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Authorities considered committing future school killer Nikolas Cruz. Here's why they didn't

Nikolas Cruz is escorted into the courtroom for his arraignment at the Broward County Courthouse on March 14, 2018, in in Fort Lauderdale. Cruz is accused of opening fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, killing 17 students and adults. [Pool photo by Amy Beth Bennett via Getty Images]
Nikolas Cruz is escorted into the courtroom for his arraignment at the Broward County Courthouse on March 14, 2018, in in Fort Lauderdale. Cruz is accused of opening fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14, killing 17 students and adults. [Pool photo by Amy Beth Bennett via Getty Images]
Published Mar. 20, 2018

It was the day before Nikolas Cruz's 18th birthday, and, far from celebrating, administrators at his Parkland high school were fretting about what adulthood would portend for their very troubled student.

Cruz's mother, Lynda Cruz, was going to help him get a government ID. That, in turn, would allow him to buy guns.

Cruz had told a classmate he had ingested gasoline, causing him to vomit, a report said. He had "expressed" threats to both himself and others, and had cut himself with a pencil sharpener. He had written the word "kill" in a school notebook, and told a therapist he wrote it because he was angry at his mom for threatening to stand in the way of him getting an ID, and then arming himself.

It was Sept. 23, 2016, and Henderson Behavioral Health in Broward County had been asked to determine whether the then-17-year-old was a danger to himself or others. A Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School resource officer was evidently convinced that Cruz was, and told Henderson social workers he was considering initiating an involuntary commitment of Cruz under Florida's Baker Act.

The petition was apparently never filed.

RELATED COVERAGE: Brother of Parkland shooter arrested for trespassing at Stoneman Douglas High

The question of Cruz's stability — and the state's history of taking action upon it or not — was an important one: if he had, indeed, been involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment, he may have been prevented from obtaining the weapons he so admired — one of which, an AR-15, later was used to take the lives of 17 students and educators.

Cruz — who is facing 17 first-degree murder charges following a Feb. 14 rampage at Stoneman Douglas — had been evaluated at least three times in September and October of 2016 by members of a Henderson's crisis team. One of the assessments, on Sept. 28 of that year, appears to have been initiated by a Douglas school resource officer, to whom one of Cruz's classmates had confided concerns over Cruz's stability. Two school counselors also were worried, a report said.

"Mother reported the school is concerned due to client turning 18 years old and he will get an ID; client has made statements at school regarding getting a gun, and the school has expressed concerns," read a Sept. 29, 2016 notation from a mental health counselor.

RELATED COVERAGE: Students say 1 million are expected at anti-gun-violence marches

When a social worker evaluated Cruz that Sept. 23, he asked a series of questions: Did Cruz have a history of violence or suicide attempts? Had he been physically or sexually abused? Had he set fires in the past? Was Cruz a smoker? The questionnaire noted, in boilerplate language, that Cruz denied being pregnant, and denied being "on birth control."

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But given Cruz's extensive history with the behavioral health system, there was an important question that didn't appear on the Sept. 23, 2016 assessment: Did Cruz own a gun?

Though Cruz's fascination with guns is well-documented in school and mental health records — and though he left a trail of bread crumbs suggesting what he wanted to do with the guns that so obsessed him — it appears authorities missed numerous opportunities to ensure Cruz didn't have access to weapons, including the kind that are capable of instant devastation.

The resource officer, who is not identified in the Henderson Behavioral Health records, "stated he was going to search [Cruz's] home for [a] gun," a Sept. 28, 2016 report said. But there is no indication that the officer, a Broward Sheriff's deputy, ever intitiated such a search, or ever filed paperwork to have Cruz involuntarily evaluated under the Baker Act to determine whether he was a threat to himself or others.

Cruz, the report concluded, "did not meet criteria for further assessment."

To protect Cruz — and others — from his impulsive behavior, the Henderson social workers crafted what they called a "safety plan," according to records obtained by the Miami Herald and other news organizations. Cruz's mother, Lynda Cruz, who is now deceased, would "monitor sharpeners" in the house, and try to keep them out of Cruz's reach.

When Cruz seemed to be deteriorating, he would be encouraged to engage "in coping skills such as reading magazines, watching TV, fishing and spending time with pets."

At school, one of the Henderson reports said, administrators crafted a separate safety plan: Cruz wouldn't be able to bring a backpack on campus. He would no longer be able to practice shooting as part of the school's ROTC program.

Taken as a whole, the records make a compelling case that authorities repeatedly failed to appreciate Cruz's growing interest in weapons, and the danger they posed in the hands of a profoundly troubled young man.

The red flags were clearly visible in Henderson's records from that fall of 2016. A report said Cruz's guidance counselor was concerned that Cruz wanted to buy a gun, and his mother appeared to be helping him. Lynda Cruz was going to take Cruz to get a government ID, which would be required for a gun sale. "She is going to keep the ID in a safe place, and not allow the client to have it on his possession," the report added.

If records suggest mental health and school professionals failed to act decisively to restrict Cruz's access to weapons, they also underscore another shortcoming: Again and again, workers took Cruz's word when he denied any intention to harm himself or others — though records show they didn't necessarily believe him.

Cruz reportedly told a "peer," for example, that he drank gasoline because he was lonely and upset after breaking up with a girlfriend. But when Henderson counselors asked him about the incident, he said he vomited because he had strep throat — then said he "got sick" after drinking his mother's wine. Ingesting gasoline might have been powerful evidence in a petition claiming Cruz presented a danger to himself, had authorities acted upon the claim.

A report dated Sept. 29 of that year expressed concerns that Cruz was not being honest with his mental health workers. Even when he confided a desire to harm himself to a classmate, he "will deny the statements to others" later, the report said.

A therapist, the report said, "explained that she cannot Baker Act if client is denying an intent and plan."

Contact Carol Marbin Miller at cmarbin@miamiherald.com.

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