The Florida teen accused of killing 17 people in last week's school shooting at a Florida high school participated in an air-rifle marksmanship program which received funding from the National Rifle Association (NRA), and according to his fellow participants, he was a good marksman.
Nikolas Cruz, 19, was wearing a maroon shirt with the logo from the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schoolwhen he was arrested Wednesday shortly after the shooting. Former JROTC cadets told The Associated Press that Cruz was a member of the small varsity marksmanship team that trained together after class and traveled to other area schools to compete.
"He was a very good shot," said Aaron Diener, 20, who gave Cruz a ride to shooting competitions when they were part of the same four-member team in 2016. "He had an AR-15 he talked about, and pistols he had shot. ... He would tell us, 'Oh, it was so fun to shoot this rifle' or 'It was so fun to shoot that.' It seemed almost therapeutic to him, the way he spoke about it."
According to records, the Stoneman Douglas JROTC program was granted $10,827 in non-cash assistance by the NRA Foundation, the NRA's charitable arm, in 2016 while Cruz was in attendance.
The troubled teen authorities say killed 17 people at a Florida high school excelled in an air-rifle marksmanship program supported by a grant from the National Rifle Association Foundation, part of a multimillion-dollar effort by the gun group to support youth shooting clubs and other programs.
The more than 1,700 high school JROTC programs nationally also receive financial support from the U.S. military and are typically supervised by retired officers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. The military collaborates with school systems on the training curriculum, which includes marching drills, athletic competitions and shooting teams.
Others who participated alongside of Cruz see warning signs now when thinking back over their time together:
Kyle Ramos, who was the executive officer of the JROTC battalion, said Cruz spoke about guns and knives incessantly and liked to wear military-style clothing to school. He also bragged about shooting animals for fun.
"He told me he would attack little animals with pellet guns and stuff, and I was a little weirded out by that," said Ramos, now 20. "Like squirrels and lizards and stuff."
Arsu Noorali, a former JROTC cadet at Stoneman Douglas, hopes the program is not permanently stained because of Cruz's involvement.
"The program is about discipline, and family and love," said Noorali, 19. "You hang out with these people, getting up at 4 a.m., and going to competitions, and they become your family."
Noorali, 19, said Cruz's mother hoped the program might help him:
"She told me, 'Look, he's not the best of kids, I really hope this program can change him,'" she recounted. "Because it does teach you a lot of discipline. It becomes fun after a while."