By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson
PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – A 19-year-old man who had been expelled from his Florida high school was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder on Thursday, after authorities said he unleashed one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
The ex-student, identified as Nikolas Cruz walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Wednesday and opened fire on students and teachers, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. Police believe he acted alone.
Cruz was expected to appear in court Thursday afternoon for a bond hearing, said Constance Simmons, a spokeswoman for the state attorney’s office.
Cruz was armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and had multiple ammunition magazines when he surrendered to officers in a nearby residential area, police said. He loved guns and was expelled for unspecified disciplinary reasons, police and former classmates said.
The shooting in a community about 45 miles (72 km) north of Miami was the 18th in a U.S. school this year, according to gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, continuing a troubling pattern that has played out over the past few years.
It was the second deadliest shooting in a U.S. public school after the 2012 massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
The deadliest school shooting in U.S. history was at Virginia Tech in 2007, when 32 people were killed.
“This community is hurting right now,” Israel told reporters Thursday. “We will interview every single student and every person in that school who possibly might know something.”
The Florida shooting stirred the long-simmering U.S. debate on the right to bear arms, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Schools across the country have installed electronically secured doors and added security staff, but few legislative solutions have emerged.
The Broward County sheriff and schools superintendent Robert Runcie urged officials to do more to improve school security.
“We’ve got to invest resources to make sure that we minimize the occurrence of this ever happening again, because if we don’t it’s not a matter of if, it’s going to be when,” Runcie told a news conference.
U.S. President Donald Trump said he would meet with governors this year to develop policies to improve school security and address mental health needs.
“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said at the White House. “We must actually make that difference.”
FBI WAS TIPPED
Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s death in November, according to Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family and local media, bringing his AR-15 along with his other belongings.
The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness.
“They didn’t see any danger,” Lewis told CNN.
Cruz may have left warning signs on social media. Buzzfeed reported that a person named Nikolas Cruz left a comment under a YouTube video that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The man who posted the video was alarmed and contacted the FBI, Buzzfeed reported.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky told reporters on Thursday the bureau received the 2017 tip but said investigators had been unable to locate the person who made the comment.
“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” Lasky said.
South Florida remained on edge on Thursday. Miami’s main criminal courthouse building and another Broward school briefly went on lockdown due to security concerns, according to officials and local media. No injuries were immediately reported in either incident.
The first victim of the attack was publicly identified on Thursday as Aaron Feis, an assistant coach on the school’s football team and a school security guard who was shot while shielding students, the team said on Twitter.
The assailant wore a gas mask as he stalked into the school carrying a rifle, ammunition cartridges and smoke grenades, then pulled a fire alarm, prompting students and staff to pour from classrooms into hallways, according to Florida’s two U.S. senators, who were brief by federal authorities.
An armed law enforcement officer stationed at the school did not encounter Cruz during his rampage, Israel said.
Colton Haab, a 17-year-old member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at the high school, said he realized the alarms were not a drill after hearing several shots fired and helped barricade fellow students behind curtains made of Kevlar, a material used to make bullet-proof vests.
“We grabbed two pieces of two-by-four, a fire extinguisher and a chair,” Haab said. “We were going to try to stop him with whatever we had.”
(Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Parkland, Florida, Jonathan Allen in New York, Susan Heavey in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by John Stonestreet and Jeffrey Benkoe)