FBI: We didn’t follow protocol in tip about Stoneman gunman

Feb 16, 2018
Children put flowers on a fence Thursday next to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

The FBI admitted Friday it failed to investigate a Jan. 5 tip about accused Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s gun ownership, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts  — “as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.

The admission triggered immediate reaction in Florida. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called it “inexcusable.” Gov. Rick Scott called for the bureau director to resign.

The disclosures come almost two years after revelations the FBI interviewed Orlando shooter Omar Mateen multiple times as early as 2013 but found no reason to conclude he was a terrorist threat. Mateen, 29, who lived in Port St. Lucie and Fort Pierce, murdered 49 people and wounded 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016.

>> Douglas special ed teacher: I regret not having chance to help Cruz

Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago, 26, walked into an FBI office in Alaska two months before killing five and wounding eight in January 2017. He made bizarre statements including that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency, agents said. He was taken by local police to a mental health facility but his gun was returned to him after a short stay there, officials said.

The cases highlight the challenge of investigating disturbing signs or warnings about people who have not yet committed a massacre or major crime, but make people around them think they might.

This time, something went wrong inside the agency before the information ever got to investigators in the field, officials said.

The FBI said it received a tip on the agency’s Public Access Line a month and nine days before Florida’s deadliest school shooting. Cruz admitted to killing 17 students and teachers at his former high school in Broward County Wednesday, police said. Seven victims remain hospitalized.

>> Students urge gun controls: ‘It’s harder to buy a puppy than an AR-15’

“Under established protocols, the information provided by the caller should have been assessed as a potential threat to life,” an FBI statement said. “The information then should have been forwarded to the FBI Miami Field Office, where appropriate investigative steps would have been taken.”

Agency officials determined “these protocols were not followed ” and “no further investigation was conducted at that time.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “We are still investigating the facts. I am committed to getting to the bottom of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our process for responding to information that we receive from the public.”

Rob Lasky, the FBI special agent in charge of the agency’s Miami division, said Thursday that authorities investigated a comment on YouTube in 2017 that was allegedly posted by someone with the name Nikolas Cruz.

“The comment simply said, ‘I’m going to be a professional school shooter,’” Lasky said, adding that authorities were unable to identity the person who posted the comment. “We do not know if it’s the same person. We did our database checks. We could not positively identify him.”

>> Suburban safety shattered: What my nephews learned in the face of evil

As for the handling of the Jan. 5 tip, Lasky said Friday, “The potential of the FBI to make a mistake is always there. We do our best.”

Wray said bureau officials have “spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy.”

That is not good enough, Florida’s governor said Friday.

“Seventeen innocent people are dead and acknowledging a mistake isn’t going to cut it,” Scott said. “An apology will never bring these 17 Floridians back to life or comfort the families who are in pain. The families will spend a lifetime wondering how this could happen, and an apology will never give them the answers they desperately need.”

Rubio called for congressional probes.

“The fact that the FBI is investigating this failure is not enough,” the GOP senator said in a statement. “Both the House and Senate need to immediately initiate their own investigations into the FBI’s protocols for ensuring tips from the public about potential killers are followed through. Lawmakers and law enforcement personnel constantly remind the public that ‘if you see something, say something.’ In this tragic case, people close to the shooter said something, and our system utterly failed the families of seventeen innocent souls.”

>> President visits Parkland shooting victims, thanks first-responders

Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, whose district includes the high school, said it has been an “excruciating” experience for the Parkland community.

“Now it appears that this tragedy could have been prevented,” Deutch said.

“I will be in close communication with the FBI so that we get to the bottom of this,” he said. “The FBI and the U.S. Congress must conduct a full oversight investigation of the FBI’s internal processes, procedures, and, in this case, apparent failures.”

Staff writers Lulu Ramadan and Jennifer Sorentrue contributed to this report.