PARKLAND, Fla. (FOX 13) - The former student suspected of killing 17 people at a South Florida school took an Uber there, then put down his gun and fled the scene alongside his stunned and scared ex-classmates, Broward County's sheriff said Thursday.
Sheriff Scott Israel said Nikolas Cruz admitted to detectives that he carried out Wednesday's violent attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, then stopped at Walmart and McDonald's before police caught up with him.
Suspect charged, held without bond
Investigators say Cruz is a 19-year-old former student of the school. Two federal law enforcement officials say the rifle, a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 .223, was purchased legally by Cruz at Sunrise Tactical Gear in Florida.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were briefed on the investigation but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Seventeen people died as a result of the attack. Cruz now faces 17 counts of premeditated murder for the attack.
Cruz was ordered held without bond at a brief court hearing Thursday. He wore an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed at his waist. His attorney did not contest the order and had her arm around Cruz during the short appearance.
'He looked like a typical high school student'
As the violence unfolded Wednesday, the suspected shooter's location was not immediately clear.
As SWAT officers surrounded the school building where a shooter unleashed gunfire on classmates, law enforcement officers from multiple agencies spread from the school to expand the search.
During a press conference Thursday, the officer who spotted the suspect said he relied on his training to quickly and peacefully bring the terror to an end.
City of Coconut Creek Police Department Officer Michael Leonard said he was at the police department headquarters when calls for backup came over his radio. He got in his car and headed straight for the school.
Officer Leonard said there was already a heavy presence when he arrived. Meanwhile, a description of the suspected gunman had been dispatched to officers, so Leonard chose a nearby neighborhood to canvas.
"As I traveled down one of the back roads [of] a heavily residential area... as I continued down this roadway, I discovered an individual walking on the sidewalk that was wearing the clothing description that had been given over the radio," Officer Leonard said. "He looked like a typical high school student. For a quick moment, I thought, 'Could this be the person? Is this who I need to stop?' Training kicked in, I pulled my vehicle over immediately, engaged the suspect, he complied with my commands, and was taken into custody without any issues."
Officer Leonard thanked his brothers and sisters in law enforcement, saying "this is what we trained for."
Ties to white nationalism
The Associated Press reports Cruz has ties to a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida.
According to the group's leader, Jordan Jereb, Cruz was a member of his group and participated in exercises in Tallahassee. Jereb told The Associated Press that he had only a brief interaction a few years ago with Cruz, who came across as "a normal Florida white guy."
The group says it wants Florida to become its own white ethnostate. Jereb said his organization holds "spontaneous random demonstrations" and tries not to participate in the modern world.
"We don't really endorse doing the things he did," Jereb said. "But at the same time, it's inevitable that people are going to go crazy because we live in an inherently sick society," he said, citing "hyper-egalitarianism" and feminism as some of society's ills.
However, the Leon County Sheriff's Office in Tallahassee, where the Republic of Florida is based, said it monitors the group's membership and has seen no ties between the organization and Cruz. Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Grady Jordan said the Republic of Florida has never had more than 10 members.
Authorities offered no official information about a possible motive. They said Cruz had been kicked out of the 3,000-student high school but were not able to say if his expulsion was related. Students who knew him described a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him.
Victoria Olvera, a 17-year-old junior, said Cruz was expelled last school year because he got into a fight with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend. She said he had been abusive to the girl.
"I think everyone had in their minds if anybody was going to do it, it was going to be him," said Dakota Mutchler, also 17.
On the FBI's radar
FBI agent Rob Lasky said the agency investigated a 2017 YouTube comment posted with the screen name Nikolas Cruz that said: "I'm going to be a professional school shooter."
Lasky said the FBI did a database review, but could not determine the time or location of the post, or the true identity of the person making the comment.
Ben Bennight, whose YouTube username is BenTheBondsman, posted a video Wednesday saying he had spotted the comment on September 24, took a screenshot, flagged it for YouTube and called an FBI office in Mississippi to report it. He said two FBI agents visited him the next day.
"I knew that I couldn't just ignore that," Bennight said. The FBI called him again Wednesday within about two hours of the shooting, and one agent interviewed him in person, he said.
Recently orphaned suspect may have shown signs
Cruz's mother, Lynda Cruz, died of pneumonia on November 1, according to neighbors, friends, and family members who spoke to the Sun Sentinel.
Lynda Cruz and her husband, who died of a heart attack several years ago, adopted Nikolas and his biological brother, Zachary, after the couple moved from Long Island in New York to Broward County.
The boys were left in the care of a family friend after their mother died, said family member Barbara Kumbatovich, of Long Island.
Unhappy there, Nikolas Cruz asked to move in with a friend's family in northwest Broward County. That family agreed, and Cruz moved in around Thanksgiving. According to the family's lawyer, who did not identify them, they knew that Cruz owned the AR-15 but made him keep it locked up in a cabinet.
He did have the key, however.
Attorney Jim Lewis said the family is cooperating with authorities and had no idea he was planning the shooting.
Lewis also said the family was not aware of any other weapons in the gun cabinet he had. Photos posted on an Instagram account linked to Cruz show half a dozen weapons displayed on a mattress and a box of ammunition.
Some bodies remained inside the high school Thursday as authorities analyze the crime scene, the sheriff said. The slain included a school athletic director and another adult who worked as a monitor at the school.
Thirteen wounded survivors were hospitalized, including two people in critical condition.
Wednesday's shooting was the 17th incident of gunfire at an American school this year. Of the 17 incidents, one involved a suicide, two involved active shooters who killed students, two involved people killed in arguments and three involved people who were shot but survived. Nine involved no injuries at all.
Varying responses from political leaders
In a national address from the White House, President Donald Trump said he wanted America's children to know, "You are never alone, and you never will be."
He said no child should have to go to school in fear of getting killed. He planned to travel to Florida meet with victims' families, explore how to better secure schools and to "tackle the difficult issue of mental health."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he's already told Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran that "if someone is mentally ill, he should not have access to a gun."
Broward County Schools Superintendent Rob Runcie said "now is the time to have a real conversation about gun control legislation." And if adults cannot manage that in their lifetimes, he said, students will do it.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel called for giving law enforcement more power to detain people who make "graphic threats or post disturbing material online."
He would like the authority to bring them involuntarily to mental health professionals to be examined.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.