Florida school shooting
Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where he allegedly killed 17 people, is seen on a closed circuit television screen during a bond hearing in front of Broward Judge Kim Mollica at the Broward County Courthouse on Feb.15, 2018 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Susan Stocker, Getty Images

The man accused of killing 17 people at a Florida high school dropped his AR-15-style rifle and left the scene with terrified students, blending in to make his escape before casually walking into a nearby Walmart to get a drink.

After buying a drink at a Subway restaurant in the store, Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked to a McDonald’s, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said at a news conference Thursday.

Israel says Cruz was confronted by a police officer and taken into custody about 40 minutes after leaving the McDonald’s. Cruz then told detectives that "he was the gunman who entered the school campus ... and began shooting students he saw in the hallways," according to court papers filed Thursday.

"Cruz stated that he brought additional loaded magazines to the school campus and kept them hidden in a backpack until he got on campus to begin his assault," according to an arrest affidavit.

It was the nation’s deadliest school shooting since a gunman attacked an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., more than five years ago.

The moments leading up to Cruz's arrest were detailed shortly after the subdued, handcuffed suspect made his first court appearance on charges of premeditated murder in the killing of 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

nikolas_cruz_021518
This photo provided by the Broward County (Fla.) Jail shows Nikolas Cruz. Authorities say Cruz, a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, killing more than a dozen people and injuring several.
Broward County (Fla.) Jail via AP

Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and with his head slightly lowered, Cruz said only, "yes, ma'am," when addressed on closed-circuit television by Judge Kim Theresa Mollica.

Mollica ordered the suspect held without bond on 17 counts of murder. His attorney, public defender Melissa McNeill, stood with her arm around Cruz during the brief court appearance before a podium looking at the camera. She did not contest the order.

Before the hearing, Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes, whose office is defending Cruz, described the suspect as a “deeply troubled child who has endured a lot of emotional trauma in a short period of time.” He said Cruz began spiraling downward following the death of his mother in November.

McNeill described Cruz, who was on suicide watch in jail, as a "broken child" who suffered brain developmental problems and depression. She said he was "sad, mournful and remorseful" over the killings. "He is fully aware of what is going on."

After his expulsion last year for fighting, Cruz returned to the high school with a vengeance, outfitted with a gas mask, smoke grenades and multiple magazines of ammunition and a semiautomatic weapon. He arrived at the school via an Uber ride, which he arranged through his smartphone, police said in charging papers.

Authorities say he triggered a fire alarm in a building that normally serves freshmen students, then roamed the schools' corridors — from the first floor to the third — opening fire on students pouring into hallways.

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The 17 dead include students and adults, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. At least 15 were injured and taken to local hospitals.

A sheriff said the bodies of 12 of the dead, including a beloved coach and security guard, Aaron Feis, who stepped in front of one spray of bullets to protect his students, were found inside the building.

Counselors were available Thursday off-campus for the more than 3,000 students, teachers and staff at the school, which will remain closed as an investigation continues.

A glimpse into suspect's past

Israel said Cruz had been expelled from the school for “disciplinary reasons.”

Victoria Olvera, 17, a junior, said the suspect was kicked out last school year after a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. She said Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend.

School officials said Cruz attended another school in Broward County after his expulsion.

A law enforcement official told the Associated Press that Cruz legally purchased his AR-15 rifle about a year ago. The official is familiar with the investigation into the shooting but not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Cruz’s mother Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia Nov. 1, neighbors, friends and family members said, according to the Sun Sentinel. Cruz and her husband, who died of a heart attack several years ago, adopted Nikolas and his biological brother, Zachary, after the couple moved from Long Island in New York to Broward County.

The boys were left in the care of a family friend after their mother died, family member Barbara Kumbatovich, of Long Island said.

Unhappy there, Nikolas Cruz asked to move in with a friend’s family in northwest Broward. The family agreed and Cruz moved in around Thanksgiving. According to Jim Lewis, the family’s lawyer, who did not identify them, they knew Cruz owned the AR-15 but made him keep it locked up in a cabinet. He did have the key, however.

“This family did what they thought was right, which was to bring in a troubled kid and try to help him out,” he told CNN.

Broward County Mayor Beam Furr said during an interview with CNN that the shooter was getting treatment at a mental health clinic for a while, but that he hadn’t been back to the clinic for more than a year.

“It wasn’t like there wasn’t concern for him,” Furr said.

Warning signs

Math teacher Jim Gard told The Miami Herald that Cruz may have been identified as a potential threat to other students. Gard said he believes the school sent out an email warning teachers that Cruz, who had been in his class last year, shouldn’t be allowed on campus with a backpack.

“There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus,” Gard said.

However, Broward County School District Superintendent Robert Runcie said Thursday he did not know of any threats posed by Cruz to the school.

“Typically you see in these situations that there potentially could have been signs out there,” Runcie said. “I would be speculating at this point if there were, but we didn’t have any warnings. There weren’t any phone calls or threats that we know of that were made.”

Cruz's former classmates say the former participant in the ninth grade JROTC group, had a hot temper and a history of making dark, gun-related jokes. 

Jillian Davis, 19, recalls him as withdrawn and having "a lot of anger management issues."

"Finding out it was him makes a lot of sense now,” Davis said.

Dakota Mutchler, 17, a junior, said he used to be close friends with Cruz, who "started progressively getting a little more weird.”

Mutchler recalled Cruz posting on Instagram about killing animals and said he talked about doing target practice in his backyard with a pellet gun.

A Mississippi bail bondsman and frequent YouTube blogger received an eerie comment last year that took on new meaning Wednesday. "Im going to be a professional school shooter," the post read. The poster's name: "Nikolas Cruz."

Ben Bennight said he took a screenshot and reported the post to the FBI. "I wish I could have given them more information but it was just a comment on my channel," he said.  

FBI special agent Rob Lasky told reporters they pursued the report but they were unable to determine the location or true identity of the person making the comment. 

'This is tragic'

The massacre in Florida left a close-knit community reeling. As the ordeal unfolded, parents rushed to the school, lining a nearby roadway to await word on their loved ones. Others simply grieved.

In a TV address Thursday, President Trump said he would visit Parkland, Fla., to meet with family members and local officials. He called for unity and for tackling the difficult issue of mental illness.

"It is not enough to simply take action that makes us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference," he said.

Officials said a #GoFundMe site, Stoneman Douglas Victims Fund, had been set up on behalf of victims and their families. 

In Parkland, Gov. Rick Scott met with families of the victims Wednesday night and said his heart goes out to them.

“I don’t know what to say to everybody other than the fact that we live in a state that people love each other and care about each other,” he said. “This is tragic. It makes you mad.”

He told reporters that he would meet with lawmakers in Tallahassee to find ways to keep people with mental illness from obtaining weapons. "If someone is mentally ill, they should not have access to a gun," he said.

Runcie said students at the stricken high school approached him to call on lawmakers to take action.

"(They) are saying that now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws." he said.

Contributing: Alexi Cardona, Naples Daily News, Emily Bohatch, The (Stuart, Fla.) News; The Associated Press.