- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2018

The teenage gunman in one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history reportedly participated in paramilitary drills with a white nationalist militia in Florida and exhibited warning signs of violent intentions.

“Im going to be a professional school shooter,” a YouTube user with the screen name “Nikolas Cruz” posted in September. The FBI was alerted and reviewed databases, but a spokesman said the FBI found no information to positively identify anyone and no connection to South Florida.

Nikolas Cruz was ordered held without bond Thursday, as the nation mourned and searched for answers to the slaughter that left 17 dead at a Florida high school.

A shackled Mr. Cruz, 19, appeared in a heavily guarded courtroom in Fort Lauderdale to hear the charges of premeditated murder against him. He stood silently with his head down, answering only “yes ma’am” when the judge asked if his name was correct.

One of his public defenders described the orphaned Mr. Cruz as a “deeply troubled child.” A police report said he had confessed to the shootings. He was on a suicide watch in jail.

The Anti-Defamation League, a group that monitors racist organizations, said Mr. Cruz was a member of a white supremacist group called the Republic of Florida and had participated in paramilitary exercises. A leader of the group confirmed to The Associated Press that Mr. Cruz was a member but said Mr. Cruz “acted on his own behalf” in the school shooting.

But Leon County, Florida, law enforcement sources told the Tallahassee Democrat that they have not found information linking Mr. Cruz to the group. They said their investigation was ongoing.

President Trump addressed the nation Thursday about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in which 14 others were wounded, decrying the “terrible violence, hatred and evil.” The president ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff and said he will soon visit the community of Parkland to meet with families of victims and law-enforcement officials.

“Our entire nation, with one heavy heart, is praying for the victims and their families,” Mr. Trump said.

He added that he will meet later this month in Washington with state officials to discuss ways to make schools safer.

The shooting prompted elected leaders to renew a largely partisan debate on solutions to gun violence, such as imposing more gun regulations and improving mental health screening. Parents and students flooded social media with fresh fears that virtually every school in the U.S. is vulnerable to a similar tragedy.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said Thursday that he will have conversations with state leaders next week about “how to make sure individuals with mental illness do not touch a gun.”

“If someone is mentally ill, they should not have access to a gun,” Mr. Scott said.

Police in Broward County, meanwhile, were digging into Mr. Cruz’s troubled life, including his expulsion from the high school and disturbing behavior that caused classmates to predict he was capable of a horrific act.

Police said Mr. Cruz arrived at the high school in an Uber car around 2:15 p.m. Wednesday as students were getting ready to leave for the day. He was carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a soft black case and a backpack with multiple magazines of ammunition, smoke bombs and a gas mask.

After setting off the smoke bombs and pulling the fire alarm, the gunman started firing into four classrooms and at some of the 3,000 students and teachers who were trying to evacuate. In the panic that followed, many students huddled under desks or in locked closets, with screams piercing the classrooms as more gunshots boomed in hallways.

Senior David Hogg said he and other students ran in what turned out to be the wrong direction, into danger.

“We happened to be running towards the shooter,” he said on MSNBC. “But thank God there was a janitor there who told us not to go any further. He got us all into one classroom, with the help of [a teacher]. As a result of that, I think they saved easily 40 lives, with one minute of action.”

A football coach who also worked as a security guard, Aaron Feis, was killed while shielding students from the gunfire.

Police said Mr. Cruz eventually climbed a stairwell to a higher floor, where he shot another person, and then ditched his rifle and backpack.

When the shooting ended, Mr. Cruz tried to get away by mixing in with other students fleeing the school, said police, adding that he walked to a shopping center and purchased a drink at a sandwich shop, then sat at a McDonald’s for a while before leaving on foot.

Police broadcast a description of the clothing that the gunman was wearing. An hour later, a police officer in a patrol car spotted Mr. Cruz walking along a street in a residential neighborhood about a mile away from the school. He was apprehended without incident.

A Broward County Sheriff’s Office report said Mr. Cruz confessed to being the shooter. The report said he “began shooting students that he saw in the hallways and on school grounds.”

The report adds that Mr. Cruz told officers he “brought additional loaded magazines to the school campus and kept them hidden in a backpack until he got on campus to begin his assault.”

Mr. Cruz told investigators that as students began to flee, he discarded his AR-15 rifle and a vest he was wearing so he could blend in with the crowd. Police recovered the rifle and the vest.

Neighbors said Mr. Cruz tortured animals and killed squirrels with a pellet gun, and was frequently in trouble for vandalism and violent behavior.

He was expelled from the high school reportedly for being abusive to his ex-girlfriend and getting into a fight with her new boyfriend.

On his now-deleted Instagram profile were images of multiple knives and guns. One showed a box of 150 rifle rounds, and another sought advice on buying a shotgun.

A former Junior ROTC cadet, he bought a military-style AR-15 carbine legally about a year ago. He began to participate in paramilitary drills with the white nationalist organization, said its leader, Jordan Jereb.

Mr. Jereb, who is based in Tallahassee, told The Associated Press that he didn’t know Mr. Cruz personally and that “he acted on his own behalf of what he just did and he’s solely responsible for what he just did.”

He also said Mr. Cruz had “trouble with a girl” and he believed the timing of the attack, carried out on Valentine’s Day, wasn’t a coincidence.

Mr. Jereb said his group wants Florida to become its own white ethno-state. He told the AP that his group holds “spontaneous random demonstrations” and tries not to participate in the modern world.

The Anti-Defamation League said Mr. Jereb told them that Cruz was brought into the group by another member and had participated in one or more Republic of Florida training exercises in the Tallahassee area. Law enforcement officials have not confirmed the reports.

Three former schoolmates of Mr. Cruz told ABC News that Mr. Cruz was part of the group. They said he marched with the group frequently and was often seen with Mr. Jereb.

Mr. Cruz’s public defender, Melisa McNeil, described him as a child.

“He’s sad, he’s mournful, he’s remorseful,” she told reporters after the brief court hearing. “He is fully aware of what is going on. He’s just a broken human being.”

Mr. Cruz’s mother, Lynda, died on Nov. 1 from pneumonia. His father died six years ago of a heart attack. He and his brother eventually moved in with the family of a friend, who knew that Mr. Cruz had a rifle and asked him to keep it in a locked cabinet. Mr. Cruz had a key.

Finding the key to reducing gun violence was on the thoughts of elected officials from Washington to Florida on Thursday.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the U.S. “must reverse these trends” of mass shootings.

“This cannot continue,” Mr. Sessions told a gathering of county sheriffs in Washington. “We are going to take action.”

He said the Justice Department has placed a renewed emphasis on prosecuting violent gun crimes, and he has ordered his department to work with the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Homeland Security “to study the intersection of mental health and criminality and identify how we can stop people capable of such heinous crimes.”

“It is too often the case that the perpetrators of these terrible attacks had given of signals in advance,” Mr. Sessions said. “We can and must do better. We owe it to every one of those kids crying outside their school yesterday and all those who never made it out.”

It was the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, when a troubled young man killed 20 children and six adults. The worst school shooting was at Virginia Tech University in 2007, when 32 people were killed and 17 others wounded by a student gunman who then took his own life.

As Democrats and gun control groups called for more regulations, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said there are “more questions than answers at this stage.”

“I don’t think that means you then roll that conversation into taking away citizens’ rights — taking away a law-abiding citizen’s rights,” Mr. Ryan said on Indiana radio station WIBC. “Obviously this conversation typically goes there. Right now, I think we need to take a breath and collect the facts.”

An armed deputy was on the school grounds at the time of the shooting but did not encounter the shooter, authorities said.

Sen. Bill Nelson said that having armed guards in schools is not a practical option.

“The fact is we can’t make our school armed camps. That’s not practical, and it’s not reflective of our open society,” Mr. Nelson, Florida Democrat, said on Fox News.

Mr. Nelson, who grew up with guns and remains an avid hunter, said weapons must be kept out of the hands of certain people and that gun legislation should reflect that. He noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, promoted a bill that would ban those on the terrorist watchlist from owning guns, but the measure failed to gain support.

He also said the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, needs to be revisited.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Congress needs to lead on the issue of mental health problems that can turn students violent.

“I’d like to broaden the question and broaden the discussion and say Congress needs to be holding hearings on these issues,” Ms. DeVos said on “The Hugh Hewitt Show.” “We need to have a conversation at the level where lawmakers can actually impact the future. It’s critically important that we have a much more robust conversation around tracking and tackling mental health issues.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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