BY DIANE DIMOND
Think of all the groundbreaking scientific developments that have helped in the fight against crime: fingerprinting, blood testing and DNA profiling, to name just three. It is way past time for another major advancement.
This one must be laser-focused on the digital world in which we all exist. And it must be fully funded and staffed by modern-day detectives who have an expertise in the ever-changing computer science landscape.
There is no denying that our internet-driven society is ripe with clues the criminally minded have left behind. The question is, when will law enforcement get the funds needed to regularly and thoroughly plumb this field of publicly available evidence? Instead of waiting for a crime to occur and then working to identify the perpetrator, how about we help investigators try to stop crime before it happens?
I don’t pretend to know what went wrong with the FBI’s internal-communications system vis-a-vis the case of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz. But we now know there were numerous red flags about this kid and the bureau received at least two specific warnings about him.
Last September, a Mississippi bail bondsman named Ben Bennight tried to email firstname.lastname@example.org about a YouTube comment by user Nikolas Cruz that read, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” Bennight’s message bounced back. Imagine: The advertised FBI address for
concerned citizens who have seen something and want to say something was not operative! Bennight didn’t give up. He called his local FBI office, left a message and finally had a discussion with a couple of visiting agents. The upshot? The FBI said it couldn’t locate a Nikolas Cruz, despite the unique spelling of his first name.
And just last month, the FBI failed to investigate a second warning. A caller alerted agents to Cruz by name and said he owned guns, acted erratically, posted disturbing social media messages and was talking about “his desire to kill people,” possibly at a school. I know, hindsight is 20/20, but such a detailed warning surely deserved a follow-up!
Cruz, the mentally anguished confessed killer of 17, left a trail of digital breadcrumbs that, if followed, might have helped avert the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Yes, the FBI is busy and possibly underfunded. Its field offices get a gazillion citizen tips each year. But if just one agent had bothered to check Cruz’s online activity, the agent would have found Cruz’s Snapchat account, on which he was seen cutting himself and expressing an interest in buying guns. The agent would have seen how young he was and discovered his location. A call to Parkland, Florida, police would have revealed that officers had been to the home of Cruz’s now-deceased adoptive parents many times for domestic disturbances. A check with the Florida Department of Children and Families would have discovered a 2016 investigation into Cruz’s history of troublesome behaviors. Cruz’s high school would have told the FBI that Cruz was a constantly disruptive and violent kid.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram — all these online sites and many more — hold a treasure trove of pre-crime fighting clues. But they are worthless if there are no available detectives to investigate.
This isn’t written to bash the FBI. Rather, it is a clarion call to everyone who is concerned about citizen safety — from politicians and cops, to clergy and voters — to endorse an all-out onslaught on those who post online threats and statements that cast doubt on their mental stability.
As I have written here previously, I have an internet stalker. In his more manic state, he imagines various ways he will lash out at me and several others, blaming each of us for his troubled life. After I wrote a column in June 2014 about another campus massacre, he wrote: “Diane, I am mentally ill. … I am a prime candidate for committing a mass gun shooting … I am easily triggered.” Local police and the FBI said he has the right to free speech. Police did not visit him. His mental state was not evaluated.
In February 2015, he wrote to another victim, “If I do become a serial killer guess who gets slaughtered first?” In November 2017, he warned a long list of people, including an FBI agent in the Midwest, that he was “just going to have to start f—ing people up. Anyone who stands in my way will be demolished.” A month later, he used Facebook to inform another target: “I’ll kill you dead if you ever have the guts to come near me. You bring a gun after me and I’ll rip it from your arms and beat you to death with it.”
We victims, scattered across the country, stay in touch with one another for safety’s sake. We have begged the FBI’s cybercrime unit to find this nomadic soul before he acts on his ever-evolving violent threats. No action has been taken, so we are left to keep our own files of his yearslong threats. When this disturbed man finally snaps — as young Cruz did — perhaps the FBI will be interested to look at the mountain of disturbing breadcrumbs he left scattered across the internet.
To lawmakers and law enforcement: Today’s crime-fighting battleground is online. Refocus the forces. Lives depend on it.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net