US Justice Department to pay about $177 million to Parkland shooting victims

Banking & Finance

MIAMI (NTIMES) – The US Justice Department will pay about US$130 million (S$177.45 million) to 40 survivors and families of victims of the 2018 massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, over the FBI’s failure to properly investigate two tips in the months before the shooting that suggested the gunman might open fire at a school.

One of the tips, six weeks before the shooting, detailed how the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, was posting on Instagram about amassing weapons and ammunition.

“I know he’s going to explode,” the woman said on the FBI’s tip line, adding that she feared Cruz, then 19, “was going to slip into a school and start shooting the place up.”

Forty days later, Cruz did just that, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where he had previously been a student.

The FBI acknowledged two days after the Feb 14, 2018, shooting that it had received the tips about Cruz but had not investigated them in accordance with its protocols.

Cruz, now 23, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder last month. He is scheduled to go on trial early next year. A jury will decide if he faces capital punishment or life imprisonment.

“Although the financial details of the agreement are presently confidential, it is an historic settlement and the culmination of the Parkland families’ long and arduous efforts toward truth and accountability,” the law firm representing the families, Podhurst Orseck, said in a statement.

The Justice Department said in court papers that it was in the process of completing a settlement, without disclosing the amount. Two people familiar with the case said it would total about US$130 million, though the precise number could change before the final agreement.

The revelation that the FBI had received information about the gunman ahead of the shooting devastated victims’ families and the Parkland community in the days immediately following the shooting.

Mr Fred Guttenberg was picking out a casket for his 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, two days after the shooting when he got an urgent call from an FBI agent working with the families. The agent delivered the difficult news.

“Are you telling me that if the FBI did not make a mistake and did their job a month sooner, my daughter would still be alive today?” Mr Guttenberg asked the agent, according to the lawsuit Mr Guttenberg and the 39 other families eventually filed against the bureau.

“I’m afraid so, sir,” the agent replied, according to Mr Guttenberg.

The first tip had come five months before the shooting, in September 2017, when a bail bondsman in Mississippi reported that a commentator with the user name “nikolas cruz” had left a disturbing message on his YouTube channel: “Im going to be a professional school shooter,” it read.

Two FBI agents interviewed the bondsman about the comment but found no particular information linking it to a specific person and closed the inquiry the following month.

The second tip came on Jan 5, 2018, from a woman who called the FBI’s tip line and gave the bureau information about Cruz’s social media accounts and troubled family life and school record.

She mentioned that he had posted photos of mutilated animals and that his mother had died recently – both considered by experts to be warning signs or triggers for potential shooters.

“I do believe something’s going to happen,” said the woman, who identified herself as a family friend.

Mr Guttenberg and his wife, Ms Jennifer Guttenberg, sued the FBI for negligence in November 2018 and were eventually joined by 39 other families. They argued that the shooting had been “completely preventable.”

The case had been scheduled to go to trial in January 2022. In its court filing on Monday, the Justice Department asked the court for a stay of all upcoming hearings and deadlines pending completion of the settlement.

“Once those details are finalised and approval is granted, the plaintiffs will ask that the court dismiss these actions in their entirety,” the Justice Department filing said.

The Justice Department had no further comment.

Last month, victims’ families reached a US$25 million settlement with the Broward County school district.