The leader of a Florida white supremacist group claimed Thursday that the 19-year-old accused of killing 17 people in the Parkland school shooting attack was associated with the alt-right organization.
The Leon County Sheriff’s Office said it has found no connection between Cruz and the group, the Republic of Florida.
Jordan Jereb, 22, who calls himself captain of a Tallahassee cell of the group, told news outlets that the 19-year-old accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, completed paramilitary training with other members.
"He acted on his own behalf of what he just did and he’s solely responsible for what he just did," Jereb told the Associated Press.
Jereb made the same claim to the Anti-Defamation League, which later warned that alt-right online forums were saying this was an attempt to "troll" media outlets with misinformation.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said at a news conference Thursday that detectives were looking into any possible white supremacist ties.
"It’s not confirmed at this time," Israel said. "We’ve heard that. We’re looking into that."
Jereb later backed off his earlier statements and soon became the target of vitriol and insults from his fellow white supremacists.
He took to the social media platform Gab — popular with the alt-right — to defend himself, lash out at his critics and blame the media in a profane and racist post:
"... There was a legit misunderstanding because we have MULTIPLE people named Nicholas in ROF, And I got a bunch of conflicting information and I have not slept for like 2 days, And so when ((( They ))) call me up and ask me yes or no questions, Its easy for them to misrepresent what I say ..."
Triple parenthesis is an anti-Semitic code used by white supremacists to refer to people of Jewish descent.
Other white supremacists responded:
"So when the media calls you up to ask you a stupid ... question, your first response is to spill your guts and play pretend like you knew the dude?" wrote one.
Another wrote: "Your stupidity is a huge liability."
• • •
So who is the Republic of Florida?
The group has less than ten members, said Leon sheriff’s Lt. Grady Jordan.
"We’re aware of their postings, we’re aware of their videos that they posted, and we’re aware of their statement or mission of what they’re about," he told the Tampa Bay Times.
According to its website, the Republic of Florida is a "white civil rights organization fighting for white identitarian politics." The group also wants the creation of a "white ethnostate" free of "anti-white policies."
The group says it has "some of the finest minds available working within it, Including majors of political science at both Florida State university and the University of Florida" and that they have " infiltrated the ranks of the United States Army, Marines, And even the coast guard."
The group also said it has an electrical engineer and welder among its membership.
In 2014, the Southern Poverty Law Center called the group "a would-be militia made up of kids barely old enough to buy guns."
In a statement Thursday, the SPLC said: "It may seem odd that Jereb would bring attention to his group by claiming a connection to Cruz, but Jereb has always been somewhat of a publicity seeker."
In fact, the SPLC said that Jereb complained to them in 2014 that his organization had not been listed as a hate group.
When SPLC researchers scheduled an interview with Jereb in Tallahassee, he never showed up. It turns out Jereb had been arrested and was in the Leon County jail, the SPLC said. Their researchers wrote:
"Jereb was a weird character even in the extremist underworld to which he so badly wanted to belong. While almost every neo-Nazi, militiaman, nativist and racist despises the (SPLC’s) Intelligence Report, Jereb wanted desperately to be mentioned in these pages. He flooded us with pleas for attention."
The SPLC said other white supremacist groups have also been critical of Jereb. It said that last year, Michael Tubbs, leader of the Florida chapter of the hate group League of the South, complained that Jereb "never misses a photo op" and called him "a nut job who should be avoided."
In interviews Thursday, Jereb also claimed that Cruz belonged to a Republic of Florida "cell" in Clearwater. Officials from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the Clearwater Police Department said they do not have any records indicating that the group has local ties.
The ADL said the Republic of Florida has no members outside of Tallahassee and South Florida.
Lt. Grady Jordan said it’s possible "there’s been some contact with people outside of our area" because of the Internet.
When asked if the group has become violent or threatening in the past, the lieutenant said: "They’ve made statements, but we’ve never seen those statements manifest in action."
• • •
Jereb is well known to Leon County law enforcement.
At the age of 15, he was placed on community control until his 19th birthday after pleading no contest to a litany of charges, including burglary, trespassing, false fire alarm, and disturbing the peace, records show.
In 2015, he was sentenced to two months in jail for criminal mischief.
The next year, he was arrested on charges that he left threatening voice mail and Facebook messages to an official working for Gov. Rick Scott, claiming the man’s son stole $60 from him, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
Jereb was convicted of extortion and sentenced to one year in prison, followed by four years of probation, state records show.
The Tallahassee Democrat reported that Jereb has been known to ride his bike dressed in paramilitary gear, hold his group’s flag along roadways and film his encounters with law enforcement officers.
Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Information from the Daily Beast and the Sun-Sentinel was used in this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @lauracmorel.