Los Angeles Times

Gunman in high school massacre will plead guilty

Lawyers say Nikolas Cruz, 23, will admit to murdering 17 people in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

- By Terry Spencer Spencer writes for the Associated Press.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Parkland, Fla., 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 in which Nikolas Cruz, 23, would be fighting the death penalty and hoping for life without parole.

Attorneys for Cruz told Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer that he would 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, at a trial the judge hopes will start in January.

Cruz will also plead guilty to 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder. He was not initially present during the hearing but later entered the Broward County courtroom to plead guilty to attacking a jail guard nine months after the shooting.

The trial has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and arguments between the prosecutio­n and the 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 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.

Attorney Alex Arreaza represents Anthony Borges, a Parkland student who was 15 when he was gravely wounded during the attack. Arreaza said the news of the guilty pleas was an unexpected developmen­t that brings Borges’ family some relief.

“It all came down as a surprise to us,” Arreaza said. “Anthony and his family are glad this is finally coming to an end, and he can move on.”

Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was killed, said the only thing that has really changed is that Cruz is now closer to being sentenced.

“He’ll either get death or life in prison,” Pollack said, adding that he’s now more focused on the systemic failures in the school system that led to the massacre. “Death by lethal injection seems too peaceful to me. I’d rather see a hanging in a public square.”

After the shooting, Parkland student activists formed March for Our Lives, a group that rallied hundreds of thousands around the country for tighter gun laws, including a nationally televised march in Washington. Parents also made impassione­d pleas for accountabi­lity and policies aimed at halting gun violence.

The decision by Cruz and his attorneys to plead guilty came unexpected­ly. Preparatio­ns were being made to begin jury selection in the next few months. Cruz 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 for him to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, but prosecutor­s repeatedly rejected that deal, saying the crime deserved a death sentence.

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, but they said nothing was ever reported that could have led to his arrest. A state panel 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 continued — at one point, he was prohibited from carrying a backpack to make sure he didn’t have 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, three 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 that 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 County 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.”

 ?? Amy Beth Bennett Pool Photo ?? PROSECUTOR­S say they will still seek the death penalty against Nikolas Cruz.
Amy Beth Bennett Pool Photo PROSECUTOR­S say they will still seek the death penalty against Nikolas Cruz.

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