PARKLAND, Florida (AP) – An orphaned 19-year-old who participated in paramilitary drills with a white nationalist group was charged with murder Thursday in the deaths of 17 people who were fatally shot at a huge Florida high school in the nation's deadliest school attack in five years.
Nikolas Cruz legally purchased the AR-15 rifle used in the assault at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, law enforcement officials told The Associated Press.
As the criminal case against the suspect took shape, the leader of a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida said Cruz was a member of his group and participated in exercises in Tallahassee.
Jordan 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 wants Florida to become its own white ethno-state. 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.
He also said Cruz had “trouble with a girl” and that he believed the timing of the attack, on Valentine's Day, was not a coincidence.
Authorities offered no details about a possible motive, except to say that Cruz had been kicked out of the high school, which has about 3,000 students. Students who knew him described a volatile teenager whose strange behavior had caused others to end friendships with him.
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.”
At no point did Trump mention guns or gun-control measures.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he wants the Justice Department to study how mental illness affects criminal behavior, to better understand how law enforcement can use existing laws to prevent school shootings.
“It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening in our country,” Sessions told a group of sheriffs in Washington. In “every one of these cases, we've had advance indications, and perhaps we haven't been effective enough in intervening.”