Home News Florida school shooter goes on trial 4 years after the massacre

Florida school shooter goes on trial 4 years after the massacre

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz walks in handcuffs at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Oct. 20, 2021, after being sentenced on four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018. Cruz was accused of punching Sgt. Ray Beltran, wrestling him to the ground and taking his stun gun.


David Fleshler, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Building 12 still stands, an eerie presence on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Although no one will attend classes there again, the bullet-pocked halls and classrooms have been preserved as a crime scene, as the legal system addresses what to do with the Parkland school killer.

The trial of Nikolas Cruz opens Monday on the 17th floor of the Broward County courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, with jury selection expected to take about two months.

The 12 jurors will decide whether Cruz should be strapped to a gurney and injected with lethal chemicals or kept alive at public expense for what may well be several decades. He pleaded guilty last October to killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in the Feb. 14, 2018, attack.

The trial will be unusually long and unusually grueling. Prosecutor Mike Satz and his team aren’t just seeking the death penalty — they’re seeking 17 death penalties, one for each victim. To get that result, they will have to show how each murder was especially “heinous, atrocious or cruel” or committed in a “cold, calculated, and premeditated manner.”

From jury selection through verdict, the process is expected to take up to six months. Prosecutors plan to call to the stand survivors of the shooting and family members of those killed. They will present surveillance videos from the school. Defense lawyers plan to call witnesses to testify about Cruz’s mental health, his inability to fit in with others, and the long and futile efforts to get him the right treatment.

The trial will again shine a spotlight on a day more than four years ago, when a killer with a legally purchased AR-15 rifle and an abundance of ammunition walked unchallenged onto a high school campus and murdered 17 people.

Killed were Alyssa Alhadeff, 14; Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque, 14; Nicholas Dworet, 17; Aaron Feis, 37; Jaime Guttenberg, 14; Chris Hixon, 49; Luke Hoyer, 15; Cara Loughran, 14; Gina Montalto, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Alaina Petty, 14; Meadow Pollack, 18; Helena Ramsay, 17; Alex Schachter, 14; Carmen Schentrup, 16; and Peter Wang, 15.

The attack would leave a permanent scar on the state, joining such historic disasters as Hurricane Andrew, the Orlando nightclub shooting and later the Surfside condo collapse in becoming an indelible part of Florida’s memory. And Parkland, an affluent suburban community, would become shorthand for the mass shootings that continue to plague the United States.

The Stoneman Douglas massacre would shatter families, destroy careers, give new life to the gun-control movement, and spur the transformation of schools into fortresses.

The effects continue to ripple outward. Families are still coping with their losses, gun-control supporters invoke Parkland to press for restrictions on firearms, and experts are still assessing the effectiveness of measures to improve school safety.

But the major piece of unfinished business is about to unfold in the Fort Lauderdale courtroom.

School shooters in Columbine and Sandy Hook committed suicide on the spot. But Cruz survived, escaping unnoticed from the Stoneman Douglas campus before being arrested later that afternoon. And so for the next six months or so, the focus will be on Cruz, his five minutes and 32 seconds of gunfire in Building 12, and the cascade of misfortunes, mishaps and errors that led up to that day.

This account, which contains details that may be disturbing to some readers, is drawn from reports by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, 911 records, court records, interviews with attorneys, courtroom proceedings, Broward County Public Schools records, previous Sun Sentinel articles and reports by other news organizations.

The attack begins

About 20 minutes before dismissal, as classes started to wrap up, a compact gold Uber stopped in front of the school and discharged a young man carrying a rifle bag.

His arrival caught the eye of Andrew Medina, a baseball coach and unarmed campus monitor, who recognized Cruz as a former student whom he had previously described as crazy enough to “shoot this school up.” Medina reported his presence but didn’t go after him or call for a lockdown — one of a parade of missed chances that would become public in the aftermath of the massacre.

Cruz entered Building 12, removed his rifle from the bag and started to load. When he saw another student, he told him, “You’d better get out of here. Things are gonna start getting messy.”

Cruz entered the first-floor hallway and started shooting, killing freshmen Martin Duque, Luke Hoyer and Gina Montalto. Then he turned his attention to the classrooms.

Panic in Building 12

The next few minutes were a nightmare of gunshots, smoke and blaring fire alarms. Teachers crowded students into the safest corners of classrooms, urging them to remain silent, as they waited in dread for the killer to reach their door. 911 operators began to receive whispered calls from inside the building.

“Someone’s shooting up the school at Stoneman Douglas,” a caller said.

The dispatcher asked the caller to repeat himself.

“Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is being shot up,” he said before the line went dead.

After a teacher’s call went through, the 911 system recorded her urgent whispers to students.

“Please stay down, please stay down,” she said. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

The dispatcher asked about a wounded student slumped over a desk.

“There’s blood all over,” the teacher said. “He got shot in the chest. There’s smoke all in my room. My window and my door is shot in.”

On the third floor, a fire alarm activated by smoke and dust from the gunshots brought students into hallways, and Cruz fired into the crowd. With classrooms and restrooms locked, students were caught in the open. Cruz took his time. He walked up to Meadow Pollack, whom he had shot four times, and fired five more bullets into her.

Trying to save lives

Three Stoneman Douglas staff members who were killed all distinguished themselves in their last moments of life, making split-second decisions to protect students or confront the shooter.

Aaron Feis, football coach and campus monitor, was told by a student that Cruz had a gun. Although he didn’t have a weapon, he raced to Building 12 and reached a stairwell where Cruz shot him to death.

Athletic director Chris Hixon saw Cruz in a hallway and ran toward him in an apparent attempt to disarm him. Cruz shot him. The wounded athletic director crawled behind a wall but Cruz found him and shot him again. On the third floor, geography teacher and cross-country coach Scott Beigel hurriedly unlocked his classroom door and ushered students inside, standing aside so they could get to safety, leaving himself in the open. He was shot and killed.

The scene on the second floor was marked by the quiet heroism of cool-headed teachers who recognized the sharp sounds in the hallways for what they were and took steps to keep their students safe.

“Those sound like gunshots,” math teacher Catherine Britt told her class. “Everyone get to the side of the room where we can’t be seen.”

The students, some sobbing with fear, crowded into a corner with their teacher. None were hit.

Upon hearing the shots, math teacher Shanthi Viswanathan told students to lie down in a corner she had previously marked off as a protected space. She taped a piece of blue construction paper over the window on the classroom door and turned off the light. As they huddled in the corner, they heard the doorknob rattle. But the killer, unable to get into the locked room, moved on.

Among students, 15-year-old Peter Wang was shot while holding a door open for other students to escape. A Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadet, he was honored with a posthumous admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

After the shooting

Taking advantage of the confusion, Cruz walked off school grounds, headed to Walmart and into a Subway, where he ordered a drink. During a search of the area, Coconut Creek Police Officer Michael Leonard spotted Cruz walking down the street. The officer drew his gun, ordered Cruz to the ground and placed him under arrest.

That night another horrific scene unfolded at the Coral Springs Marriott at Heron Bay, designated as the place for families to reunite and learn what happened to loved ones.

As missing students turned up, the number of families at the hotel diminished. One by one, parents were summoned to a smaller room for difficult conversations. As families waited to learn whether they would be called, they could hear the room erupt in screams and sobs.

The failure of the Broward Sheriff’s Office

The response by the Broward Sheriff’s Office to the shooting would emerge as perhaps the most disgraceful episode in the agency’s history.

Deputies hid, commanders failed to take command, and the agency’s actions revealed a lack of training for mass shootings that was inexcusable in the 21st century United States.

Heading the list was Scot Peterson, the deputy who served as the Stoneman Douglas school resource officer. The only armed law enforcement officer on the scene when the shooting started, he took cover in the stairwell of another building for 48 minutes, staying there as Cruz squeezed off shots and wounded victims died.

But while Peterson drew national ridicule as the “coward of Broward,” his BSO colleagues, from deputies to Sheriff Scott Israel, did little to enhance their agency’s reputation.

Sgt. Brian Miller, the first supervisor on the scene, parked, donned a bulletproof vest and hid behind his car, doing nothing to take command. “An absolute, total failure,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the state commission that investigated the shooting.

Capt. Jan Jordan, the Parkland district chief, arrived and ordered a perimeter set up, rather than ordering deputies to find the shooter. By many accounts, she was in over her head. Broward Lt. Stephen O’Neill called Jordan’s speech “dream-like” and said she “was not engaged with the problem.”

Officers from the adjacent Coral Springs Police Department, on the other hand, rushed in, even though they arrived too late to stop the shooting.

“I made the decision to go in with my handgun,” Coral Springs Sgt. Scott Myers said. “… I made the conscious decision to run in with my handgun instead of arming myself with the rifle, knowing full-well that the rifle was one thousand times better than the handgun. … I had to make the decision that seconds mattered.”

The Broward Sheriff’s Office’s failures began well before the shooting, as news came out of missed warnings and opportunities to intervene. In the months before the attack, deputies fumbled tips that Cruz had accumulated weapons and was threatening to shoot up a school.

As details of the Broward Sheriff’s Office debacle became public, Sheriff Israel sealed his fate in an embarrassing interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Confronted with questions on missed warnings about Cruz and the failures of his deputies that day, the sheriff heaped blame on Peterson and insisted, “I have given amazing leadership to this agency.”

“The last question, sir,” Tapper said. “Do you think that if the Broward Sheriff’s Office had done things differently, this shooting might not have happened?”

Israel responded with a hokey joke, a phrase that might have worked in the relaxed environment of a neighborhood community center but sounded grotesque in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre.

“Listen,” Israel said. “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.”

Tapper didn’t crack a smile.

“I don’t know what that means,” he said tersely. “There’s 17 dead people, and there’s a whole long list of things your department could have been done differently.”

Israel’s quote about “amazing leadership” appeared in headlines across the country. One of newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis’ first acts was to suspend Israel from office.

Aftermath

The day after the shooting, the mother of a 14-year-old girl killed in the attack appeared on CNN, raw, grieving and screaming for action in an emotional plea to President Trump.

“How, how do we allow a gunman to come into our children’s school?” demanded Lori Alhadeff, who lost her daughter Alyssa. “The gunman, a crazy person, just walks 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!”

In the aftermath of the massacre, many felt that now — finally — the time had arrived to address the mass shootings and everyday gun violence that plagued the United States.

What emerged would be considerably less than the sweeping gun-control measures envisioned by Stoneman Douglas students who organized a march in Washington. But it would include firearms restrictions that might have been unthinkable in Florida before Parkland, as well as a series of reforms to increase school security.

Alhadeff would become one of two Parkland shooting victim family members to win election to the school board following the tragedy. Debbi Hixon, a schoolteacher whose husband Chris was killed, also is on the board.

In 2020 the Legislature passed Alyssa’s Law, named for Alhadeff’s daughter, which requires every school to install panic buttons, or “mobile panic alert systems,” connecting them to emergency responders.

March for Our Lives

Three days after the shooting, at a rally at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, a Stoneman Douglas senior gave a speech that radiated anger at the nation’s leaders for leaving schools vulnerable to gun violence.

“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have ever been done to prevent this, we call B.S.,” said Emma Gonzalez, who now goes by the name X Gonzalez. “They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence. We call B.S. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call B.S. … They say that no laws could have been able to prevent the hundreds of senseless tragedies that have occurred. We call B.S.”

The speech marked the emergence of a team of student activists, whose hard work, media savvy and ability to obtain assistance from adult professionals put gun violence at the top of the national agenda.

Less than six weeks after the massacre, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Washington for a gun-control event swiftly and impressively organized by Stoneman Douglas students and their adult allies.

They carried signs that read “Enough” and “Hey NRA How do you put MONEY before the lives of children?” “MSD Strong” and “Lives matter more than guns!”

Samantha Fuentes, a student wounded in the attack, started to read a poem she had written called “Enough,” then overcome with nerves and emotion, vomited at the lectern. She paused, gathered herself together, and finished reading.

In one of the most powerful speeches, Gonzalez stood silently at the microphone, then said, “Since the time that I came out here, it has been 6 minutes and 20 seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting, and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape, and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”

Parallel rallies were held across the United States, with thousands attending events in South Florida.

Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed in the shooting, stood before the crowd at the Parkland rally and tried to talk about his loss.

“I would give everything to have one more second, one more hour with the sweetest boy,” he said, trying to hold back his tears.

But despite the emotional speeches, and despite polls showing the highest level of support for stricter gun laws in a generation, the results fell far short of the students’ goals. The U.S. didn’t ban assault rifles or high-capacity magazines, both favored by mass shooters. And it did not mandate universal background checks for gun buyers.

They won some victories. Just three weeks after the attack, in a move that might have seemed inconceivable with today’s politics, the Republican-controlled Legislature, under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, passed tighter gun laws.

The state banned bump stocks, which can turn an assault rifle into a machine gun. The Trump administration did the same.

The state expanded gun purchasers’ three-day waiting period from handguns to all firearms and raised the minimum age from 18 to 21 — although there are loopholes to both and the age requirement has been challenged in court by the NRA. The state adopted a “red flag” law that allows authorities to seize weapons from someone considered a threat.

Despite the “Never again” vows of activists, mass shootings continued, as well as the less spectacular daily killings that are routine across the United States.

Three months after the Parkland shooting, a student opened fire at Santa Fe High in Texas, killing 10. The next year, a student at Saugus High School in California shot five people, killing two. Last year a student at Oxford High School in Michigan shot 11 people, killing four.

Frustrated by federal inaction, students from the original March for Our Lives returned to Washington March 24 on the event’s fourth anniversary. They laid out body bags on the National Mall that spelled out the words “Thoughts and Prayers” to indicate what they called the “empty words” political leaders have provided in place of action to tighten gun laws.

School safety reforms

State law and individual school districts tightened security after investigations revealed how Cruz, a known threat, walked onto campus with a rifle bag, opened the door and attacked.

The Florida Legislature required every school to have at least one armed guard. A new law allowed teachers to carry guns, but only in counties that opted in. All three South Florida counties rejected it.

School districts, including Broward, imposed single points of entry. Fences and gates went up. Bathrooms were left unlocked so students could hide in them. Classrooms were to be kept locked. “Hard corners” were marked — where kids could hide and not be seen from the door. Bleed kits with tourniquets were installed. Active shooter drills became the norm. School surveillance cameras were upgraded and can be viewed remotely, now, by law enforcement.

In mid-March, more than four years after the grief-stricken Lori Alhadeff pleaded on CNN for metal detectors at every school door, the Broward school district announced it would start random metal detector screenings.

FBI mistakes

Although the shooter was quickly in handcuffs, it became clear almost immediately that many people in positions of authority hadn’t done their jobs. From sheriff’s deputies to FBI agents, the list was long of people who missed the opportunity to intervene before concern about Cruz turned to calamity.

More than four months before the shooting, a bail bondsman in Mississippi reached out to the FBI after seeing something disturbing online. The man forwarded a screen shot under a YouTube video of the words, from a “nikolas cruz”: “I am going to be a professional school shooter.”

Another tip to the FBI came the following January, when a Cruz family friend called to report Cruz’s disturbing Instagram posts. She spent more than 13 minutes on the phone giving the call taker Cruz’s address, his social media handles, and explaining that she was concerned about his “getting into a school and just shooting the place up.”

Five weeks later, he did just that. The FBI had fumbled both tips. The agency later announced it had overhauled its national tip line.

Nikolas Cruz’s background

As questions sharpened over missed opportunities to intervene before the shooting, details began to emerge of Cruz’s difficult life.

His troubles started before birth, when his mother, who had a history of criminal charges and addiction, was arrested for buying crack cocaine while she was pregnant with him. Born at Plantation General Hospital, he was adopted at birth by a couple too old to have children.

From early childhood, he’d been violent, angry, explosive — and obsessed with firearms. Some professionals had attached labels to him: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional behavioral disability, depression, autism.

The family lived in a spacious home in Parkland, with a pool and jacuzzi. Roger Cruz was a suit-and-tie guy and owned no guns. Lynda was a stay-at-home mom. But their hopes of an idyllic late-in-life marriage and family collapsed. “Daddy’s dead,” then-5-year-old Nikolas told his mother, crying. Roger Cruz had died of a heart attack in front of him, a family friend told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Even at that young age, Nikolas Cruz had proven incapable of fitting in. His bad temper and behavioral problems were so profound, he was kicked out of daycare and referred for psychological evaluation at age 3, according to records obtained by the Sun Sentinel.

His mother filled out a preschool form that year, check-marking “tries to hurt others,” the school records say. The preschool director the same year wrote that he “quite often injures children. …” A year later, his preschool teacher check-marked “has no friends.”

Delayed in speaking, he had difficulty expressing himself. Cruz was “obsessed with tigers” and other jungle animals, a teacher noted. When he was 5, teachers reported he often made animal sounds and attacked classmates.

“Snarling like an animal at kids,” reads one note from recess. “Threatening to hurt me,” a teacher wrote.

Educated as a student with disabilities, Cruz yearned to attend school with students who had no such difficulties. His wish was granted when he was sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Just one month into attendance at Stoneman Douglas, Cruz posted on Instagram his plans to “shoot up the school.” A neighbor reported it to the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

In the fall, a Department of Children and Families employee wrote that Cruz “is a vulnerable adult due to mental illness.” He had “fresh cuts on both his arms” and he “stated he plans to go out and buy a gun.” The employee added “it is unknown what he is buying the gun for.”

The school-shooting threat and Cruz’s intent to buy a gun both were flagged to Stoneman Douglas’ school resource officer, Deputy Peterson, records show, who would later hide during the shooting.

Cruz was kicked out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 8, 2017. Three days later, at age 18, he bought the AR-15 that he would wield in the hallways of Building 12.

In the fall of 2017, Lynda Cruz caught the flu and died of pneumonia. Her two boys were homeless. No one in the extended family took them in.

A former neighbor brought them to her mobile home, but kicked Nikolas out soon after. He lived with a Parkland family until, three months after his mother’s death, he went on the shooting spree.

Legal fights

Like so many tragedies, the massacre led to a blizzard of lawsuits. Some injured victims wanted help with medical bills.

Some notable settlements:

  • The FBI settled last November with 16 of the 17 families — one family didn’t participate in the lawsuit — for $127.5 million. The family of Martin Duque, a 14-year-old boy from Mexico who was part of the JROTC program, chose not to be part of the federal lawsuit.
  • The Broward School board agreed to pay $25 million to 51 plaintiffs — 17 whose family members died, 16 injured, and 19 suffering trauma. The district, in a separate settlement, also agreed to pay $1.25 million to the 17th surviving shooting victim Anthony Borges.
  • Kimberly and James Snead, who took Cruz in to their Parkland home and failed to keep him from accessing his assault rifle, settled a variety of civil lawsuits in 2020 with a public apology and agreement not to speak about or financially benefit from their story.

The lawsuits continue. This year, nine lawsuits were filed by students or teachers against Cruz, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the school district, Scot Peterson, and in some cases, campus monitor Andrew Medina.

Broward school Superintendent Robert Runcie resisted demands that he step down after the shooting. But in April, facing a perjury charge over grand jury testimony in an investigation of school contracts, he resigned.

The district’s in-house attorney, Barbara Myrick, who with Runcie worked to withhold information on the shooting and fought victims’ parents, also agreed to quit after being indicted on charges of illegally disclosing grand jury information.

Both pleaded not guilty.

Under their leadership, the district had gone to court to hold South Florida Sun Sentinel journalists in contempt for publishing information about Cruz that the school district inadvertently provided in a computer file in which the confidential information hadn’t been properly redacted.

Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is presiding over the Cruz case, blasted the newspaper but later ruled against the contempt motion. Journalists across the nation filed a brief supporting the Sun Sentinel. The Sun Sentinel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the shooting and the failures that led up to it.

The search for jurors

A decision to execute Cruz, now 23 years old, must be unanimous. Under Florida, a single holdout would prevent the judge from imposing the death penalty.

Judge Scherer, a former prosecutor, will work with prosecutors and defense lawyers during a period they’re calling “pre-selection” to weed out potential jurors who are unable to serve because of time commitments and those who know they cannot be impartial when it comes to a figure as polarizing as the defendant.

From the remaining pool, a dozen jurors are needed, as well as eight alternates.

Jurors could start hearing evidence sometime in May, according to time frames discussed by lawyers in court. Prosecutors expect to take about six weeks to present their case. The defense team has provided no time estimate, but in criminal trials, the defense typically takes less time than the prosecution.

Today, Cruz lives in a maximum-security cell at the Broward County Main Jail next to the courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

While in jail, about nine months after the massacre, Cruz assaulted a guard, wrestling him to the floor and seizing his stun gun. The guard finally subdued him, and Cruz was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer.

The aftermath of that assault suggests the difficulty of seating a jury. Last September, when it appeared Cruz might be tried in the jail assault case, several potential jurors were called to the courtroom. When they learned the identity of the defendant, some burst into tears.

David Fleshler can be reached at dfleshler@sunsentinel.com and 954-356-4535. Follow him on Twitter @DavidFleshler. Rafael Olmeda can be reached at rolmeda@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4457. Follow him on Twitter @rolmeda. Brittany Wallman can be reached at bwallman@sunsentinel.com and 954-356-4541. Follow her on Twitter @brittanywallman.

©2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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