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IRE Podcast: The Shooter

IRE. IRE. IRE Radio.

February 14, 2018. It was a Wednesday and a relatively calm one in the Sun Sentinel newsroom in South Eastern Florida. City Hall reporter, Brittany Wallman was chatting with the managing editor at her desk about new technologies in journalism. But their conversation was cut short when they heard someone in the newsroom say, "Oh my gosh Stoneman Douglas is on CNN and the headline said something about a shooting".

We want to bring you up to date on a still active and developing situation. I am sorry to have to report here that we're talking about a high school. Shots have been fired. This is Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School if you know it, this is Parkland Florida.

We have no information on whether there are any victims. We know we've seen one person coming out on a stretcher.

The beginnings of what would become known as the Parkland mass shooting were unfolding before the newsroom's eyes. Before the day was done, 17 people would be dead and 17 more would be wounded. And one of the deadliest school shootings in modern American history. On this week's episode Sun Sentinel reporters Brittany Wallman and Megan O'Matz walk us through how they investigated the shooter, Nikolas Cruz in the chaotic hours after he walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas with a semi-automatic rifle in tow. Their reporting pieced together a profile of Cruz as a lost and lonely killer.

What we've discovered through a whole lot of records and interviews was that Nikolas Cruz had a very troubled life starting very early on and that he had many many many interventions from people in a position to have done something over the years. There were a lot of red flags and a whole lot of when you look at it now, eerie exclamations from him that he wanted to kill people.

I am Tessa Weinberg and you're listening to the IRE Radio Podcast. As the number of victims from the shooting continue to grow Sun Sentinel reporters mobilized and began to look for answers.

So much was happening all at once. That first day we didn't know how serious it was of course how many were dead. You know who the shooter was. All those things were just, you know mysteries that were coming together very fast. On that first day or so, there's a lot of confusion a lot of chaos. Even the authorities don't even know what's right. They're trying to understand what happened as well.

That's Megan O'Matz an investigative reporter at the Sun Sentinel who worked with Brittany and a team of reporters to dig into Cruz's background. Megan had been driving back from an assignment when she heard news of the shooting. Her home was closer than the office. So she headed there to start making calls. Back in the newsroom, Brittany's first thought was about her own teenage daughter who attends a different public school.

And I just knew how petrified they must be even of being a journalist for 20 years have not numbed to something that humongous.

There was no mass email to the newsroom saying, "All hands on deck". After covering numerous hurricanes and an airport shooting the year before Sun Sentinel journalists knew how to respond to breaking news. They looked for ways in and started reporting. Brittany's first step was to see what was unfolding on social media.

I was on Twitter because I'm a big Twitter fan and I'm always on Twitter. And that really in this story was a great tool for not just finding out information but finding videos or actually first-person accounts, it was really amazing because students were on there.

Brittany was sending note-worthy tweets around the newsroom and making sure to monitor what other outlets were reporting. In a breaking news situation of this scale. Brittany wanted to be mindful of what other journalists were finding.

This was something where not just everybody in our newsroom was converged, but every single major news organization in the country was covering this in a breaking news story. Different reporters are finding different things. So if we saw a source and witness that some other outlet had come across somebody had to make note of that name, is this somebody we want to come back to or here's a record we want to get.

To find sources who might know Cruz personally. Brittany turned to Facebook. Lynda Cruz, Nikolas' mother had died in 2017, but her Facebook page was still active. So Brittany started there and began to send friend requests to Linda's friends.

Everybody that uses Facebook knows that if you're not friends with the person and you send a message they're not going to see it. But you do see when somebody tries to friend you. So I started trying to friend people.

As Brittany scoured social media, other reporters began to dig for records.

To me, there's sort of a triage, an order of operations when you're covering something big. You've got to first get your records request in because those are going to take awhile. And there are a lot of public records in this case. There's probate stuff and there were some school records. There were sheriff's office records. 911 calls, and transcripts and just all manner of records.

Cruz had moved as a child. So one of the first things reporters wanted to pin down was the addresses of everywhere he had lived.

That was key so that we could then request any police incidents at those addresses. And he had lived in addresses that were covered by different law enforcement agencies, so that's different requests that had to be made.

Putting those requests in early was an enormous help.

I would say some of the most interesting records and 911 calls were from the sheriff's offices just asking for all activity at these addresses over the years. And that was how you see that everything from when he was little and he threw a rock at someone to going to buy a gun when he was older.

While those documents told reporters more about Cruz's home life. There were still holes in the story. But they found that many of the records that would tell them more weren't public.

You're dealing with confidential student records. You're dealing with mental health records. You're dealing with a child, for most of his life. So a lot of these things are not open records. We're dealing with an active criminal investigation and a nationally high profile case that the whole country in the world is watching. So officials are clamping down. People are scared to be quoted.

The reporter's next option. Asking sources to leak them records for example, Cruz had changed schools over the years, and the reporters wanted to see what school disciplinary records might tell them. But those were confidential.

His school record was complicated because I mean when he did the shooting he was already 19, so he had a full school history.

We just had to sort of get together and say do we know a teacher who might be willing to leak us his disciplinary records? And what kind of teacher would have a motivation to do that? Should we try to find this kind of teacher? And so just really trying to strategize who might help us the most.

Getting sources to leak records required persuasion and empathy.

They want to tell you things, but some people are reluctant to get your records or are afraid their fingerprints will be found on them if they go into a system and pull them out for you. So those things are just challenges that we deal with on a daily basis is making people feel comfortable with helping us.

Basically, we said we're trying to tell the story and help people understand what went wrong and how this could have been prevented and what is wrong with the system. And you know we want the truth to come out. A lot of people if you appeal to the idea of the truth and getting to the truth, most people are agreeable to that.

Everywhere they looked they found anguish parents, family members, government officials.

So there was so much outrage in so many different elements of the story that people wanted to get that out there. And I think in something like this you're weighing that you're going to get in trouble for releasing a record. I mean are you really going to get penalized because you released a record of somebody that shot 34 people and 17 of them died?

And in some ways, the fact that the shooting happened in the Sun Sentinel's backyard gave them an advantage. They had well established relationships with sources in the community and they knew they could trust them.

We're in this community. We covered this. We know our sources. We know who's reliable. And so when people were giving us information it wasn't that we doubted that the documents that we were getting were not correct. And that's because we have such deep ties here. I think if I were parachuting into another community where I didn't know who I was dealing with, I would have more concern about the authenticity of documents. But in this case, we knew precisely who we were dealing with.

As information rolled in it became essential that reporters stay organized. They traced Cruz's life using a timeline. In a situation like this with so many moving parts, they needed more than one.

I mean we have various timelines going for him. One a timeline of his interactions with the police, another timeline of his school events, another overall timeline of his life regarding when he was born and when his father passed away and when they moved to a certain place and when they bought their house. I mean timelines are really helpful in this. So you can see a pattern of a life a lot easier when you write down dates and what happened.

They noted every detail they learned and put it into chronological order.

And that was how we realized that three days after he was kicked out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School he bought the gun that he used to kill both students and educators.

Megan knew from an arrest report that Cruz had bought the gun he used in the shooting in February 2017. And she also knew from school records that he had been expelled, that same month.

So I wanted to match up how many days was it in between being expelled and buying the gun. And those are in separate records. You have to know that a, that information exists and try to know that they could fit together.

And since another Sun Sentinel reporter had interviewed the lawyer of the gun shop where Cruz had purchased the weapon, they were able to find out the exact date he bought it. A fact that was in any public record.

So indeed it turned out that he had bought the gun three days after being expelled. I mean he didn't use it for another year. But just the fact that he had bought it within three days was, I think very interesting and telling and we use that in the profile.

And that to me was just a profound fact. And so it was a lot of collaboration with other reporters and going across the room and saying, "Hey, do you know this and do you know that," which we continued to do because we'll be the ones that will keep the story alive.

Bit by bit the records and interviews, reporters were able to stitch together a snapshot of Nikolas Cruz. He had been adopted at birth and raised in a loving family. An anecdote from a source helped the reporters better understand his childhood. A tipster had told Brittany that if she went to a local park she would see how devoted Cruz's mother, Lynda, had been to the community and to her sons. The source said Cruz and his adopted brother's names can be found at the park because Lynda had helped build it.

We sent a reporter out to the park. She looked all over the place and she found the boys' names. They were on fence slats, and there was a fence slat that said Nikolas J Cruz on it and the one next to it said Zachary Cruz. We took a picture. And of course, as soon as the city saw that in the story, they went and took those fence slats out. But it was just such a cool detail to have in there that really was very telling about what kind of mom Lynda Cruz was.

But Lynda would have to raise Cruz who had been diagnosed with developmental delays at age 3 on her own.

For much of his life his mother was a single parent. His father died. He had an adoptive brother as well who also had some emotional struggles. So this was a woman who was dealing with very challenging boys. You could see that in the police report she was calling regularly.

Cruz had been diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. And Megan generated a long list, noting each time one was mentioned.

Some of them were in school records. Some were in things that mom would tell the police when they came. So I came up with a list of ADHD, emotional behavioral disability, mom said obsessive compulsive disorder, anger issues. So this was clearly a child who had many problems.

As Cruz got older, his issues intensified. He caused problems at school and in eighth grade switched facilities to one that offered a program for emotionally and behaviorally disabled children. A school system report lead to the reporters showed how he began to lose control.

It was before he went to Stoneman Douglas. It was sort of evaluating whether he was ready to go to a "normal" school and it talked about it, he checks on his grades a lot. I mean he was very interested in his academics and getting good grades. And then it would just say like, "Oh, but he has poor judgment. A peer told him to jump off the back of a bus and he did. And he is very interested in terrorists and guns and killing. And then the next sentence would be, "Nikolas doesn't always raise his hand in class." And reading that it was just so stunning.

School officials took note of Cruz's concerning behavior. So did state agencies and the FBI. Someone close to the family had tipped off the FBI that they were concerned Nikolas Cruz might become a school shooter based on posts on social media accounts. And before that a blogger had alerted the FBI that a user named Nikolas Cruz had commented on his YouTube page writing, "I'm going to be a professional school shooter."

It showed that there were failures at every single level. And it was so strange in this case where you might as well have been walking around with a billboard on that said, "I want to shoot up a school," because he essentially said those things the police had numerous numerous encounters with him. I mean there were just for so many things.

Cruz's difficulties in school were only compounded by his mother's death in November 2017, just a few months before the shooting. Cruz was devastated and lost, sources told the reporters. And the brothers went to live with a former neighbor. It didn't last long. Cruz got into a fight with the neighbor and her son and he was kicked out. In a transcript of a 911 call, Cruz can be heard describing the fight to a dispatcher.

And you were just staying at this house and you got mad and you were punching things and then they came after you.

Yeah.

Alright.

The thing is I lost my mother a couple of years ago. So I'm dealing with a bunch of things right now.

I understand.

His voice started to crack and you can hear a little bit of emotion in this young person that lost his mother.

These were just some of the moments reporters unearthed about Cruz's troubled life. As reporters learn more and more about the teen they tried their best to accurately represent who he was.

People have histories and things and events that shaped them. And it's up to us to try to explain that fully so that others can understand it. So we don't know the true motive for this shooting if we'll ever know one. I mean he's just a really seriously disturbed individual. But these all point to stresses on him. So we are just trying to portray the major events in his life and a little bit more about his background and what he was suffering from and dealing with throughout his life.

Brittany drew on her own life experiences as she thought about how to write about Cruz.

My dad was a prison warden and I lived my whole younger life around people that had committed crimes basically. And I know are human beings and it's not a black and white deal and everybody has a story to tell and that Nikolas had a sad life. I mean it was sad. The truth is the truth. And it's important for people to understand what leads to something like this and especially in this case we don't really have a motive per se. We don't know that he targeted specific people. We don't know why he chose that day a year after he bought the gun. And so to understand the only place you can go is his history and his childhood.

And when Megan went to one of Cruz's first court appearances after the shooting, it struck her that no one from his family had appeared in court for him.

Here was sort of a profile of this lost and lonely person and when he finally went to court for this, his first appearance there was nobody in the courtroom for him.

One thing that really rang out was how alone he was multiple people had used the descriptions of lost and lonely in describing him which really struck me. And people that commented on the story some people did criticize it for being too sympathetic to him which is what I figured would happen. But I think it's important to be fair even to a mass murderer.

Not long after the shooting national media outlets packed their cameras and headed out to cover the next breaking story. So it's up to the local reporters to report on the aftermath the shooting is having on their community.

Nothing that we've ever covered here has had such an impact on the community and just saturated the entire community with sadness. The first two weeks I could have cried at any moment. I probably still could just thinking about all of the different losses. And some of the videos that we saw that we didn't use that were just horrible seeing what these children went through. It hasn't been the same. Everywhere you go, everyone's talking about it.

Reporters have pitched in to cover the shootings aftermath while still maintaining their regular beats. They've seen the effects of the shooting spill into other areas as the debates ensue about school safety gun laws and active shooter drills. For even the Sun Sentinel's most experienced reporters, the Parkland shooting has been unlike anything they have ever seen before.

This is not a typical story. This is not the kind of story that I've experienced in the past. It is of an intense nature that is keeping on day after day with many many new elements. And I don't know when it will be "over". We are all heartbroken by what happened. We can't not be affected by the idea of all these children dying in their classrooms and it tears you up.

It's the small gestures of support that have made the relentless reporting a bit easier. Journalists across the country have sent the Sun Sentinel candy and stuffed animals. They've paid for bar tabs and offered reassuring words.

Actually right now in the newsroom we have some therapy dogs because journalists need therapy. But some of the therapy dogs that went to Marjory Stoneman Douglas to make the kids feel better are here in the newsroom today.

Outside of the newsroom, the reporters have tried to take the occasional day off for mental health, but it's been hard. Things at home began to slip, whether it's the laundry, groceries or the kid's daycare. Megan had just started a kitchen renovation when the shooting happened.

You just kind of come home at the end of the day and you collapse. And for me I'm sweeping up sawdust and just hoping I can eventually get my kids in together again. But you know you do put it into perspective because that's a minor thing versus what all these families are dealing with who lost loved ones and there are many many many professionals in our community whether they're school officials or police that are also doing their jobs in a way that is very intense and long long hours. And it's not just the media.

The community has noticed the paper's dedication. The Sun Sentinel has unearthed new information in the case and dedicated teams of journalists to cover the aftermath.

People thanked us so much. We got so much positive feedback from the community thanking us for giving this 100 percent attention and so much coverage. And so we definitely did the right thing with that.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the school district put out a statement asking the media not to reach out to the victims' families.

This is such a great illustration of why that is an offensive and ridiculous request asking the media please don't invade the space of victims' families because of what happened here. They had something to say and it became an entire movement.

From nationwide marches to new gun laws in Florida, the reporters know that this is just the beginning. Going forward some of the most important aspects of the reporting will be circling back to previously hesitant sources and keeping meticulous track of records requests. Staying organized is huge Megan said. She said she likes to make copies and backups of records, whether that be on flash drives emailing them to another private server or making printouts.

And all of that may not look very flashy or may not be evident initially, but it really really helps as you're putting these stories together. Is to gather every record you can know where it is, keep track of it keep track of your record request and be able to identify pieces that will fit together down the line. Because again, this story is going to go on for months and months and months.

The reporters may not know when things will go back to normal in Parkland Florida if they ever will, but they do know this. They'll be around for however long it takes.

It is an endurance event. You know you have to come back to it. And you have to have enough, the mental energy to keep digging into the story after everyone else goes on to other stories. I think we owe it to the community to not give up.

Thanks for listening. Take a look at our episode notes for links to the Sun Sentinel's investigation, as well as resources for reporting on guns trauma and breaking news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play or wherever else you get your podcast. And you can spend hours listening to the stories behind some of the best investigative reporting in the country. At IRE.org/podcast. The IRE Radio Podcast is recorded in the studios of KBIA. Blake Nelson draws our art for each episode. Sarah Hutchins is our editor. From Columbia Missouri, I am Tessa Weinberg.

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