PARKLAND, Fla. >> A white nationalist appears to have lied to The Associated Press and other news organizations when he claimed that Florida school-shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was a member of his obscure group.
Law enforcement officials have said they didn’t have any evidence to support the claim that Republic of Florida leader Jordan Jereb made in interviews with several news organizations.
Jereb told The Associated Press on Thursday that Cruz had participated in paramilitary drills in Tallahassee, where his group is based. Jereb said he didn’t know Cruz personally and that “he acted on his own behalf of what he just did and he’s solely responsible for what he just did.”
Jereb told the Miami Herald that he knew “with certainty” that Cruz “had something to do with us.” He told the Daily Beast that Cruz “wasn’t particularly active” in his group but came to Tallahassee with a “secretive cell” from Clearwater, Florida. ABC News reported that three former schoolmates of Cruz said he was part of the Republic of Florida and was often seen with Jereb.
Law enforcement officials said they hadn’t confirmed any such ties.
“We’ve heard that. We’re looking into that,” Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.
Lt. Grady Jordan, a spokesman for the Leon County Sheriff’s Office in Tallahassee, said he knew of “no known ties” between Cruz and Jereb’s group. Jordan said his office has arrested Jereb at least four times since January 2014 and has been monitoring the group’s membership. He says his office has “very solid” information on the group and believes it has never had more than 10 members.
Jereb quickly backed away from his claims. Someone posting under Jereb’s name on Gab, a social media site popular with far-right extremists, complained about getting criticized over a “prank.”
“There was a legit misunderstanding because we have MULTIPLE people named Nicholas in ROF,” the user wrote. “And I got a bunch of conflicting information and I have not slept for like 2 days.”
Jereb did not respond to repeated phone calls from AP to clarify.
The Anti-Defamation League also said it spoke with Jereb, who told it that Cruz was associated with his group and had been “brought up” by another member. Later Thursday, however, the ADL noted that someone posting in a discussion forum for far-right extremists said the claims were part of an elaborate attempt to dupe news outlets.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, also said it hadn’t confirmed Jereb’s claims.
“It may seem odd that Jereb would bring attention to his group by claiming a connection to Cruz, but Jereb has always been somewhat of a publicity seeker. In 2014, in fact, he wrote us to complain that we had not already listed (Republic of Florida) as a hate group,” Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement Thursday.