PARKLAND, Fla., – A Florida community will join together on Thursday to mourn the 17 victims of a suspected lone gunman, as officials seek to discover how the allegedly troubled and heavily-armed teenager managed to mingle with students in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
The ex-pupil, identified as Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Wednesday shortly before classes ended and opened fire on students and teachers, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.
Cruz was armed with a rifle and had multiple magazines of ammunition when he surrendered to officers in a nearby residential area, police said. He had been previously expelled for unspecified disciplinary reasons, police and former classmates said. As investigators assemble the events leading to the crime, they are finding that red flags about Cruz go back years.
“We already began to dissect his websites and the things on social media that he was on and some of the things that came to mind are very, very disturbing,” Israel said.
Chad Williams, 18, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High school, remembered Cruz as a defiant and unpredictible classmate from middle school. He said Cruz would set off the fire alarm, day after day, and finally got expelled in the eighth grade.
“He was crazy about guns,” Williams told Reuters by the side of the road near the high school. “He was kind of an outcast. He didn’t have many friends. He would do anything crazy for a laugh, but he was trouble.”
Jillian Davis, 19, said she was in a school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps with Cruz in the 9th grade. She remembered him as a quiet and shy young man who would almost change personality when angry. He talked a lot about guns and knives but no one took him seriously, she told Reuters.
“I would say he was not the most normal or sane kid in JROTC. He definitely had a little something off about him. He was a little extra quirky,” said Davis, who graduated from the school last year.
‘A LITTLE OFF’
Math teacher Jim Gard told the Miami Herald Cruz had been banned from returning to campus while carrying a backpack.
“There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus,” Gard told the newspaper in an interview.
Administrators sent an email to teachers warning them about Cruz, Gard told the paper.
Another student, 17-year-old junior Dakota Mutchler, told reporters at a hotel in nearby Coral Springs that he hadn’t spoken with Cruz in more than a year. Students were reuniting with their parents and friends at the hotel.
Mutchler said he declined to communicate with Cruz, a former friend, after the suspect contacted him two weeks ago on Snapchat.
“Everybody that knew of him had a sort of suspicion about him,” Mutchler said.
Travis Julmice, an 18-year-old senior, said he had not been in a class with Cruz since middle school.
“You could tell he was a little off,” Julmice told Reuters at the Coral Springs hotel. “He was always like a troubled kid, getting in-school suspension a lot. And detentions.”
However, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told reporters outside the school after the shooting that the school had no indication Cruz was a danger. Runcie later said Cruz was still a student at Broward County Public Schools but declined to provide further details on his enrollment status.
“Typically, you see in these situations that there potentially could have been signs out there,” he said.
“But we didn’t have any warnings, there weren’t any phone calls or threats that we know of that were made,” said Runcie.
It was the deadliest ever at an American high school, surpassing the 1999 rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two teenagers killed 12 students and a teacher and then themselves.
It was also the second-deadliest at a U.S. public school, behind the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, by a gunman who also killed his mother and himself.
Since Sandy Hook, U.S. schools have installed electronically controlled doors and added security staff.
“Our focus at the school district is certainly to find out from a safety perspective what’s occurred,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Board Member Donna Korn told Treasure Coast, a local newspaper group.
A law enforcement officer is assigned to every school in the district. The sheriff’s office also provides active shooter training and the schools have a single point of entry, she said.
“We’ve got the people prepared, we have prepared the campuses, but sometimes people still find a way to let these horrific things happen,” Korn said.
Asked about having armed guards in schools, Israel told a news conference: “If a person is predisposed to commit such a horrific act …there not a lot law enforcement or any entity can do about it.”
‘THE WORST AND BEST OF HUMANITY’
Following the Valentine’s Day bloodshed in the racially mixed community about 45 miles north of Miami, television footage showed images of students streaming out of the building with hands raised in the air. The images were reminiscent of Columbine, nearly twenty years ago, as students weaved their way between heavily armed, helmeted police officers, as a fire truck and other emergency vehicles idled nearby.
Anguished parents raced to the school of 3,300 students and a nearby hotel that was set up as a checkpoint to find their children.
“This has been a day we’ve seen the worst in humanity. Tomorrow (Thursday) is going to bring out the best in humanity, as we come together to move forward from this unspeakable tragedy,” Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told a news conference.
Florida‘s two U.S. senators, briefed by federal law enforcement officials, said the assailant wore a gas mask as he stalked into the school carrying a rifle, ammunition cartridges and smoke grenades, then pulled a fire alarm, prompting students and staff to pour from their classrooms into hallways.
The gunman tried to blend in with students who were fleeing the school but was spotted and taken into custody, the sheriff said in a statement.
A chilling cell phone video clip broadcast by CBS News showed what the network said was the shooting in progress from inside a classroom, where several students were seen huddled or lying on the floor surrounded by mostly empty desks. A rapid series of loud gunshots are heard along with hysterical screaming.
One survivor, Kyle Yeoward, 16, said he and about 15 fellow students and a teacher hid in a closet for nearly two hours before police arrived.
Those dead were a mix of students and adults. Twelve were killed inside the school, two just outside and one on the street, while two further victims died from their wounds in hospital, Israel said.
Reuters News Service contributed to this report.