FBI Says It Received Tip About Florida School Shooter, But Failed To Follow Up

Feb 16, 2018
Originally published on February 16, 2018 4:58 pm
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Today the FBI said the man who went on a shooting rampage at a South Florida high school should have been assessed as a potential threat to life and that protocols were not followed. It turns out the FBI was contacted about him on at least two occasions. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: The first tip came in September of last year.

BEN BENNIGHT: Well, my name is Ben Bennight, and I'm a bail bondsman. And I have a YouTube channel. And I make videos about the bail bond industry.

BOOKER: Bennight lives in Mississippi. On September 24, he says, he noticed a startling message left as a comment on one of his videos. It read...

BENNIGHT: I'm going to be a professional school shooter.

BOOKER: He says he marked the comment as spam and alerted the FBI, who paid him a visit the next day. Bennight told investigators he didn't have any additional information. He is aware that lots of people say outlandish things on the Internet, but it was the thought of someone shooting up a school that really alarmed him.

BENNIGHT: I think that any responsible and mentally sound human being would take a comment like that seriously whether the person on the other end meant it or not.

BOOKER: Robert Lasky is the FBI's special agent in charge in Miami. At a press conference on Thursday, he explained why more wasn't done with this tip.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ROBERT LASKY: The comment said, I'm going to be a professional school shooter. There was no additional information about the particular time, location or further identifiers about the person who posted the comment.

BOOKER: Like if he, in fact, owns or has access to a gun. But it's worth noting that the screen name does match the name of the Parkland shooter. The FBI gets dozens, sometimes hundreds of tips a day. Ron Hosko is the former assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division. He says this one was handled appropriately.

RON HOSKO: You can have all kinds of desires and put them on the Internet and it doesn't make it prosecutable. So here on its face, to me, the poster just with this alone has not committed any federal offense.

BOOKER: That was September. Today's admission by the FBI was about a different contact made by, quote, "a person close to Nikolas Cruz," the confessed shooter. On January 5, a caller gave information about Cruz's gun ownership and reported that he had a desire to kill people, and pointed to the potential of him conducting a school shooting. The FBI statement does not ID the tipster. Jim Lewis is the lawyer for the family that Cruz was staying with at the time of the shooting. He says they didn't see any alarming signs.

JIM LEWIS: No, they saw no rage, anger in him. The mother made it clear to me that if she would have seen anything like that in him, she never would have let him live in her house.

BOOKER: But someone was alarmed enough to alert the FBI. And their failure to respond to the January alert shocks Ron Hosko, the former FBI official now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

HOSKO: This is stunning information. And it certainly came at a time when whether it's the FBI or jointly with other law enforcement, there was time to act.

BOOKER: The FBI admits information should have been sent to the FBI field office in Miami, adding, quote, "where appropriate investigative steps would have been taken."

HOSKO: We don't know yet if it's a people failure or a technical failure. Any way you cut it, though, it's a failure.

BOOKER: Florida Governor Rick Scott today called for the resignation of FBI Director Christopher Wray. Seventeen innocent people are dead, the governor wrote, and acknowledging a mistake isn't going to cut it. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.