PARKLAND, FL — As investigators attempt to make sense of Wednesday's mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Nikolas Jacob Cruz has been formally charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, according to the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
Seventeen people were shot to death and numerous others injured Wednesday after Cruz, a former student who was expelled last year, allegedly opened fire marking a horrific and sadly familiar episode of school violence, according to law enforcement and school officials.
Cruz has confessed to police that he entered the school armed with an AR-15 and began shooting students, according to multiple reports.
Lori Alhadeff, the mother of a 14-year-old girl, who was killed in the attack, was trying to make sense of the tragedy on Thursday as she pleaded on CNN for President Trump to take action.
"How do we allow a gunman to come into our children's school? How do they get through security? What security is there? There's no metal detectors," she said, issuing her plea directly into the camera. "The gunman — a crazy person, just walked right into the school, knocks down the window of my child's door and starts shooting, shooting her and killing her. 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. What can you do? You can do a lot. This is not fair to our family that our children go to school and have to get killed."
The leader of a white nationalist group confirmed that Cruz was a member of his organization, the Associated Press reported. A representative of the Republic of Florida militia told the Anti-Defamation League that Cruz had been brought into the group by one of its members, the nonprofit said.
Cruz had trained in paramilitary drills in Tallahassee with a white nationalist militia, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
Jordan Jereb told The Associated Press on Thursday that his group, the Republic of Florida, wants Florida to become its own white ethno-state. He said his group holds "spontaneous random demonstrations" and tries not to participate in the modern world.
Jereb said he didn't know 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 he had "trouble with a girl" and he believed the timing of the attack, carried out on Valentine's Day, wasn't a coincidence.
Two federal law enforcement officials say the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle used in the deadly rampage at the high school was purchased legally at Sunrise Tactical Supply in Florida.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were briefed on the investigation but were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said at a Thursday morning news conference that all of the victims' families had been notified. Cruz, who has been placed on a suicide watch, made his first appearance at the Broward County Courthouse Thursday afternoon.
Cruz was wearing an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed at his waist during the Thursday afternoon hearing. A judge ordered him to remain in custody without bail. His attorney did not contest the order and had her arm around Cruz during the brief court appearance.
"He's a broken human being. He's a broken child," his attorney told reporters. "The sadness that this community is feeling — I mean my children they go to school in this community — I feel horrible for these families and Mr. Cruz feels that pain."
President Trump addressed the nation Thursday morning, saying he would be meeting with governors and attorneys general later this month to discuss ways to make schools and children safer.
"We are committed to working with state and local leaders to help secure our schools, and tackle the difficult issue of mental health," he said.
Trump said he was making plans to travel to Parkland to visit with victims' families and local officials.
"No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school," Trump said. "No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning."
Trump also said he wanted to speak directly to American school children. "I want you to know that you are never alone and you never will be. You have people who care about you, who love you, and who will do anything at all to protect you.
"If you need help, turn to a teacher, a family member, a local police officer, or a faith leader. Answer hate with love, answer cruelty with kindness," he said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he planned to sit down with state leaders next week to discuss possible changes to prevent future tragedies.
"We need to have a real conversation so we have public safety for the schools in this state," Scott said. "The violence has to stop. We cannot lose another child in this country to violence in the school."
Scott also added that the "mentally ill should not have access to a gun."
Cruz was taken into custody by Coconut Creek police in a nearby neighborhood in Coral Springs, according to the Broward County Sheriff's Office, which said he exhibited labored breathing. Cruz was taken to a local hospital as a precaution for medical clearance.
Speaking to reporters, Officer Michael Leonard of the Coconut Creek Police Department, said he spotted Cruz in a residential area wearing clothing that closely matched the description of the shooter.
"He looked like a typical high school student and for a quick moment I thought could this be the person? Is this who I need to stop? Training kicked in," the officer explained. "I pulled my vehicle over immediately, engaged the suspect. He complied with my commands and was taken into custody without any issues."
As heavily armed police officers converged on the school during the chaotic scene, they were met with hundreds of students running from the facility. "Investigators later learned that the shooter had concealed himself in the crowd and was among those running out of the school," the Broward Sheriff's Office said on Thursday.
In September, the FBI was alerted to a disturbing comment on a YouTube video by a user named Nikolas Cruz. The creator of the video, Mississippi bail bondsman Ben Bennight, sent a screenshot of the comment — "I'm going to be a professional school shooter" — to the FBI, and agents interviewed him again Wednesday, BuzzFeed reported. YouTube removed the comment.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky said at a press conference Thursday that agents are investigating. "In September 2017, the FBI received information about a comment made on a YouTube channel. The comment said, 'I'm going to be a professional school shooter,'" he said. "No other information was included in the comment which would indicate a particular time, location, or the true identity of the person who posted the comment. The FBI conducted database reviews and other checks, but was unable to further identify the person who posted the comment."
Cruz was an orphan — his mother, Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia on Nov. 1 neighbors, friends and family members said, according to the Sun Sentinel. Cruz and her husband, who died of a heart attack several years ago, adopted Nikolas and his biological brother, Zachary, after the couple moved from Long Island in New York to Broward County.
The boys were left in the care of a family friend after their mother died, family member Barbara Kumbatovich, of Long Island, said.
Nikolas Cruz asked to move in with a friend's family in northwest Broward. The family agreed, and Cruz moved in around Thanksgiving. According to lawyer Jim Lewis, who represents but did not identify the family, said they knew that Cruz owned the 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.
Worried friends were posting the names of missing kids and photos on Twitter and Facebook on Wednesday night.
In all, fifteen people died at the school and seventeen were taken to Broward Health Coral Springs, Broward Health North, Broward Health Medical Center and Boca West Medical Center. Two of the 17 later died.
Investigators said they were still working with Broward County Schools staff on Thursday to identify all of the victims in what was described as the nation's deadliest school shooting since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Cruz, who is listed at 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 131 pounds, is being held without bail.
Trump tweeted on Thursday about the shooting: "So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!"
Victoria Olvera, a 17-year-old junior, says Cruz was expelled last school year after a fight with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, according to the Associated Press.
School officials haven't confirmed such accounts, but say Cruz was attending another school in Florida's Broward County after his expulsion.
One 17-year-old junior, Dakota Mutchler, says he used to be friends with Cruz but hadn't seen him in more than a year after his expulsion. He says of Cruz: "He started progressively getting a little more weird."
An ex-schoolmate recalled Cruz posting on Instagram about killing animals and said he talked of doing target practice in his backyard with a pellet gun.
The Broward County school superintendent, Robert Runcie, told reporters he didn't know of any concerns raised about Cruz.
Aaron Feis, an assistant football coach and security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, was among the 17 people shot and killed Wednesday at the Parkland high school, according to the Sun-Sentinel. He is being hailed as a hero.
In a news conference late Wednesday night, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel referenced a football coach dying, but did not give a name.
"It is with Great sadness that our football family has learned about the death of Aaron Feis," the Douglas football team's Twitter account posted early Thursday morning. "He was our assistant football coach and security guard. He selflessly shielded students from the shooter when he was shot. He died a hero and he will forever be in our hearts and memories."
The horrific crime scene has also taken a toll on first responders, according to Chief Frank Babinec of the Coral Springs and Parkland Fire Department.
"Our first responders can never unsee what they saw yesterday so we will work with them to get the resources they need to get through this as part of the community."
Police were at another Broward County school on Thursday morning after a report of shots fired at North Broward Prepatory, 7600 Lyons Road, in Coconut Creek. A deputy accidentally discharged his gun and injured his leg while at the school. He was treated at the scene. No one else was injured.
Students and staff were evacuated as the school was searched. The initial report, which came in at 9:36 a.m., was unfounded.
Patch editor Don Johnson contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.
Susan Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, Pool
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