Nikolas Cruz, the alleged shooter who killed 17 people at a high school in Florida Wednesday, posted racially charged messages on social media and was claimed to be a member of a white nationalist militia.
Jordan Jereb, the leader of the Republic of Florida militia, told the Anti-Defamation League, and later, the Daily Beast and the Associated Press that Cruz was a member of the group. He told CBS News that Cruz attended a "paramilitary training" session with other members. Jereb didn't return messages from BuzzFeed News.
“He probably used that training to do what he did yesterday. Nobody I know told him to do that, he just freaked out,” Jereb told the Daily Beast.
BuzzFeed News couldn't confirm Cruz's alleged affiliation with the Republic of Florida, and there was conflicting information from officials, users on anonymous online message boards, and the leader of the group himself about his reported membership.
The group describes itself as a "white civil rights organization fighting for white Identitarian politics" and seeks the "creation of a white ethnostate." The group often posts photos and videos online, many of which were taken down by YouTube and Vimeo on Thursday, that showed members posing with guns and holding small protests.
“I know he knew full well he was joining a white separatist paramilitary proto-facist organization,” Jereb said, adding that someone within the group bought him a rifle.
“I think somebody bought him a Mosin-Nagant, but that’s bolt action. He had a semi-automatic in the school,” Jereb told the Daily Beast, adding, “He may have buried it in his survival cache. We encourage members to do that.”
The Anti-Defamation League said it reached out to Jereb after people claiming to be current and former members of the militia said anonymously on 4chan that Cruz belonged to the organization.
One anonymous 4chan poster, who claimed to have previously been a member of the group, posted a photo of himself and a person he claimed was Cruz, holding an ROF flag.
“Nikolas Cruz was a revolutionary member of the Republic of Florida, who preached twisted and dark things like terrorism and attacking innocent people,” the poster said. The person claimed they left the ROF “because of the violent views that Nikolas and people like him were pushing.” The poster also said he spoke to ROF leadership about his concerns, “but they all supported what he said.”
“The Republic of Florida is terrifying and clearly they’re willing to kill anyone. Nikolas was actually one of the less violent ones,” the poster said. “This is going to happen again if something doesn’t change.” Several other 4chan posters claimed Cruz had been obsessed with Siege, a book of writings by American neo-Nazi and Charles Manson admirer James Mason.
However, a former member of the group, a friend and classmate of Jereb's, told BuzzFeed News Thursday night that he is "99.9% sure that Jordan made this up as a stunt to draw attention to ROF."
Charles, a 21-year-old from Tallahassee, said that Jereb inflates the group's size and threatening nature "using props and social media." Charles said he left the group about three years ago because it transitioned from a "fun secessionist movement to a racist one."
"It's basically just Jordan and a few other guys staging this stuff," he said. "I'm basically positive that Cruz has no affiliation with ROF whatsoever and this is all a publicity stunt and it seems like it's working. Seems like Jordan is getting what he wanted."
And ABC News reported that three former classmates said Cruz was a member, marched with the group, and appeared with Jereb. A far-right message board claimed that was a prank, without providing any verification.
But advocacy groups, officials, and reporters have poked holes in this narrative.
The Southern Poverty Law Canter, which tracks hate groups, pointed out that Jereb often sought attention for the group, describing him as "a weird character even in the extremist underworld to which he so badly wanted to belong."
"While almost every neo-Nazi, militiamen, nativist and racist despises the Intelligence Report, Jereb wanted desperately to be mentioned in these pages," SPLC wrote. The Intelligence Report is a magazine published by the SPLC that chronicles the "radical right" in the US.
A lieutenant in the Leon County Sheriff's office in Florida, which includes Tallahassee, where ROF is based, told the local newspaper that they have not yet established any connection between Cruz and the militia.
“We are still doing some work but we have no known ties between the ROF, Jordan Jereb, or the Broward shooter,” Lt. Grady Jordan said.
Jereb, on the messaging service Gab, later backtracked on his claim hours after it made headlines across the nation, saying, "There was a legit misunderstanding because we have MULTIPLE people named Nicholas in ROF."
Jereb later went on to call it a "prank" on Gab.
Cruz did, however, appear to post racist and violent messages on social media, including under a YouTube handle — his name — that was previously reported to the FBI and attracted attention from federal agents after the shooting.
Former students said that Cruz was considered an outcast, had been seen wearing patriotic T-shirts and a Trump "Make America Great Again" hat, and had made disparaging remarks about Muslims, the Daily Beast reported.
Cruz maintained two Instagram accounts where he often posted pictures of guns and knives, including photos of himself with his face covered. In one of the photos, he screenshotted the Google search "what does allahu akbar" and commented with an anti-Muslim slur, writing, "Well at least we now know what it means when a sand durka says 'allahu' Akbar” ??????"
On YouTube, where many of Cruz's comments have been deleted, he repeatedly expressed desire to kill people and showed support for previous mass murderers.
In a comment on a video about Elliot Rodger's manifesto, the 22-year-old who killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014, Cruz wrote, "Elliot rodger will not be forgotten."
Rodger posted racist messages on his website and in his manifesto.
In a comment on a video about the 1966 Texas University shooting, Cruz wrote, "I am going to do what he did."
And in another comment on an AntiFa Gun Club video, Cruz wrote, "I'm going to watch them sheep fall fuck antifa i wish to kill as many as i can."
Cruz also commented on an Alex Jones video about a Trump supporter at an anti-Trump protest, writing, "I whana shoot people with my Ar-15."