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Accused school shooter will offer to plead guilty, public defender says

Posted at 7:55 PM, Feb 16, 2018

Confessed school shooter Nikolas Cruz intends to plead guilty, Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said Friday.

Finkelstein said the object is to avoid a painful trial and for Cruz not to get the death penalty. Prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment.

The next court date is set for Monday morning, during which a judge will hear a motion filed by the defense.

The development could bring some solace for the families of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida. They are lamenting what they say is inaction on gun control and school security. And it comes as more signs emerged that authorities missed chances to intervene weeks beforehand.

The FBI said it failed to act on a January tip about Cruz, the former student who police say confessed to committing Wednesday’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Someone close to Cruz contacted the FBI’s public tip line January 5 to report concerns about him, including about his expressed desire to kill people, the FBI said. But the bureau said it did not appropriately follow established protocols in following up on the tip.

The FBI’s announcement came as families prepared to bury their children.

Survivors and victims’ relatives are directing their ire at state and national politicians, demanding action and venting frustration over allegations that the 19-year-old suspect expressed a desire to commit exactly the kind of massacre of which he’s accused.

“President Trump, you say, ‘What can you do?’ You can stop the guns from getting into these children’s hands! Put metal detectors at every entrance to the schools!” Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed at the school, told CNN.

President Donald Trump went to the hospital where several injured victims remain, on the same day that one of the first funerals — for Alyssa Alhadeff, 14 — was held.

Latest developments

• A person close to Cruz contacted the FBI on January 5 to report concerns about him, the bureau said.

• The school district has proposed tearing down the building where the shooting happened, Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky said.

• Jim Gard, a math teacher at the school, says an administrator sent an email in late 2016 asking to be notified if Cruz came on campus with a backpack. The administrator gave no explanation for the email, Gard said.

• An initial investigation indicates Cruz fired nearly 150 shots from his rifle, according to a law enforcement source speaking on condition of anonymity.

• Cruz purchased the firearm used in the shooting, an AR-15-style weapon, legally in Florida nearly a year ago, according to Peter J. Forcelli, special agent in charge of the Miami division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

• Cruz legally purchased at least five other guns in the past year, a law enforcement source briefed on the investigation said.

‘We are broken’

The sheriff’s office identified the 17 victims: three staff members and 14 students. The school was closed for the rest of the weekas the district offered grief counseling to students and their families.

Cruz confessed to police that he was the gunman, according to a probable cause affidavit. He is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

At a vigil in Parkland on Thursday evening, Fred Guttenberg, the father of one victim, spoke of his pain.

“I sent her to school yesterday,” Guttenberg, his voice on the verge of breaking, said of his 14-year-old daughter Jaime. “She was supposed to be safe. My job is to protect my children and I sent my kid to school.”

“What is unfathomable is that Jaime took a bullet and is dead,” he paused, shaking his head. “I don’t know what I do next. … We are broken.”

The shooting is at least the fourth at US middle and high schools this year, and has reignited a debate over gun control. Some blame congressional inaction for the massacre while others say now is not the time for such political battles.

Lori Alhadeff is one of several parents and students who are calling for lawmakers to do something. She and her husband, Illan, are demanding stronger gun control laws and tighter school security, including metal detectors and more armed officers or guards.

“President Trump: … You need to help us now,” she said, distraught, hours after identifying her daughter’s body at a morgue. “We need security now for all these children that have to go to school. We need action! Action! Action!”

Isabelle Robinson, a student at the school, said the gun control issue “shouldn’t be a fight between two different parties.”

“This should be a coming together where we all realize that something is wrong,” she said.

How to help victims of the Florida school shooting

Trump told reporters at Broward Health North hospital that he spoke to victims, adding that it is “very sad something like that could happen.” The President heralded the efforts of the hospital staff and first responders to save lives.

Trump did not respond when asked whether more gun laws were needed to prevent school shootings.

Earlier, he pledged to hold a meeting with “the nation’s governors and attorney generals where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority.”

FBI received warnings about Cruz

Questions are emerging about warnings that the FBI received, and about what Cruz posted on social media.

He was transferred last year from Stoneman Douglas high school because of disciplinary problems, according to Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie.

The FBI has acknowledged receiving two tips that appear to relate to Cruz ahead of the shooting.

One was the January 5 call to an FBI tip line from someone close to him.

The FBI said the caller provided information about “Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” The information should have been assessed as a “potential threat to life,” but the proper protocols weren’t followed, the bureau said.

“The information was not provided to the Miami Field Office, and no further investigation was conducted at that time,” the statement said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau is still investigating what happened.

“We have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy,” Wray said in the statement. “All of the men and women of the FBI are dedicated to keeping the American people safe, and are relentlessly committed to improving all that we do and how we do it.”

Additionally, a video blogger said he warned the FBI in September about a possible school shooting threat from a YouTube user with the same name as Cruz. An FBI agent confirmed that a field officer in Jackson, Mississippi, received the tip and interviewed the person who shared it.

But no additional information was found to help identify the person who posted the comment and no connection was made to South Florida, said Robert Lasky, FBI special agent in charge of the Miami division.

Concerns about social media posts

Cruz’s apparent digital footprint, which includes slurs against blacks and Muslims and declarations of wanting to shoot people, paint a disturbing picture.

Posts under videos on YouTube and other sites by someone using the name Nikolas Cruz include threatening comments, such as:

“I whana shoot people with my AR-15.”

“I wanna die Fighting killing s**t ton of people.”

On an Instagram account under the name @Nikolascruzmakarov, the profile picture shows a person wearing a mask and a “Make America Great Again” hat. Other posts include a photo of a rifle, a collection of firearms on a bed, and a photo taken through a scope looking out a window.

Also, Jim Gard, a math teacher at the school, said an administrator sent an email out in late 2016 asking staff to notify him if Cruz came on campus with a backpack. Cruz was one of Gard’s students at the time; the administrator gave no explanation for the email, Gard said.

Cruz was in Gard’s class for only a couple of months and never gave Gard any problems, the teacher said.

‘Significant mental illness’

Questions also are being raised about Cruz’s home life and mental health.

Cruz was adopted — but his adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, died in November of pneumonia, and his adoptive father passed away years ago, said Kathie Blaine, Lynda’s cousin.

After Lynda Cruz’s death, the family of someone Cruz met at the high school let him stay in their home, said Lewis, the host family’s attorney.

That family knew he had a gun, Lewis said. “They had it locked up, and believed that that was going to be sufficient, that there wasn’t going to be a problem.”

The family was unaware of any mental illness beyond depression over his adoptive mother’s death, Lewis said.

“Obviously, he’d lost his mom. But they helped him get a job at a Dollar Tree store. They got him going to an adult education so he could try to get his GED and he seemed to be doing better,” Lewis said.

But Gordon Weekes, executive chief assistant of Broward’s public defender’s office, which is representing Cruz, said Thursday that Cruz is “suffering from significant mental illness and significant trauma.”

“He has been experiencing and enduring mental illness his entire life. That has been an ongoing issue that he has been dealing with. That, coupled with the loss of his mother, the depression, and other issues,” Weekes said.

Before Lynda Cruz died, Broward sheriff’s deputies were called to the Cruz family home 39 times since 2010, according to documents obtained by CNN.

The sheriff’s office received a range of emergency calls that included reports of a mentally ill person, child/elderly abuse, a domestic disturbance and a missing person.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Friday there were 20 calls for service over the past “few years” pertaining to Nikolas Cruz.

Suspect ‘remorseful,’ attorney says

Cruz is being held without bond after he attended via video a brief hearing Thursday in Broward County court.

“He’s sad, he’s mournful, he’s remorseful,” said public defender Melisa McNeill, who is Cruz’s lead defense counsel. “He is fully aware of what is going on. He’s just a broken human being.”

Cruz entered the high school he had once attended on Wednesday at about 2:21 p.m., according to a law enforcement timeline.

In the minutes leading to the shooting, he exchanged texts with the son of his host family, who is a current student at the high school and was there during the shooting.

They were messaging until 2:18 p.m., said Jim Lewis, the attorney for the host family.

The texts were “very innocuous,” Lewis said. “They were just conversations about ‘Hey, what are you doing? What are you doing later? What’s goin’ on?'”

After the shooting, Cruz fled by blending in with the students and staff evacuating the school. He bought a drink at a Subway store, then sat at a McDonald’s for a few minutes, the timeline states.

Investigators identified Cruz from school security videos and he was detained about 40 minutes later in a neighboring community.