The FBI failed to properly investigate a tip it received last month about the teenager accused of killing 17 people at a South Florida high school this week, the agency said Friday in an admission that drew outrage from the families of the dead and calls from lawmakers for its director to resign.
On Jan. 5, a person close to Nikolas Cruz contacted the FBI to report that he had posted disturbing messages on social media and that he had a desire to kill, according to the FBI statement.
The agency said proper “protocols were not followed” in investigating Cruz, who has been charged as the gunman in the massacre Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Parkland.
The revelation deepened the sense that the attack could have been prevented if authorities had heeded various warnings about Cruz.
“I’m sick to know those kids may have been alive today if somebody had done their job,” said Meredith Barry, whose 16-year-old daughter attends the school and lost one of her best friends in the shooting.
The 19-year-old suspect was no stranger to law enforcement. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said at a news conference Friday that his office had responded to “approximately 20 calls for service over the last few years regarding the killer.” He did not provide details about those calls.
The tip to the FBI came through its call center, a facility in West Virginia that handles roughly 2,100 calls a day, according to a law enforcement official who spoke about the shooting investigation on the condition that he not be named.
The caller said Cruz had recently purchased firearms, threatened a family member and displayed erratic behavior, the official said.
“Clearly the person was afraid [he] was going to harm somebody,” the official said.
There was a conversation between the tipster and the FBI employee who took the call, the official said, noting that enough information was provided — including Cruz’s address — that the call center employee should have written a report and sent it to the Miami field office for investigation. That didn’t happen.
It was at least the second time the FBI had been warned about Cruz.
In September, an Alabama resident named Ben Bennight called the FBI to report a comment left beneath a video he had posted on YouTube.
“Im going to be a professional school shooter,” it said. The commenter identified himself as Nikolas Cruz.
Robert Lasky, the FBI special agent in charge on the Miami field office, said Thursday that the bureau had investigated the comment but that agents had been unable to identify the person who left it or that person’s location.
Cruz, who was expelled from the high school last year, told investigators that he walked the hallways Wednesday afternoon shooting students and teachers with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, according to a report from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. Charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, he is being held without bond.
In the FBI statement Friday, the director, Christopher Wray, promised an investigation into how the agency flubbed the handling of the tip.
“I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes for responding to information that we receive from the public,” he said. “It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly.”
He also said that FBI personnel “have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy.”
“All of the men and women of the FBI are dedicated to keeping the American people safe, and are relentlessly committed to improving all that we do and how we do it.”
That did little to calm reaction to the disclosure about the tip. Florida Gov. Rick Scott called on Wray to resign, and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions ordered his deputy to review the FBI’s procedures for fielding tips from callers.
Relatives of victims and politicians demanded more answers from the agency.
Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed, said in a text message he was “enraged” about the FBI’s announcement.
Barry, one of many parents whose children lost friends in the massacre, said she was “disgusted” at the FBI and that members of the agency should go to jail for their failure.
“Now they’re going to investigate where the system fell short,” she said. “These systems aren’t supposed to fall short in our eyes; they’re supposed to protect our kids and our families and us.
“I don’t know how they live with themselves,” she said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said it was “inexcusable that the FBI failed to follow protocols” and called for congressional investigations into how the FBI handled the matter.
“In this tragic case, people close to the shooter said something, and our system utterly failed the families of 17 innocent souls,” he said.
Maria Haberfeld, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the United States has the most “decentralized law enforcement in the world, with over 17,000 different law enforcement agencies.”
“It absolutely weakens and slows down the response,” she said.
She called on the U.S. to follow the lead of the Netherlands, Scotland and other countries that in recent years have moved toward centralization of their policing systems.
“Until we centralize to, at minimum, one law enforcement agency for each state, we are going to experience more such failures and people will die as an outcome of this ineffective and archaic structure,” Haberfeld said.
On Friday, as survivors and those who lost loved ones in the attack began attending funerals, investigators continued to piece together the timeline of events around the slaughter, the deadliest school attack since a gunman targeted an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., killing 26 students and staff in late 2012.
Law enforcement has said Cruz was able to blend in with other students as he fled the school following the shooting. No motive for the attack has been released.
Sheriff’s officials Friday were escorting students and staff back to the school to retrieve vehicles left in the parking lot as the investigation at the scene continued.
President Trump, who has called the gunman “mentally disturbed” and has offered condolences on Twitter and at a news conference, visited Broward Health North Hospital late Friday to meet with doctors and first responders who treated victims of the rampage.
Lee reported from Los Angeles, Tanfani from Washington, Agrawal from New York and Hennessy-Fiske from Parkland, Fla. Staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
5:10 p.m. This article was updated with comments from a professor and Trump’s visit to a Florida hospital.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.
12:35 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction to the FBI statement.
10:55 a.m.: This article was updated with information from a law enforcement official on the call to the FBI.
9:46 a.m.: This article was updated to report the FBI said it failed to properly investigate a January warning about Nikolas Cruz.
This article was published at 8:25 a.m.