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How the system built to stop Stoneman Douglas school shooter repeatedly broke down

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The Broward County Sheriff’s Office received a call in November with an ominous warning: Nikolas Cruz, a troubled 19-year-old, was collecting guns and knives and “could be a school shooter in the making.”

It was one of at least four times local or federal authorities were contacted about such a threat linked to Cruz, including a tip the FBI received in January warning that he would “get into a school and just shoot the place up,” according to a transcript of the call obtained by The Post on Friday. Another tip to the sheriff’s office the previous year warned that Cruz “planned to shoot up the school.”

In the era of “see something, say something,” members of the public did just that. But what happened after the November call fit a disturbing pattern in the lead-up to the Parkland, Fla., massacre: No report was filed, and there is no evidence the threat was ever investigated.

Less than three months later, police say, Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and gunned down 17 students and faculty members. As the rampage has supercharged the country’s politically fraught debate over gun control and school safety, it also has cast a spotlight on the systems set up to protect Americans nationwide.

The FBI’s acting deputy director David Bowdich said this week that the agency made mistakes in its handling of a warning about Cruz. The FBI on Friday briefed congressional staff on the tip and the agency’s failure to properly follow up.

Investigations into mass shootings often reveal warning signs that seem blindingly clear with the benefit of hindsight. But the Parkland shooting has stood out for the sheer scale of how many alarms were raised before the Feb. 14 rampage.

Rather than flying under the radar, Cruz was a known troublemaker who repeatedly drew scrutiny from local, state and federal authorities as well as school officials, social services investigators and mental-health counselors. Yet time and time again, the alarms would go unheeded.

This account is based on interviews, police records, state documents, public statements and 911 recordings dealing with the shooting. Cruz is behind bars, charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, and likely to face a possible death sentence.

Police say they never had cause to arrest Cruz, leaving him with a clean criminal record and able to pass background checks. Only five states have “red flag laws” allowing them to seize guns before people can commit acts of violence, and Florida is not among them.

“We take guns from people when we run into them engaged in aberrant, troubling behavior,” said Daniel J. Oates, the Miami Beach police chief who had the same role in Aurora, Colo., when a gunman killed 12 at a movie theater there in 2012. But under Florida law, he said, “there’s a strong presumption that the person is entitled to the gun back.”

Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender representing Cruz, said he should have been involuntarily hospitalized under the state’s Baker Act.

“There is no explaining how every single agency in every regard missed every signal,” said Finkelstein. “It’s very overwhelming in its sadness and scariness. Because there are people in this county, and I imagine counties all over America, who want to know: Are my children safe?”

People who knew Cruz growing up said he would attack animals and pick fights, while educators repeatedly referred him to counseling. The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) investigated his home life in 2016 after receiving allegations he was being mistreated, but officials said his risk level was low because he lived with his mother, attended school and received counseling. The probe was closed.

In November, his mother died and he was removed from Stoneman Douglas earlier that year for disciplinary reasons. The same month he left Douglas, Cruz purchased the AR-15 he would use in the rampage, police said.

By the time of the shooting, Cruz had legally purchased at least 10 rifles and shotguns, including an AK-47 variant, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

Law enforcement officials have drawn intense criticism for lapses involving Cruz. The FBI said it failed to investigate the January warning about concerns that he wanted to kill people, owned guns and could carry out a school shooting.

This person told the FBI that she worried Cruz was “going to explode,” a federal law enforcement official said Friday. Details of her call were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, which reviewed a transcript of the call. A federal law enforcement official confirmed the information to The Washington Post.

The caller, who seemed to have detailed knowledge of Cruz’s behavior, said Cruz had commented on social media about killing himself — something passed to local police, she said — and that his more recent posts suggested violence against others.

“Something is going to happen,” the caller said.

The FBI representative inquired about the caller’s assertion that Cruz was “into ISIS” and requested contact information for the people with whom Cruz is said to be staying.

That tip came months after the FBI was alerted to a YouTube comment in which someone with the screen name “nikolas cruz” wrote “Im going to be a professional school shooter.” The agency said it was unable to determine who posted the message at the time, but now believes it was Cruz.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday it received 23 calls relating to Cruz or his family dating back to 2008, when he was 9 years old.

In one 911 call to that sheriff’s office, a woman said that her son and another young man — Cruz, according to his lawyer who confirmed this call centered on his client — got into a fight, and she was “afraid he’s coming back and he has a lot of weapons.” She also said that Cruz had aimed a gun at people’s heads before. In another 911 call, Cruz called authorities and, sounding distressed, said he was attacked.

In Broward County, the sheriff’s office said it has launched internal investigations into how two calls about Cruz were handled. The February 2016 call alleged Cruz had stated on Instagram that he wanted to shoot up a school; a deputy spoke to the caller and determined that Cruz had knives and a BB gun, the sheriff’s office said.

Information about that call was sent to Scot Peterson, the Douglas school resource officer who failed to enter the building during the shooting, but it was unclear what he did with the tip. Peterson has retired and the deputy has been placed on restricted administrative duty as part of the investigation.

In November, a caller alerted the Broward County Sheriff’s Office that Cruz was collecting guns and knives, wanted to join the Army, may commit suicide and could be a school shooter. Authorities have not identified the caller, except to say they called from Massachusetts.

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said this week that no report was filed on that call. After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, a deputy said he referred the caller to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, but a spokeswoman for that office said they were never told of that threat. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office said it launched an internal investigation into the call but declined to provide further details about what happened after, citing the ongoing internal affairs investigation.

Robert Bonczek, 17, a Stoneman Douglas senior who plans to join the Marine Corps, said students are angry with law enforcement officials and that civilians and authorities alike don’t take threats as seriously as they should.

“We’re desensitized to any threat,” he said. “So when they see something on the Internet they think, ‘eh, whatever.’ No one ever thinks it will happen to you.”

Bonczek said most students are focusing not on blame, but with channeling their anger to press for changes to laws regulating guns.

“The FBI didn’t do their job, but it’s hard to do anything about that,” he said. “But with Congress, we can specifically make calls for change.”

 

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Police arrest stepfather of 4-year-old girl he claims was kidnapped

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The stepfather of missing 4-year-old Maleah Davis was arrested and charged in connection to her disappearance, one week after he told Texas police that she was kidnapped by three men who assaulted and knocked him unconscious.

Derion Vence, 26, was arrested by the Houston Police Department at a relative’s home and charged with tampering with evidence, human corpse, in the disappearance of his stepdaughter on the night of May 4.

Although a police source told ABC News that the young girl was still missing, they would not say whether she was believed to be dead or alive.

Police said in a statement on Saturday that they had obtained blood evidence linked to Maleah from Vence’s apartment and that he was seen leaving his apartment with a full laundry basket, which was found Thursday along with a gas can in the trunk of the silver Nissan Altima that he reported missing following the kidnapping.

At a late night hearing, the district attorney said cadaver dogs reacted to scents in the trunk and the laundry basket.

Vence reported the abduction on May 5, nearly 24 hours after it occurred, claiming that he had been unconscious for much of that time, according to the statement.

He told police that he was driving with Maleah and his 2-year-old son on the night of May 4 to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in north Houston to pick up the girl’s mother, Brittany Bowens, who was returning from a trip to Massachusetts, police said.

He said that on the way there, he heard a popping noise coming from his car that made him believe he had a flat tire, so he pulled over to check on it. When he got out of the car, he said that a blue pickup truck pulled up behind him and two men got out, police said during a news conference on May 5.

He told police that one of the men commented on Maleah’s appearance as the other hit him in the head, knocking him out, police said.

Vence told police that he kept going in and out of consciousness, but at one point realized that he was in the back of the pickup truck where there were actually three men and that he also saw Maleah and his son in the truck, police said.

He said that he regained consciousness the next day with only his son in Sugar Land, nearly 22 miles southwest of central Houston, and walked to Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital where he received treatment and reported Maleah missing, police said.

Although he told police that his car was taken during the kidnapping, surveillance footage showed someone in the Nissan dropping Vence off at Methodist Sugar Land Hospital on May 5, police said.

Vence’s public defender asked for a $5,000 bond, while the district attorney proposed $500,000.

Instead, the judge ruled Vence be held on $1 million bond since the ongoing investigation “is likely to result in a significant upgrade to this second-degree felony.”

Houston police are asking anyone with information about the case, the whereabouts of Maleah Davis or the person who sold the gas can to Vence to contact the department’s Homicide Division at 713-308-3600.

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In Mexico, 35 bodies found in mass graves

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Local authorities have discovered the remains of 35 people in mass graves in violent Jalisco state, on Mexico’s central Pacific coast, officials said Saturday.

Prosecutor Gerardo Octavio Solis said most of the bodies were located at a ranch in the town of Zapopan.

Among the dead, “27 of the bodies had been tied up when killed. And we have two people identified at this time,” Solis told a news conference.

The number of dead could still rise as the forensics team wraps up processing of the site, he warned.

“We are digging more than three meters deep. We are also using heavy machinery, with engineers to do structural calculations as we don’t want to weaken some of the perimeter walls,” he added.

Solis said the skulls of seven other people and other human remains were discovered on the premises of a house located in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second most populous city.

 

Families with missing kin have rushed to authorities in Jalisco asking for details on the exhumations.

More than 40,000 people have gone missing and are presumed dead since Mexico’s war on drugs was militarized with federal troops in late 2006.

More than 250,000 people have been killed in violent crime in Mexico since then, according to government data. The data does not say how many cases were linked to organized crime.

Last year in Jalisco state alone there were 2,418 homicides.

From January to March this year there were 720 murders in the state, official data show.

 

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Special Mother’s Day Edition of ‘LIVING BY DESIGN WITH JAKE AND JAZZ

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Just in time for Mother’s Day, Jake and Jazz makeover the home of single mother, Shay, who recently relocated to Los Angeles from the Midwest. Her parental duties and daily grind leave her with little time for redecorating, so she enlisted the help of Jake and Jazz. The duo turn Shay’s quaint home into a “mommy and me” wonderland with refurbished, multipurpose furniture and rose gold accent pieces. For the post-reveal meal, Jake cooks up Vegetable Fried Rice with Garlic Soy Fried Shrimp and Jazz bakes a Vanilla Rose Pound Cake decorated with dried rose petals.

Tune into the next episode for a special Mother’s Day edition where Jake and Jazz give a deserving mom a sprinkle of design magic and a gift of a lifetime.

LIVING BY DESIGN WITH JAKE AND JAZZ is a hot new home design show with a culinary twist featuring Jake and Jazz Smollett. The sibling duo team up to transform the living, work, and play spaces of millennial families and create simple solutions to everyday home design dilemmas. Each episode features inspirational stories of participating guests, an exciting reveal of the new space and a shared meal with recipes curated by Jake and Jazz.

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