FBI said it failed to act on tip warning of the suspected Florida school shooter’s potential for violence

Friday, Feb. 16, 2018 2:34 PM
Katiusca Dulski cries as she visits a makeshift memorial Friday in Pine Trails Park for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims in Parkland, Florida. There was a cross in the park for each victim.

PARKLAND, Fla. – The FBI said Friday that more than a month before the shooting rampage at a South Florida high school, the bureau received a warning that the 19-year-old charged in the massacre might carry out an attack at a school - but then investigators failed to act on it.

The disclosure came two days after police say Nikolas Cruz marched into his former high school in Parkland, Florida, and gunned down 17 people, most of them teenagers. In a statement, the FBI said it received a tip on January 5 from “a person close to Nikolas Cruz” reporting concerns about him.

This person, who was not identified, told the FBI’s public tip line “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 bureau said.

Such a warning should have been investigated “as a potential threat to life,” triggering investigative efforts in the local FBI field office, but “these protocols were not followed” and no further inquiries were made, the bureau said in a statement.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he had ordered his deputy attorney general - the No. 2 law enforcement official in the country - to review the bureau’s handling of the matter.

“It is now clear that the warning signs were there and tips to the FBI were missed,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “We see the tragic consequences of those failures.”

He added, “The FBI in conjunction with our state and local partners must act flawlessly to prevent all attacks. This is imperative, and we must do better.”

The tip on Cruz came in to the FBI’s general call line, where call takers process thousands of calls each day, some of them more serious than others. When the process works, the call taker records information from the tipster, runs basic database checks on the person at issue and - if the matter is serious enough - passes a package to agents in the field.

In this case, though, the call center never passed any information to agents, according to a federal law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The bureau knew the identity of the call taker - an adult - and the tip involved a threat to life, meaning it should have been passed on, a federal law enforcement official said. The official said the bureau is still exploring why it was not, and preliminarily, do not believe the number of calls was the reason that it fell through the cracks.

“We are still investigating the facts,” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, said in the statement. “I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, assailed the FBI’s inaction as “unacceptable” and called on Wray to resign.

“Seventeen innocent people are dead and acknowledging a mistake isn’t going to cut it,” Scott said in a statement. “An apology will never bring these 17 Floridians back to life or comfort the families who are in pain. The families will spend a lifetime wondering how this could happen, and an apology will never give them the answers they desperately need.”

Sessions said the deputy attorney general’s review of how the FBI handled the tip would also broadly assess how the department responds in such cases.

“This will include possible consultation with family members, mental health officials, school officials, and local law enforcement,” he said. “We will make this a top priority. It has never been more important to encourage every person in every community to spot the warning signs and alert law enforcement. Do not assume someone else will step up-all of us must be vigilant. Our children’s lives depend on it.”

As a grieving community mourned the lives cut short in the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, authorities have faced questions about why they did not act sooner on Cruz’s history of unnerving, sometimes violent behavior.

The FBI had already been under fire for its response to a different tip about Cruz. That alert came from a Mississippi bail bondsman who told agents in September that a YouTube user with the handle “nikolas cruz” had commented on a video “Im going to be a professional school shooter.” In that instance, the FBI said it could not identify the person who left the comment.

The FBI’s admission about tip in January made the Parkland shooting the third time in as many years that a mass shooter who terrorized Floridians had come to the bureau’s attention beforehand, a fact sure to increase scrutiny of how the country’s premier law enforcement agency monitors potential threats.

Those two previous cases did not appear to include such a specific tip warning of a possible type of attack. After a man gunned down 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, the FBI said it had previously investigated him after he talked about extremist connections but concluded he was not a threat. A man charged with killing five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport last year had walked into an FBI office weeks earlier and made bizarre, albeit nonthreatening, statements.

The FBI’s statement on Friday was the latest, and perhaps clearest, sign that authorities failed to act on the alarm that Cruz had triggered in his troubled life. Cruz’s attorney said that while he does not doubt his client’s guilt, he believed the massacre could have been prevented had officials recognized the repeated red flags in the teenager’s life.

Howard Finkelstein, a public defender in Broward County for the past 40 years, said society failed Nikolas Cruz, who has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder for the 17 people slain at the school, most of them students too young to get their learner’s permits.

“It’s one of the most horrific crimes in the history of America,” Finkelstein said in an interview before the FBI’s statement. “Everybody was on notice. Every system should’ve been alerted, and not one of the systems did one thing. … This should not have happened and it didn’t have to happen.”

Since the Parkland massacre, officials have been asked about the ominous warnings that were missed as well as what, if anything, the country was doing to keep its children safe after yet another school shooting. Other campuses around the country were on edge after Douglas, an anxiety fueled by copycat threats that spread on social media networks.

Police say Cruz admitted that he walked into the school that had expelled him and fired bullet after bullet into classrooms and hallways on Wednesday.

The hail of gunfire lasted for just a few minutes, police said. When it was over, 14 students and three staffers were dead, and others were injured, some critically. The victims included a student who had recently gotten into the state’s flagship college, a senior who had just gained U.S. citizenship and a football coach who was working at his alma mater. Nine were male, eight were female.

Parkland became a community - another community - shattered by gun violence, joining the grim list of cities including Columbine, Newtown, Aurora and Sutherland Springs, among many others.

“It has always been my dream to live in this neighborhood,” said Tiffany Matthews, 42, who works at a gas station a few miles from the school. “The schools, everything here is just so nice. But even here it’s dangerous to just go to school.”

People who knew him described Cruz as having a pattern of troubling behavior, suggestions of violence and brushes with law enforcement. Neighbors said that police cruisers were a frequent presence at his house. Some saw a teenager trying to work through a dark period in his life, while others saw a growing malevolence.

“People were afraid of him,” said Brody Speno, 19, who grew up on the same block as Cruz.

Malcolm Roxburgh, a longtime neighbor of Cruz’s who lived just three houses down, said: “Just about everybody on this part of the street had a run-in with him.”

After getting to high school, Cruz started selling knives out of a lunchbox, posting on Instagram about guns and killing animals, and eventually “going after one of my friends, threatening her,” said Dakota Mutchler, 17, who attended middle school with him.

Cruz was expelled from Douglas for disciplinary reasons, school officials said, though they did not elaborate.

The FBI, even before its revelation Friday, also had a near-brush with Cruz after receiving a tip about a comment threatening a school shooting. It was posted by a YouTube user with his name. Investigators looked into the comment but were unable to determine who wrote it, the FBI said this week. Officials now believe he wrote it.

Finkelstein, who sent his two children to school in South Florida, said the Douglas shooting is “devastating” and will leave Broward County “changed forever as a result of this.”

While he has no doubts about Cruz’s guilt, Finkelstein argued that the 19-year-old should be spared a potential death sentence for one of the country’s deadliest school shootings because of all the missed red flags that marked his path back to Douglas.

“What a jury is going to have to answer for themselves is whether we as a community, when we as a village, ignore every sign, every scream for help from a sick child who eventually falls off the grid and does what we feared he would do, do we forfeit our right to kill him?” he said.

Prosecutors have not said yet whether they will seek a death sentence for Cruz. A spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s office in Broward, which is prosecuting him, said no decision had been made yet about seeking the death penalty, though Finkelstein said he expects they will do so.

According to police, Cruz traveled to the school on Wednesday afternoon not long before the final bell rang. They said he Cruz fired an AR-15 assault-style rifle for a few minutes before dropping the weapon and his extra ammunition and escaping the school by blending in with students fleeing the chaos. He went to a Walmart, bought a drink, sat at a McDonald’s and walked into a residential area on foot, where he was captured, police said.

The investigation into what happened is still relatively new, but authorities had already interviewed more than 2,000 people, according to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.

He also said they hope to speak to unnamed others who “might enlighten us as to why he did what he did,” Israel said, though he emphasized that a day into the investigation, police did not believe Cruz had any accomplices.

President Donald Trump and others have tried to steer the aftermath of the Parkland shooting away from gun control measures, although some Democrats, along with teenagers who survived the attack, have pushed back against that.

Some of the loudest voices pleading for more to be done are the children who were at Douglas and lived, who have been demanding to know why the adults running the country have not done more to help prevent similar tragedies. Others have been parents of those who survived or those who lost their lives.

“President Trump, please do something!” Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was killed, said in emotional remarks broadcast on CNN. “Do something. Action! We need it now! These kids need safety now!”

The Washington Post’s Renae Merle in Parkland, Florida, and Brian Murphy, Devlin Barrett, Emma Brown, David Nakamura, Julie Tate and William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.