In the Florida community left reeling by one of the deadliest school shootings in US history, two questions were in the mouths of many residents – how did a troubled 19-year-old get his hands on such a deadly weapon, and what can be done to make sure such an atrocity does not happen again?
As grieving families sought to come to terms with the loss of 17 lives – 14 students and three teachers – taken during the rampage at Parkand’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, attention focused on the background and possible motives of the alleged gunman, former student Nikolas Cruz, with officials and residents painting a picture of a teenager who had more than a share of problems.
As the names of the victims emerged – the youngest was identified as 15-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff – Cruz appeared in court on Thursday afternoon charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder. More than a dozen other people were injured in the shooting. The judge ordered Cruz to be held without bail.
According to an arrest report by the Broward County Sheriff's Office, which has been included in court documents, Cruz is said to have confessed to authorities that he was the one who entered the school with an AR-15 rifle and "began shooting students that he saw in the hallways and on school grounds". According to the document, Cruz also "stated that he bought additional loaded magazines to the school campus and kept them hidden in a backpack."
Police have also laid out what they believe to be the timeline for the shooting, which is said to have started when the suspect was dropped off at the school at 2.19 pm local time [7.19pm GMT] by an Uber taxi. Sheriff Scott Israel said at a news conference that the suspect entered the east stairwell and pulled the AR-15 rifle out of a case, readying it before beginning to shoot into classrooms. The suspect is then said to have shot into classrooms on multiple floors.
The suspect is then said to have dropped the rifle, a vest and his backpack before running back down the stairs. Police believe he discarded those items to join others who were fleeing. The suspect then arrived at Walmart, bought a drink at Subway and left Walmart on foot, before heading to a nearby McDonald's and sitting down at 3.01pm. At 3.41pm, the suspect was detained in Coral Springs
There were questions about the clues that may have been left about Cruz’s state of mind as police and the federal investigators began to look into his background, with the FBI confirming a person with Cruz’s name wrote a comment last year under a YouTube video that read: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The man who posted the video, Ben Bennight, a Mississippi bail bondsman, was alarmed and contacted the FBI.
“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky told reporters. Investigators were unable to find the commenter, he added. The FBI is conducting an extensive review of how it handled that tip to see if mistakes were made.
In a televised address to the nation – his fourth following a mass shooting – President Donald Trump urged Americans to “respond to hate with love”.
“Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorney generals, where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority,” he said. “We must also work together to create a culture in our country that embraces the dignity of life, that creates deep and meaningful human connections and that turns classmates and colleagues into friends and neighbours.”
Against the backdrop of stories of students hiding in closets and of acts of heroism performed by teachers who tried desperately to save those in their care, it emerged Cruz was linked to a white supremacist group, with a representative of the Republic of Florida – a group that supports the establishment of a white ethno-state – saying the teenager had been involved with them. Jordan Jereb said Cruz had participated in at least one paramilitary drill. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks extremists groups, includes the Republic of Florida on its “Hate Watch” list.
However, Lieutenant Grady Jordan, a spokesman for the Leon County Sheriff's Office in Tallahassee said he knew of "no known ties" between the suspect and the group, adding that his office had "very solid" information on the group.
He said that his office has arrested militia leader Jordan Jereb at least four times since January 2014 and has been monitoring its membership..
Broward Country school Superintendent Ron Runcie said the high school had been providing support for Cruz before he had been expelled for “disciplinary issues” but there had been “challenges”.
Cruz’s adopted mother, Lynda Cruz, died last November from pneumonia, while her husband, Roger, was killed by a heart attack years previously. Neighbours of the Cruz family told local media police had been been to the house in Broward County a number of times, and that the teenager used to get in trouble and harass people.
After his mother’s death, Cruz and his biological brother Zachary, lived with a family friend in Palm Beach County but Cruz was said to be unhappy. He asked a friend, who he knew from his time at Stoneman Douglas, if he could move in with the friend’s family in Pompano Beach, according to Jim Lewis, an attorney speaking on behalf of that family. The lawyer would not identify the family.
Mr Lewis said they knew that Cruz owned an AR-15, but made him keep it locked up in a cabinet and never saw him go to a shooting range with it. He did have the key, however. The weapon is said to have purchased legally last year after Cruz passed a background check.
The family is devastated and shocked, Mr Lewis said. During the three months Cruz lived there, he was respectful and quiet but also sad over his mother’s death, the lawyer told the Associated Press. “No indication that anything severe like this was wrong,” he said. “Just a mildly troubled kid who’d lost his mum... He totally kept this from everybody.”
Hunter Vukelich, 24, was Cruz’s manager at the Dollar Tree discount store in Parkland until just last month when Mr Vukelich changed jobs. He said Cruz became his employee in November, just after his mother died.
Mr Vukelich described Cruz as an introvert, but one who showed no signs of potential violence. Mostly Cruz just rode his bike to and from work, spent his breaks looking at his phone, and would leave it to others to start conversations.
“He was a timid introvert. He didn’t bother anyone. He was cordial. He was nice. He was shy, timid, had some anxiety,” Mr Vukelich said.
He said his grandmother was shopping at Dollar Tree just three days ago and Cruz was her cashier.
“That’s what really scared me and hit home,” he said. “He not only checked my grandmother out a few days ago, he could’ve done that at my workplace. It’s even more sad to do it to innocent children. But to know that that could have happened anywhere else, and that we were in such close proximity to that is just so scary and disheartening.”
Brian Oakes, 40, runs a dance studio right next door to the Dollar Tree store. He said that he buys food or drinks from the store a few times a day and that he knew Cruz as someone who talked to himself on occasion but was otherwise fairly nice.
“He just seemed like a normal person… he talked to himself.”
For those around Parkland, the shock was clear. James Hackney, 40, who lived nearby and was who was walking with his two children, said the neighbourhood was “totally peaceful. It’s full of kids”. His eight-year-old daughter was on a pink bike and his seven-year-old son rode a scooter.
“It’s just surreal,” Mr Hackney said of the proximity to the suspected shooter. He said his children did not fully understand the events of the shooting, and he was happy to keep it that way for the moment.
While a number of vigils for the victims were due to be held on Thursday night, the community in Parkland were turning towards a larger issue of gun control with the Florida shooting the 18th event of gun violence at US schools in 2018. In his remarks to the nation, Mr Trump avoided the issue of gun control, but did say he planned to travel to Florida to meet with victims’ families.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said he wanted the Justice Department to study how mental illness affects criminal behaviour, to better understand how law enforcement can use existing laws to prevent school shootings. “It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening in our country,” Mr Sessions told a group of police chiefs in Washington. In “every one of these cases, we’ve had advance indications, and perhaps we haven’t been effective enough in intervening”.
However, one survivor of the shooting said policymakers “need to look in the mirror and take some action”.
“My sister is a freshman, and she had two of her best friends die – that’s not acceptable. That is something we should not let happen in this country,” said senior David Hogg during an appearance on CNN. “We need to dig out of this hole… there is something seriously wrong here. And some of our policymakers need to look in the mirror and take some action because without action, ideas stay ideas and children die.”
Superintendent Runcie said he has received several calls from students, asking him to push for conversations about sensible gun control laws.
“Students have been reaching out to me, reaching out to staff, probably board members and others to say that now, now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws in this country,” he said.
“Our students are asking for that kind of conversation,” he said. “We can get it done in this generation, but if we don’t they will.”
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