By DAVID FLESHLER
NOV 23, 2021 AT 5:16 PM
The father of a 14-year-old girl killed in the Parkland school shooting takes little satisfaction in winning a stunning $127.5 million legal settlement for the FBI’s failure to follow up on tips that could have prevented the massacre.
“None of this feels good,” said Fred Guttenberg, who filed the lawsuit about Jaime’s death with his wife nine months after the shooting and was joined in the case by other families. “It brings us one step closer to justice and putting the legal realities of what happened to our families behind us.”
The case involved tips to the FBI that the future killer Nikolas Cruz had told someone he planned to shoot up a school, made other threatening statements and brandished firearms on social media sites. The FBI fumbled the tips, and after the 2018 shooting acknowledged “grave errors” in how they were handled.
“They received, approximately 30 days beforehand, a specific, credible communication of a specific threat,” Guttenberg said. “That’s what made this different. And they didn’t follow up. Had they done their job that day, the Parkland shooting would not have happened. My daughter would be alive. Sixteen others would be alive. I’ve always felt strongly about the FBI’s failure above all others.”
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 dead and 17 injured. Cruz pleaded guilty. A jury will decide whether he gets the death penalty in a trial scheduled for January.
The settlement in the FBI case, announced Monday, followed three years of motions and other legal skirmishing before the government decided to settle for an unusually large sum of money.
Kristina Infante, with the Miami law firm Podhurst Orseck, who is lead attorney for the families, said she thinks the federal government settled the case for three reasons: A trial date had been set, the judge had rejected the government’s arguments that it could not be held liable, and facts had come out that strengthened the families’ case.
The government, for example, had argued that other agencies, such as the Broward Sheriff’s Office, had also fumbled tips about the future shooter, so the responsibility for failing to act was widely shared.
But in the pre-trial investigation, she said, it became clear that only the FBI had received specific tips that the future killer intended to shoot up a school.
“The FBI had specific information that the shooter had threatened to carry out a school shooting and had threatened to kill other people,” she said. “Those are particular to the FBI’s knowledge before the shooting. The FBI, as far as I know, was the only entity that was told this is someone making these kinds of specific threats of harm to others.”
Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice, which encompasses the FBI and which defended the lawsuit, did not respond to requests for comment.
In one tip, a bail bondsman told the FBI that Cruz had sent him a message on YouTube saying “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” Although the FBI interviewed the bail bondsman, the agency closed the file without taking further action.
In another tip, received just a month before the shooting, the FBI received a tip from an anonymous caller that Cruz might commit a school shooting. The caller described photos on social media sites of Cruz posing with rifles and small animals he had killed.
“I know he’s going to explode,” the caller said.
That tip was not forwarded to the FBI’s South Florida field office.
Guttenberg learned of that tip while buying a casket for Jaime. An FBI agent gave him the 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, according to the lawsuit.
“I’m afraid so, sir,” the agent replied.
Today, Guttenberg describes that phone call as a shattering experience.
“I’ll never, ever, ever recover from the phone call I got from the FBI the day I was planning Jaime’s funeral and picking out the casket,” Guttenberg said Tuesday. “That’s when they called me to tell me they messed up. I’ll never get over that.”
Steven Marks, a partner in Podhurst Orseck, said the government settled the case partly because “it would have been very embarrassing for them to have a public trial, given all the facts that we’ve uncovered in discovery over the last couple of years.”
One of the next steps will be to figure out how to fairly distribute the money, which he said won’t do much to compensate grieving families but does represent the government’s admission of failure.
“It was important for the government to step up and take responsibility and try to compensate as best they can, which is impossible to do under these circumstances,” he said. “But at least it’s an acknowledgment that they dropped the ball. And hopefully because of this effort, it will never occur again.”
“If there’s anything that I think would comfort the families at least a little bit is that hopefully these efforts will result in changes in procedures so this tragedy will never happen again. That’s our hope.”