An Instagram account apparently belonging to Florida shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was dominated by disturbing images of a young man with a fascination for deadly weapons.
One image of a bullet-pocked target is labelled “Group therapy—sometimes it works.” Others show a masked figure brandished a handgun and hunting knives.
Before a mass shooting erupted at Cruz’s former high school on Wednesday, most classmates thought of the 19-year-old as no more than “creepy and weird.”
Before 6AM on Thursday, he was formally booked into Broward County jail charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.
Law-enforcement officials believe he attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday.
The teens who knew Cruz at the school were stunned. They described Cruz as an awkward “outcast”—someone who had trouble fitting in at Douglas High. But they never saw a mass murderer in the making.
“I knew him to be passive aggressive but not violent. He was rude to people. He had an act up like he was tough. He never got into, like, physical fights with anyone, but he did get into verbal arguments,” 17-year-old Ocean Parodie told The Daily Beast. “I just thought he dropped out of school, I didn’t think he would do anything. He always kept a low profile.”
“He was definitely not accepted at our school socially. People saw him as someone who was different than the normal people at our school,” Parodie added.
Douglas High has a place students call “the Emo Gazebo,” he said. “That’s where all the kids that are considered weird or not accepted sat. Kids at the Emo Gazebo didn’t even accept him there. He was just an outcast... He didn’t have any friends.”
Cruz always had his hair short and had a penchant for wearing patriotic shirts that “seemed really extreme, like hating on” Islam, Parodie said. The suspected gunman would also deride Muslims as “terrorists and bombers.”
“I’ve seen him wear a Trump hat,” the student said.
“Most kids ignored him at school. They pushed him off to the side as if he was garbage. He screamed in class one time. He was upset and just started yelling at the teacher. The teacher was trying to help him and he just took it the wrong way,” Parodie continued.
One student told the Miami Herald that he was expelled and told never to return to the school wearing a bag, after bullets were found in his backpack, but that has not been confirmed by officials.
Friends and family said both of Cruz’s parents, who adopted him at birth, had died—his mother late last year—and he moved in with a friend’s family after being expelled from school.
Jim Lewis, an attorney representing the suspect, told the Sun Sentinel that he already owned the AR-15, which he bought legally, when he moved in to the house around Thanksgiving. “It was his gun,” he said. “The family made him keep it in a locked gun cabinet in the house but he had a key.”
Lewis said the family had encouraged Cruz to continue his education and that he had a job at a dollar store. “The family is devastated, they didn’t see this coming. They took him in and it’s a classic case of no good deed goes unpunished,” he said. “He was a little quirky and he was depressed about his mom’s death, but who wouldn’t be?”
Ocean Parodie’s 15-year-old sister, Milan, had a similar impression of Cruz as her brother.
“I could tell he tried to be social at times but there was something off about him,” she said. “I never really saw him with many people. Girls thought he was creepy and weird. He was pretty pale with red hair. I didn’t talk to him that much, but from what I could tell he wasn’t a nice kid. He wore a lot of black and was always alone.”
Still, Milan Parodie described Cruz as “always enthusiastic... He never seemed depressed or sad. He was always a little crazy is the best way to put it... He was peppy but not in a good way, in a crazy way. He tried to look creepy or weird, I think. He tried to talk to one of my girlfriends and he said she was cute, but she was weirded out and he was bothering her.”
“Honestly, a lot of people were saying that it was gonna be him,” one student told WJXT of Cruz. “Actually, a lot of kids joked... saying that he was gonna be the one to shoot up the school, but it turns out, you know, everyone predicted it, that’s crazy.”
The student added: “He was in the third floor. He knows the school layout, he knows where everyone would be... he’s been in the fire drills. He’s prepared for this stuff.”
Another student told WFOR-TV that Cruz “always had guns on him.”
“He was off,” Giovanni Watford, 17, told BuzzFeed News. “He was super stressed-out all the time and talked about guns a lot and tried to hide his face.”
Watford told the site he had been in the same Junior ROTC program as Cruz and that Cruz would complain about bullying at Douglas High.
Broward County Sheriff Steve Israel told reporters the suspect was a former student of the school who was expelled for “disciplinary reasons.” Math teacher Jim Gard told the Miami Herald that Cruz was identified as a threat to the school in previous years.
“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” Gard said. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”
Helen Pasciolla, a former neighbor of Cruz, told The New York Times that he had told her his family had been forced to sell their house in the upscale neighborhood because of money problems. She also told the paper both Cruz and his brother were adopted and their adoptive father had died.
Their mother, Lynda Cruz, would call the police to try to help deal with the boys’ behavioral problems, Pasciolla told the Times.
“I think she wanted to scare them a little bit,” she said. “Nikolas has behavioral problems, I think, but I never thought he would be violent.”
Broward County Public Schools superintendent Robert Runcie told reporters outside the school he was unaware of previous concerns about the student. “We received no warnings,” he said. “Potentially there could have been signs out there. But we didn’t have any warning or phone calls or threats that were made.”
Ocean Parodie, for his part, felt bad for Cruz—and visited him after he was thrown out of Douglas High.
“After he got expelled he worked at a Dollar Store next to the movie theater,” Parodie said. “I went there and asked him what happened once. He said he was expelled and was happy that he was thrown out. I felt bad for him. I think just to treat someone differently [for] how they look is wrong, so I tried to treat him like I treat everyone else.”
Parodie was in anatomy class on Monday afternoon when he saw his fellow students running away. Then he heard the fire alarm go off—minutes before school was supposed to end.
“One stairway was crowded, so I went down a different stairway, and I heard shots. That’s when I knew something was up and it wasn’t a drill. I made it outside. I was one of the first people to make it outside. Teachers were asking what was going on, the administrators didn’t know what was going on. Once they had an idea of what’s going on they sent us to the middle school next to our school. We walked near a canal to stay away from the school in case it showed up.”
A few hours later, Parodie realized the outcast he had pitied was the person who had just executed his schoolmates.
“I found out it was him when the news said who it was. I was like, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe it’s him.’”