MIAMI — On the day an 11th-grader named Nikolas Cruz told another student that he had a gun at home and was thinking of using it, two guidance counselors and a sheriff’s deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland concluded that he should be forcibly committed for psychiatric evaluation, according to mental health records obtained on Sunday by The New York Times.
An involuntary commitment of that kind, under the authority of a Florida state law known as the Baker Act, could have kept Cruz from passing a background check required to buy a firearm.
But Cruz appears never to have been institutionalized despite making threats to himself and others, cutting his arms with a pencil sharpener and claiming he had drunk gasoline in a possible attempt to kill himself, all in a five-day period in September 2016.
The revelation that school officials considered trying to commit Cruz under the Baker Act in 2016 appeared to be another in a string of missed opportunities to deal with the troubled young man. He went on to commit one of the deadliest school massacres in U.S. history last month, killing 17 people and wounding 17 more using a gun he bought legally.
A Florida social services agency investigated Cruz after it was alerted about the same disturbing behavior in 2016, but it determined he was at low risk of harming himself or others. Local sheriffs’ deputies were repeatedly called to Cruz’s residences but never found reason enough to arrest him. And the FBI failed to investigate tips about Cruz’s apparent interest in shooting up a school, even after a woman called to say Cruz had weapons and was “going to explode.”
At the time when school officials said they would initiate Baker Act commitment proceedings against Cruz, he apparently did not own any weapon other than a pellet gun. But five months later, after being kicked out of Stoneman Douglas High, he legally purchased the semi-automatic AR-15 rifle he used to open fire in the school’s freshman building.
The mental health records, first reported by The Sun Sentinel of South Florida and The Associated Press, form part of the criminal case against Cruz, 19, who has been charged with murder and attempted murder in a 34-count indictment. Prosecutors have said they would seek the death penalty if he is convicted.
The records are from Henderson Behavioral Health, a local clinic that school officials called for help dealing with Cruz. The clinic sent a mobile assistance team to Stoneman Douglas High on Sept. 28, 2016, the records show, because Cruz had made threats and exhibited disturbing behavior after a breakup with a girlfriend. Cruz was also said to be upset that his mother, Lynda Cruz, would not let him get an identification card required to buy a gun.
Cruz denied telling another student that he wanted to use a gun or that he had ingested gasoline, the documents say.
Five days earlier, on Sept. 23, Lynda Cruz had summoned a different Henderson clinician to her home because Nikolas Cruz was verbally aggressive and “punching holes in the wall.”
The clinician who wrote the Sept. 28 report concluded that Nikolas Cruz “did not meet criteria for further assessment.” The sheriff’s deputy at the school, Scot Peterson, told a clinician that he wanted to initiate a Baker Act request against Cruz anyway, the records show, and two school counselors agreed. Peterson also said he would search Cruz’s home for a gun.
But Peterson apparently changed his mind about the commitment request the next day. One of the guidance counselors told the Henderson clinic that the deputy had decided Cruz did not fit the criteria for involuntary commitment. Clinicians had repeatedly concluded that the Baker Act would not justify committing Cruz because he denied having an intent or a plan to hurt himself or others.
Peterson was still serving as the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas High when Cruz carried out his deadly rampage. Surveillance video showed that the deputy remained outside the freshman building during the shooting and did not try to confront Cruz, in apparent violation of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office policy for dealing with active shooters. Peterson resigned and retired after Sheriff Scott Israel placed him under internal investigation.
An attorney for Peterson, Joseph A. DiRuzzo III, has said Peterson did not enter the building because he believed initially that the gunfire was coming from outside.
DiRuzzo did not immediately respond Sunday to questions about Peterson’s decision in 2016 not to pursue a Baker Act commitment of Cruz.