Using a simple animation with colored dots representing students and staff, a homicide detective led a state commission on Tuesday through a stark reenactment of Nikolas Cruz’s alleged assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Based on witness accounts and video, Broward County Sheriff’s Office detective Zack Scott used the animation to recreate Cruz entering Building 12 at the Parkland school at 2:21 p.m. on Valentine’s Day carrying a bag with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition.
The chilling presentation was part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s initial meeting in Broward County Tuesday. The commission is part of a sweeping school-safety law passed weeks after the massacre at the Parkland high school.
In the animation, green dots represented students and blue dots represented teachers and staff. As Cruz, depicted by a black dot, moved through the three floors of the classroom building in Parkland, many of the dots turned yellow, signifying that they were wounded. Eventually 17 dots turned purple, representing death.
Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student who has been charged with 17 counts of murder, exited the building at 2:27 p.m., leaving behind his rifle, according to Scott. He was captured a little more than an hour later.
The animation represents only a small part of the16-member commission’s task of collecting and evaluating information about the Stoneman Douglas shooting, with the aim of taking an unvarnished look at how the incident occurred and developing recommendations to prevent future tragedies. It will issue its first report by Jan. 1.
“There are no words that are sufficient to describe the evil that occurred” at the Parkland high school on Feb. 14, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who is leading the commission.
He said the commission’s goal would be “to ensure nobody else ever has to experience the devastation that these victims and their families have experienced” as a result of the incident.
“We cannot cease evil from existing in our society but our commission can fairly and objectively determine what occurred in this instance. And that determination must be based only on hard facts,” Gualtieri said.
But the sheriff acknowledged the commission’s task is daunting, with less than eight months to develop its report. And the probe may at times reopen the emotional rawness that will come from analyzing the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
For instance, the commission may review extensive video footage from the high school’s system, as well as video captured by cell phones and on body cameras worn by law enforcement officers who responded to the scene.
“The video within the school, I’ve seen it,” said Gualtieri, who has more than 36 years of law enforcement experience. “But it’s hard to watch.”
Commissioners may opt to view the video, but it would not be released to the public, Gualtieri said.
Max Schachter, a commission member whose 14-year-old son, Alex, died in the shooting, pleaded to keep the video off-limits to the public. Gualtieri said the commission’s work would not violate the “confidential nature” of the video.
Andrew Pollack, another commission member whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was among the 14 slain students, asked whether the commission has collected all the school disciplinary reports “on 181958.”
His question seemed to confuse the investigators until Pollack explained: “I can’t call him (Cruz) by name. That’s his prison ID number.”
Gualtieri said the 19-year-old Cruz would be a major focus for the commission, with the Broward sheriff’s investigators reporting that their office had 49 recorded reports on either Cruz or his address prior to the shooting. Eighteen of those reports were directly linked to Cruz.
Cruz was also evaluated several times by mental health workers but was never deemed a threat to himself or others, according to the sheriff’s report. Gualtieri said the commission has collected more than 800 pages of records on Cruz from a Broward mental health provider.
In public testimony, April Shentrup, who lost her 16-year-old daughter Carmen in the shooting, questioned the effectiveness of safety training at Stoneman Douglas after Cruz entered campus through an unlocked gate and entered Building 12 through an unlocked door.
Shentrup said “simple security measures” could have prevented the tragedy and asked for immediate action to protect students.
“Why wait until Jan. 1?” she asked.
Gualtieri said nothing would prevent school systems from taking immediate steps to improve safety while the commission conducts its investigation. “If somebody sees a gap, they need to fill it,” he said.
But he also said the evaluation of school facilities in terms of safety would be another area of investigation for the commission, noting the classroom doors at Stoneman Douglas could not be locked from the inside.
“That’s messed up, no matter how you slice it,” Gualtieri said.
The commission heard testimony on Tuesday about major problems with Broward’s 911 emergency-calling system and communications between law enforcement agencies, including the inability of Coral Springs police who were responding to the nearby shooting to talk with Broward sheriff’s deputies.
Gualtieri also described a problem with the personal radios used by the deputies and the inability to communicate with each other or their commanding officers while they responded to the shooting. Gualtieri said the deputies had to resort to hand signals as they entered Building 12 looking for Cruz.
Broward sheriff’s officials said the communication system is overseen by the Broward County government and is slated for a major overhaul next year.
Gualtieri said commission will look closely at the communications problems.
“It is necessary to learn the truth and let the cards fall where they may. If we find things done well, so be it. If we find things done poorly, so be that too,” he said.