Cruz and his brother in police interrogation room

Zachary Cruz talks to his brother, Nikolas, hours after Nikolas killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. Prosecutors released video of the police interrogation Wednesday.
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Zachary Cruz talks to his brother, Nikolas, hours after Nikolas killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, 2018. Prosecutors released video of the police interrogation Wednesday.

At least 30 people knew about troubling behavior by Nikolas Cruz before he shot and killed 17 students and staffers in the Parkland school shooting. Many observations went unreported. Some were reported but not acted on at all or significantly.

Here’s what they referenced:

Nineteen times: Cruz was seen with a knife, bullet or firearm in his possession.

Eleven times: He talked about wanting to hurt or kill people.

Eight times: He spoke about his hatred toward a group or person.

Seven times: He hurt or killed animals.

Three times: He made a specific statement about shooting up a school.

Some of this information was actionable but some was not, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri, head of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. The group, appointed by the Legislature, had an open session Tuesday examining Cruz’s aggressive social media presence, revealing witness statements, and the delayed 911 response to the shooting.

“None of us have a crystal ball but when you see this aggregated and voluminous amount of information available there’s a lot here to connect,” Gaultieri said.

Chris Lyons, a detective with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, echoed these sentiments in his presentation.

“It was obvious that Cruz’s behavior was escalating over time,” Lyons said.

Disturbing picture

Cruz’s online footprint, and observations from neighbors, friends and others painted a picture of a violent, verbally abusive teenager.

Photos taken by a neighbor showed Cruz walking outside his home in his shorts with a BB pistol, discharging the gun several times, before walking back inside. An Instagram post showed guns littered across a bed. Another showed a dead frog, with a caption from Cruz saying he kills frogs because they killed his dog.

A student who knew but was not friends with Cruz said he was racist: He would say things like, “I wish all the Jews were dead” and would draw swastikas at lunch on school desks.

In a second recorded statement, that same student said Cruz showed him a gun.

“So I told him, like I tried to like talk him out of the this, like bro’, stop bringing to school this stuff. You can get expelled. You can get in trouble,” the student said in the statement. But he did not report his knowledge to anyone before the shooting. Neither did many others.

Another student said Cruz commented on the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, saying he was glad those people were killed. He said Cruz would look up the number 666 on the classroom computer and once searched how to make a nail bomb. He said Cruz talked about “white power” and had drawn a swastika on his backpack.

A third noted that Cruz said he would kill her, rape her and hurt her family and kill all the people that she cared about. She said Cruz had previously dated her friend and was abusive toward her. She said he threatened her directly after his relationship with her friend disintegrated.

More than once, Cruz showed his classmates weapons or dead animals. One acquaintance, who met him at a camp a number of years earlier, said Cruz once showed him a lunch box full of bullets.

An employee of a bank that Cruz’s mother frequently visited noticed the teenager’s abusive behavior toward Lynda Cruz. She said she heard the boy threaten to kill his mother and burn the house down. He repeatedly told her to kill herself and that if she wouldn’t do it he would do it for her and burn the house down with her in it so he could watch her burn.

Lynda Cruz reportedly told the banker that her son was verbally and physically abusive to her.

The banker once noticed bruises on her wrist. She explained that Nikolas had tried to get her purse and they had fought over it. She allegedly told the banker, “If anything happens to me, you know it was Nick.”

The bank employee also never reported any of this information to anyone until after the shooting.

“The phrase ‘see something, say something,’ it means something and it has to be more than a phrase,” Gualtieri said. “We need it to resonate with the public because law enforcement can’t be everywhere all the time.”

He also acknowledged instances where people did report their observations but they were not acted upon.

Information silos

While Coral Springs was fielding calls from tearful and panicked students, officers quickly learned which classrooms to enter. The Broward Sheriff’s Office was struggling to catch up.

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A law enforcement officer rushes toward Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. John McCall Sun Sentinel

The regional communications center was clueless and in the dark because it was not getting information, while Coral Springs’ phone lines were blowing up, according to Gualtieri.

The problem: Panicked cellphone calls from inside the school went to Coral Springs, while BSO was responsible for policing the school, which is in Parkland.

“You’ve got the entity responsible for sending the police that had a fraction of information that Coral Springs had,” he said.

Even on calls where Coral Springs agencies received vital information, they could not pass it along quickly enough.

One mother in Boca Raton called her local 911 dispatcher after learning her daughter was stuck at school in Parkland. That call was rerouted to the Broward Sheriff’s Office and was met with surprise from a Broward dispatcher who picked up the phone. “An active shooter, where at?” she responded, before asking about many of the details their counterparts in Coral Springs already knew.

“She sounded surprised because she was surprised,” Gualtieri said.

“The left hand didn’t know what the right hand had,” Gualtieri said.

The units could have been dispatched in five to 10 seconds if the communication had been streamlined, he said. But he maintains that “the delay was caused by the system, not by the people on duty that day.”

“Who in the world thinks it’s a good thing when you call 911 and you need help, that you tell your story and somebody says — hold on, let me transfer you to another agency and then you tell your story again,” Gualtieri said. “That is not a good system.”

That process often resulted in callers hanging up, as evidenced by the phone calls played by the commission during the meeting.

Gualtieri worries that the county administrators still have not made progress on how to communicate effectively.

Tony Montalto, father of Gina Montalto, who was killed during the Parkland shooting, urged the commission to remember the report ultimately issued will be vital to helping prevent another mass shooting at a Florida school.

“My family and all other victims’ families hope you are all shocked and sickened,” Montalto said. “We need each member of this commission to feel our pain, to imagine the loss of someone close to them at school.”

Fred Guttenberg, father of 14-year-old Jaime, who also died in the Parkland shooting, watched from the audience.

Earlier that day, he and his wife, Jennifer sued the United States government for negligence, saying the FBI missed crucial evidence that could have prevented the Parkland shooting and the murder of their daughter.



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