The expelled student accused of killing 17 people at his former South Florida high school had previously trained with a white nationalist militia in the state, participating in paramilitary drills in Tallahassee, according to new details that emerged Thursday in the investigation into the deadly shooting.
A representative of the Republic of Florida militia told researchers at the Anti-Defamation League that shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, had been “brought up” into the group by one of its members, the nonprofit said in a blog post.
The Republic of Florida calls itself “a white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics” on its website, adding that its “current short-term goals are to occupy urban areas to recruit suburban young whites” in pursuit of “the ultimate creation of a white ethnostate.”
A training video the group posted online shows members practicing military maneuvers in camouflage clothing and saluting each other, along with music that says, “They call me Nazi / and I’m proud of it.”
The group’s representative, Jordan Jereb, told the Associated Press that he didn’t know Cruz personally and that the group had no knowledge of his plans for the violent attack. “He acted on his own behalf of what he just did, and he’s solely responsible for what he just did,” Jereb said.
Jereb said he understood that Cruz had had “trouble with a girl” and he believed the timing of the attack, carried out on Valentine’s Day, wasn’t a coincidence.
The revelation emerged as investigators were scouring Cruz’s social media posts for possible motives or warning signs of the attack.
Several social media accounts bearing Cruz’s name showed a young man fascinated by guns who had appeared to signal his intentions to attack a school long before the event.
Nine months ago, a YouTube user with the handle “nikolas cruz” left a comment on a Discovery UK documentary about the gunman in the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting. The user wrote beneath the YouTube video: “I am going to (do) what he did.”
Other past comments by YouTube users with Cruz’s name reportedly included one remark in September, saying, “Im going to be a professional school shooter.” At a news briefing in Florida, Robert Lasky, the FBI special agent in charge, confirmed that the FBI had investigated that comment. But he said the agency couldn’t identify the person in question.
Cruz was charged Thursday with 17 counts of premeditated murder as the South Florida community grappled with grief and horror in the aftermath of a school gun rampage, the deadliest in more than five years.
President Trump, in a televised address to the nation, decried the “terrible violence, hatred and evil” embodied by the attack.
“No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning,” he said, speaking from the White House. The president hailed first responders, offered to assist Florida officials “any way we can” and said he would visit Parkland soon. He urged social solidarity in the face of tragedy, but he did not call for any tightening of the country’s gun laws.
Earlier, Trump tweeted a call for public vigilance.
“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed,” the president wrote on Twitter. “Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
On Thursday, authorities combed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, for more clues, struggling to piece together the chaotic and lethal series of events that unfolded the day before as the shooter stalked the halls and classrooms with an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon.
As during many mass attacks in recent U.S. history, this one was documented by shaky cellphone video and desperate texts sent by those in fear for their lives.
David Hogg, 17, head of the student TV station WMSD, said he started recording videos of students while they were barricaded inside a classroom, “in case we died.”
“I didn’t know if any of us were going to make it out alive,” he said as he stood by police cars and tape in front of the closed school Thursday.
Vows to prevent such bloody episodes in the future abounded.
“We want to make sure this never happens again,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a news briefing. “The violence has to stop. We cannot lose another child in this country to violence in a school.”
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, speaking at a sheriff’s conference in Washington, said the key issue was “effective enforcement” of existing gun laws, but made no call for changing or tightening them.
“We’ve got to confront the problem — there’s no doubt about it,” Sessions said, saying the shooting exemplified “something dangerous and unhealthy” happening in the country.
But nearly 24 hours after the attack, the central mystery — why? — was no clearer.
“I have no idea” of the shooter’s motive, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said at a news briefing.
After Cruz’s mother, Lynda Cruz, died on Nov. 1, Nikolas and his brother stayed with family friends in Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. Unhappy at that home, Cruz asked a former classmate from the school if he could move in with him and his family. He had been living with them in northwest Broward County, about three miles from the school, since Thanksgiving.
“He was a little depressed because his mother had just died, but he seemed to be coming out of it and doing better,” said Jim Lewis, an attorney representing the family.
Cruz had gotten a job working at a Dollar Tree store, and he was going to school at an adult education center to get his GED, Lewis said.
Cruz, who underwent hours of questioning by federal and state authorities before being charged early Thursday, was to appear before a judge later in the day. He was taken into custody Wednesday in nearby Coral Springs about an hour after the shooting, having slipped away among other students after the attack.
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