Gunman confesses to killing 17 at college

By Terry Spencer, Kelli Kennedy and Tamara Lush The Associated Press

PARKLAND, Fla. — The teenager accused of using a semiautomatic rifle to kill 17 people at a Florida high school confessed Thursday to carrying out one of the nation‘s deadliest school shootings and carried extra ammunition in his backpack, according to a sheriff‘s department report released Thursday.

Nikolas Cruz told investigators that he shot students in the hallways and on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, north of Miami, the report from the Broward County sheriff‘s office said.

The gunman fired into five classrooms — four on the first floor of the school and one on the second floor, Sheriff Scott Israel said.

The shooting lasted for three minutes. When he was done firing, the assailant went to the third floor and dropped his AR-15 rifle and the backpack containing the ammunition. He then ran out of the building and attempted to blend in with fleeing students, Israel said.

After the rampage, the suspect headed to a Walmart and bought a drink at a Subway restaurant before walking to a McDonald‘s. He was taken into custody about 40 minutes after leaving the McDonald‘s, the sheriff said.

A day after Wednesday‘s attack, a fuller portrait emerged of the shooter, a loner who had worked at a dollar store, joined the school‘s ROTC program and posted photos of many weapons on Instagram.

The 19-year-old orphan whose mother died last year was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder Thursday in the assault that devastated this sleepy community on the edge of the Everglades. It was the nation‘s deadliest school attack since a gunman targeted an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, more than five years ago. Twenty-six people died in that attack.

Meanwhile, students struggled to describe the violence that ripped through their classrooms just before the school day ended Wednesday.

Catarina Linden, a 16-year-old sophomore, said she was in an advanced math class when the gunfire began.

“He shot the girl next to me,” she said, adding that when she finally was able to leave the classroom, the air was foggy with gunsmoke. “I stepped on so many shell casings. There were bodies on the ground, and there was blood everywhere.”

The last of the bodies were removed from the high school Thursday after authorities analyzed the crime scene. Thirteen wounded survivors were still hospitalized, including two in critical condition.

Sheriff Israel said the school resource officer was on campus but did not run into Cruz. The gunman arrived during dismissal, when the campus was ‘‘fairly open,’’ according to Robert Runcie, superintendent of the Broward County Public Schools.

Authorities have not offered any specific motive, except to say that Cruz had been kicked out of the high school, which has about 3,000 students and serves an affluent suburb where the median home price is nearly $600,000. Students who knew him described a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him.

Cruz was ordered held without bond at a brief court hearing. He wore an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed at his waist. His attorney had her arm around Cruz during the short appearance. Asked by a judge whether he understood the circumstances in which he found himself, Cruz whispered two words: ‘‘Yes, ma’am.’’

‘‘He’s sad. He’s mournful,’’ his public defender, Melisa McNeill, said after Cruz’s court appearance. ‘‘He is fully aware of what is going on, and he’s just a broken human being.’’

Cruz is being held without bond at the main Broward County jail, where he has been placed on suicide watch, according to Gordon Weekes, chief of the county’s public defenders.

As the criminal case began to take shape, President Donald Trump, in an address to the nation, promised to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” but he avoided any mention of guns. Trump, whose private club in Palm Beach is about 40 miles from Parkland, said he planned to visit the grieving community. It was not certain when that would be.

‘‘We are here for you — whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain,’’ Trump said in an address to the nation.

Trump said he would make school safety a top priority when he meets with the nation’s governors next month. He did not answer shouted questions about guns as he left the room.

Trump had weighed in on Twitter early Thursday, calling the suspect “mentally disturbed” and stressing that it was important to “report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

In the case of Cruz, at least one person did report him.

FBI agent Rob Lasky said the FBI investigated a 2017 YouTube comment that said “I‘m going to be a professional school shooter.” But the agency could not identify the person who made the comment, which was from an account using the name Nikolas Cruz. It was left on a YouTube video of a vlogger and bail bondsman from Louisiana named Ben Bennight.

In a Buzzfeed article, Bennight said he called the FBI, and agents came out to talk with him. They called him again Wednesday.

Officials were investigating whether authorities missed other warning signs about Cruz‘s potentially violent nature.

The leader of a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida said Cruz was a member of his group and had participated in exercises in Tallahassee. Jordan Jereb said he had only a brief interaction with Cruz a few years ago. The group wants Florida to become its own white ethno-state.

But neither the Leon County sheriff‘s office in Tallahassee nor the Southern Poverty Law Center could confirm any link between Cruz and the militia.

Jereb appeared to back away from his claim later Thursday. Someone posting under his name on Gab, a social media site popular with far-right extremists, complained about getting criticized over a “prank,” claimed there was a “misunderstanding” and said he received “a bunch of conflicting information.”

The AR-15 rifle used in the attack was purchased legally, at Sunrise Tactical Supply in Florida, according to a federal law enforcement official. The arrest report said Cruz purchased it in February 2017. ‘‘No laws were violated in the procurement of this weapon,’’ said Peter J. Forcelli, special agent in charge for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami.

In Florida, an AR-15 is easier to buy than a handgun.

Cruz‘s mother, Lynda Cruz, died of pneumonia Nov. 1, and his father died previously, according to the arrest affidavit. He had been staying with another family since November.

With the Parkland shootings, three of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have come in the past five months.

The shootings, captured on cellphone video by terrified students, has renewed a national debate on how to prevent more tragedies. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said he would meet with state lawmakers to secure more funding for school safety and the treatment of mental illness. ‘‘If we have somebody that’s mentally ill, they can’t have access to a gun,’’ Scott said.

Without offering any specific proposals, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday, ‘‘We’ve got to reverse these trends we’re seeing in these shootings.’’

He added that the Justice Department is prepared to enforce existing gun laws and that he met with officials from the Health and Human Services and Education Departments on Thursday to study ‘‘the intersection of mental health and criminality and violence.’’

Students and parents in Parkland, an affluent suburb in Florida’s most intensely Democratic county, said a focus from policymakers on treating mental illness was not enough.

Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa, 14, was killed, made an emotional plea for action.

‘‘President Trump, we need action, we need change,’’ she said, the urgency rising in her voice. ‘‘Get these guns out of the hands of these young kids and get these guns off the streets.’’

‘‘If we’re constantly having our children worried about getting shot at, what are we telling our future?’’ said David Hogg, 17, a senior, who said two of his 14-year-old sister’s friends were killed. ‘‘And that’s what these people are killing, our future.’’

Runcie did not mince words: ‘‘Now is the time for the country to have a real conversation on sensible gun controls in this country,’’ he said.

In an interview on CNN, David Hogg, 17, a lanky senior and the student news director, expressed frustration with politicians in simpler terms:

‘‘We’re children,’’ he said. ‘‘You guys are the adults.’’

Information from The New York Times was included in this story.

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