Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old man suspected of killing at least 17 people at a Florida high school, had participated in paramilitary training with a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida, the militia's leader said on Thursday, though law officials denined there was any confirmed link between the two.
"He had some involvement with the Clearwater Republic of Florida cell at some point," Jordan Jereb said in a telephone interview about the suspected shooter, Nikolas Cruz.
Authorities said Cruz walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Miami, on Wednesday and opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle in the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was warned last year about an ominous online comment by Cruz, but was unable to locate him, an agent said on Thursday.
Four Jewish students and staff were among those killed in the shooting: First-year students Jaime Guttenberg and Alyssa Alhadeff, senior Meadow Pollack and Scott Beigel, a geography teacher who saved students’ lives by closing a door as he was shot.
Jereb, the Republic of Florida militia leader, told The Associated Press that he did not know Cruz personally and that "he acted on his own behalf" and is "solely responsible for what he just did."
A law enforcement official says he knows of "no known ties" between the suspect who confessed to the deadly mass shooting and the white supremacist group.
Lt. Grady Jordan is a spokesman for the Leon County Sheriff's Office in Tallahassee, where the white nationalist militia known as the Republic of Florida is based. Jordan said Thursday that his office has arrested militia leader Jordan Jereb at least four times since January 2014 and has been monitoring the group's membership.
He says his office has "very solid" information on the group and "there's no known ties that we have that we can connect" Cruz with the group that 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. 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.
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 to 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 how to control them.
Cruz legally purchased the AR-15 used in the attack about a year ago, law enforcement officials told the AP. The officials, who were not authorized to discuss this publicly, spoke on condition of anonymity. Federal law allows people 18 and older to legally purchase long guns, including this kind of assault weapon.
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 couldn't 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.
"Basically they're going to have to get with YouTube about where the comment originated, but I think they already know," he said.
Authorities offered no immediate 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.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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