FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Parkland, Florida, high school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said Friday, bringing some closure to a South Florida community more than three years after an attack that sparked a nationwide movement for gun control.
The guilty plea would set up a penalty phase where Nikolas Cruz, 23, would be fighting against the death penalty and hoping for life without parole.
Attorneys for Cruz told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that he will plead guilty Wednesday to 17 counts of first-degree murder in the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The pleas will come with no conditions and prosecutors still plan to seek the death penalty. That will be decided by a jury, but that trial has not been scheduled.
Cruz will also plead guilty to 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder and to attacking a jail guard nine months after the shooting. He was not present during the hearing.
The trial has been delayed by the pandemic and arguments between the prosecution and defense over what evidence and testimony could be presented to the jury. Some victims’ families had expressed frustration over the delays, but the president of the group they formed expressed relief that the case now seems closer to resolution.
“We just hope the system gives him justice,” said Tony Montalto of Stand With Parkland. His 14-year-old daughter, Gina, died in the shooting.
The decision by Cruz and his attorneys to plead guilty came unexpectedly. Preparations were being made to begin jury selection within the next few months. He had been set to go on trial next week for the attack on the Broward County jail guard.
Cruz and his lawyers had long offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutors had repeatedly rejected that deal, saying the case deserved a death sentence.
Cruz’s rampage crushed the veneer of safety in Parkland, an upper-middle-class community outside Fort Lauderdale with little crime. Its educational crown jewel is Stoneman Douglas, a campus of 3,200 students that is one of the top-ranked public schools in the state.
Cruz was a longtime, but troubled resident. Since preschool he had been treated for emotional problems and was known by neighbors for torturing animals. Broward sheriff’s deputies were frequently called to the home in an upscale neighborhood he shared with his widowed mother and younger brother for disturbances, but they said nothing was ever reported that could have led to his arrest. A state commission that investigated the shooting agreed.
Cruz alternated between traditional schools and those for troubled students. In one year of middle school, he averaged three disciplinary incidents per month.
He attended Stoneman Douglas starting in 10th grade, but his troubles remained — at one point, he was prohibited from carrying a backpack to make sure he didn’t carry a weapon. Still, he was allowed to participate on the school’s rifle team.
He was expelled about a year before the attack after numerous incidents of unusual behavior and at least one fight. He began posting photos online of himself with guns and made videos threatening to commit violence, including at the school. It was about this time he purchased the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle he would use in the shooting.
When Cruz’s mother died of pneumonia in November 2017, four months before the shooting, he began staying with friends, taking his 10 guns with him.
Someone, worried about his emotional state, called the FBI a month before the shooting to warn agents he might kill people. The information was never forwarded to the agency’s South Florida office and Cruz was never investigated or contacted.
Another acquaintance called the Broward Sheriff’s Office with a similar warning, but when the deputy learned Cruz was then living with a family friend in neighboring Palm Beach County he told the caller to contact that sheriff’s office.
In the weeks before the shooting, Cruz began making videos proclaiming he was going to be the “next school shooter of 2018.” Shortly before the massacre, he made one where he said, “Today is the day. Today it all begins. The day of my massacre shall begin.”
The shooting happened on Valentine’s Day, minutes before the end of the school day. Students had exchanged balloons, flowers and other gifts and many were dressed in red.
Cruz, then 19, arrived at the campus that afternoon in an Uber, assembled his rifle in a bathroom and then opened fire on students and staff members, the smoke from his rifle setting off the fire alarm.
Outside the building, sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson, the school’s longtime resource officer, heard the shots but did not enter the building — he drew his gun and hid behind a column and wall, video shows. He told investigators he did not know where the shots were coming from, but they said his radio transmissions show he did.
Peterson has been charged with felony child neglect for allegedly failing to protect the students and perjury for allegedly lying to investigators. He has pleaded not guilty and proclaimed his innocence in interviews. He resigned shortly after the shooting before he could be fired.
Cruz eventually dropped his rifle and fled, blending in with his victims as police officers arrived and stormed the building. He was captured about an hour later walking through a residential neighborhood. Later that night, he confessed to detectives.
A state investigation found numerous security lapses not just at Stoneman Douglas but at schools statewide. The shooting led to a state law that requires all Florida public schools to have an armed guard on campus during class hours.
Associated Press reporter Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, contributed to this story.