Parkland conspiracy theories raise legitimate questions


In the two weeks since reports first emerged of 17 students killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, much controversy has erupted over issues that are often brought up in the wake of such incidents — namely gun control and the 2nd Amendment. Yet other issues unrelated to firearm laws have also come into play — local and federal law enforcement responses, or lack thereof, to warnings about gunman Nikolas Cruz, for example, as well as transparency surrounding details of the case and media coverage of it.

Initial reports indicated Cruz had been dropped off at the school on Feb. 14 by an Uber driver. He reportedly entered the school wearing a gas mask, armed with smoke grenades, an AR-15 and multiple magazines, and began shooting. Witnesses described seeing a masked gunman, with one teacher, Stacey Lippel, saying he was additionally wearing a helmet and body armor that caused her to mistake him for a police officer, while one student witness claimed there were “definitely” multiple gunmen involved.

CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto disputed claims of a guest who appeared on the news channel (where, coincidentally, I did an internship in 2014) that there was an active shooter drill planned for that day, saying he thought it was really a fire drill. Yet witnesses including a student, Connor Dietrich, and a teacher at the school, Ernest Rospierski, have nonetheless said an active shooter or “code red” drill with police firing blanks had indeed been announced, and “there were rumors going around the school that there would be a fake shooting to see how the students would prepare for it” another student, Masiel Baluja, told CNN.

Though his state-appointed attorney announced within days of the shooting that Cruz would plead guilty, surveillance footage showing him at the scene of the crime, oddly, given the scope of the massacre, has not yet surfaced to put an end to speculation surrounding conflicting accounts of the incident. Following the shooting, Cruz was apparently able to leave the scene, after which he reportedly stopped at a nearby Walmart and got a drink at the in-store Subway sandwich shop, then went to McDonald’s, and after leaving McDonald’s evaded capture for another 40 minutes.

Cruz’s almost immediate guilty plea and his lawyer’s statement that he is “fully aware of what is going on” also seems strange given reports that emerged that very same day that Cruz had “heard voices in his head” or “demons” telling him to commit the crime. Yet the decision on a guilty plea is not the only aspect of the government’s handling of this incident, its aftermath, and events leading up to it that raises questions.

Although Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel had initially said his department had received a not-so-insignificant 23 calls resulting in deputies being dispatched to Cruz’s home prior to the shooting, it’s since emerged that the number was almost twice as many — 45 calls. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also failed to follow its own protocols and act on two different tips in recent months that Cruz might be planning a school shooting. He could’ve faced charges over those various calls to authorities prior to the shooting, the Miami Herald reported last week.

Aside from allegations of corruption in the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, and revelations not only that Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s armed school resource officer “never went in” to the school to intervene as the shooting occurred, but that several other officers who arrived on the scene also failed to attempt to stop the shooter, other details of the case remain troubling. Ignored reports to the FBI and Cruz’s claims of hearing voices, in particular, seem almost eerily reminiscent of the case of Esteban Santiago, who was arrested just over a year ago in early 2017 for a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale Airport — also in Broward County.

On Jan. 6, 2017, 26-year-old Iraq war veteran Esteban Santiago allegedly shot and killed 5 people at the airport after arriving on a flight from Anchorage, Alaska, through a connecting flight in Minneapolis, using a gun he’d legally had in his checked bag, which he reportedly loaded in a Fort Lauderdale Airport bathroom. Santiago has pleaded not guilty. Though he’d previously had at least two guns confiscated by authorities, once in Alaska and once in Puerto Rico, the origin of the gun used in the shooting was unclear according to early reports. In December, Santiago’s trial was postponed until June of this year.

While the charges against Santiago are no doubt gravely serious, the case is interesting in its multiple similarities to that of Cruz. Like Cruz, Santiago was known to the FBI prior to the shooting. He was known because he’d gone to them himself claiming “his mind was being controlled by the CIA,” as CNN put it, forcing him to watch ISIS propaganda videos on instructions from “voices in his head” — again, very similarly to what Cruz has apparently claimed to authorities. As outlandish as the idea of CIA “mind control” may sound, it is actually an area the agency has dedicated extensive resources to, or at least it did in its early history, through top secret projects such as BLUEBIRD and ARTICHOKE, as well as the most notorious, MKULTRA (though there were other “MK” programs as well, such as MKSEARCH and MKOFTEN).

Yet another piece of the Parkland shooting puzzle again connects to the FBI in the form of David Hogg, the son of a former agent, who has, in many people’s eyes, opportunistically jumped at the chance to use the tragic shooting to apparently try to launch some sort of political or journalistic career as a gun control advocate, even while dismissing failures by the Broward County Sheriff’s Department and FBI as he makes seemingly endless media appearances in the shooting’s aftermath.

Some have even gone further than pointing out that Hogg seems to care more about launching his advocacy career than he does about his dead classmates, and accused him of being a “crisis actor.” Despite being at the center of much controversy surrounding coverage of the shooting and vehemently denying the “conspiracy theories” surrounding the shooting, CNN itself has noted that crisis actors are a real thing. “The term refers to people who are paid to play disaster victims in emergency drills,” writes CNN’s Paul Murphy.

It’s true that Hogg in any case does not fit the traditional description of a crisis actor of the type that work for companies like Crisis Cast, which provides “specialist role play actors – many with security clearance” that “are trained by behavioural psychologists and rigorously rehearsed in criminal and victim behaviour to help police, the army and the emergency services, hospitals, schools, local authorities, government, private security firms, shopping centres, airports, big business, criminal justice departments, media and the military to simulate incident environments for life saving procedures,” according to its website. Yet while Hogg may not have been “playing a victim” in the sense of getting painted with fake blood and pretending to have been shot (he was not injured in the shooting), there are certainly indications that the public image he’s trying to project in the wake of the shooting is almost as fake as these sorts of Hollywood effects.

In a video that was posted to numerous Youtube accounts, including one I made specifically to re-post it, before being taken down for allegedly “bullying” Hogg, the Parkland gun control advocate can be seen seemingly being coached on what to say in a news interview as he repeatedly stumbles over his words and asks to be allowed to start over. At one point, an off-camera speaker apparently tells Hogg: “Say, uh, I don’t know how to put this into perspective.”

Hogg repeatedly fumbles over his words in the video before pausing and attempting to rephrase what he’s saying. While many online commentators suggested the video showed Hogg was unable to “remember his lines,” what it actually seems to perhaps resemble more closely is someone who has committed themselves to a fake story that they haven’t memorized word for word, but which they’ve instead spent time trying to convince themselves really happened, or happened the way they’re telling it, for whatever reason. If you don’t know what I mean by this, I’d suggest watching (or re-watching) the scene from Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 movie Reservoir Dogs where undercover cop Mr. Orange gets coached on how to tell a fabricated anecdote about a drug deal. In another video, which Hogg himself seemingly shot in a classroom while the shooting was ongoing, he nonetheless curiously states that “this recording is taken at 9:32” — five hours before the shooting began, if it refers to 9:32 a.m.

In any case, what I can say from personal experience working in the news media is that the clip of Hogg “forgetting his lines” is bizarre, to say the least. While I’ve never covered an ongoing mass shooting, I have enough experience interviewing people in chaotic situations to know that no TV news reporter arriving on the scene of a school shooting would take the time to humor one single witness in his requests for multiple interview retakes if he wasn’t immediately able to articulate himself.

If a witness seemed like they had interesting information to share, any competent reporter would be coming up with new questions or variations of previously asked questions to try to ascertain what happened and get a good “sound bite” out of them, and if they seemed unable to collect their thoughts the reporter would move on to one of the many other witnesses on the scene. Coaching an interview subject on what to say in that situation, as the “interviewer” appears to do in the video scrubbed from Youtube for “bulllying,” would clearly be crossing a line.

It is unclear where the so-called #NeverAgain movement led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students like Hogg, as well as his other outspoken classmates like Emma Gonzalez and Cameron Kasky, will end up. Setting aside the political and career ambitions of this vocal group of witnesses, however, there are many other important questions about the Feb. 14 shooting incident in Parkland that continue to demand answers.

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