Still reeling from the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Broward County law enforcement agencies are leading the state by far in using sweeping new powers to take away guns from dozens of citizens they claim are dangerous.
Thirty-six risk protection orders, or RPOs, have been filed in Broward – more than three and a half times as many as the next busiest judicial circuit, covering Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The judge considering them said local police are reacting, in part, to their proximity to the mass shooting that spurred the law, which took effect March 9.
“I think a lot of it is directly attributable to the shooting at the high school,” said Chief Judge Jack Tuter.
Tuter has granted all 36 petitions on a temporary basis; only one person – a federal air marshal – has successfully challenged an order, persuading Tuter during a final hearing to reinstate his rights to possess firearms.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office has sought almost half of the orders in the county. The agency has been criticized by the public for failing to Baker Act Nikolas Cruz before he could legally purchase a weapon used to kill 17 people at the Parkland school, and for one or more of its deputies failing to quickly act to confront the shooter as the massacre unfolded. Florida’s Baker Act allows for someone to be committed for a mental evaluation and it can prevent someone from being able to purchase a gun.
Asked if its aggressive use of the new law was a reaction to any agency failures perceived by the public, a spokesperson would not concede any failures have been conclusively identified.
“For us it’s not about the numbers,” said spokesperson Keyla Concepcion. “It’s about utilizing the tools at our disposal to ensure the safety of our community. Risk protection orders were a much-needed tool for law enforcement. Our deputies are exercising due diligence by making sure they’re filed in cases where it’s deemed appropriate.”
The people who have risk protection orders filed against them range in age from a 14-year-old boy who classmates claimed “wanted to kill someone to see how it feels” to a 63-year-old man who, court records state, was “seeing spirits” and purchased two shots guns and two handguns, insisting “I can buy as many (firearms) as I want.”
The places put at potential risk include five schools, four public buildings and stores, two churches and a mall.
Two workplaces – Port Everglades and an automobile lot – were also named as places of risk in the court records.
Two of those cited had connections to the Markham Park target range.
One was a county parks employee who police claimed threatened a Sunrise restaurant, saying he "hears female voices in his head telling him to kill people." He was fired from his parks job after police contacted his employer, a parks spokeswoman said, adding the county is doing all it can to keep the range a safe place.
The other was an 18-year-old high school student, a competitive skeet shooter now unable to compete as he awaits a final hearing where his attorney will argue he should get his gun rights back. Classmates said they were concerned he fit the profile of a school shooter and Fort Lauderdale police sought the order after, they said, he wrote an essay describing a home invasion and murder at the home of a girl who did not return his affections.
Another high school student drew concern and had her firearms rights taken away because police say she was obsessed with the Columbine High massacre.
"Some people have actually had weapons at the house, others have not," Tuter said, "Some are suffering from mental health issues or crises when they call."
Two-thirds of the petitions went to people with mental health issues that authorities believe made them a danger to themselves or others, according to court records.
People like Nelson Olmeda, 60, a Davie man who threatened to "shoot up" a Sunrise Sam's Club, a store employee testified. Bi-polar and Baker Acted three times, according to court records, Olmeda had recently owned firearms and had a Florida concealed weapons permit, his ex-wife testified. Tuter revoked his gun rights for at least one year.
Another man was reported to police by Henderson Behavioral Health after he said he wanted a firearm to kill himself. That is the same mental health provider that decided Cruz was not a danger to himself or others in September 2016, despite evidence he’d been cutting himself and demanding from his mother that he get an ID so he could buy a firearm.
Had Cruz been Baker Acted, it is possible further legal steps could have been taken to make him ineligible for purchasing firearms, including the one he used at Stoneman Douglas.
Only a few of the petitions filed under the new law were directed at people charged with crimes.
"There are a lot of bad people in the community who wish to threaten their neighbors and neighborhood and are using weapons to do that," Tuter said.
One man who police say threatened another person with a gun is Jerron Smith, 31. He had been charged with several felonies in recent years, but was never convicted – so he was still legally allowed to possess firearms.
But when he used one to allegedly shoot at an acquaintance, he was arrested and the Broward Sheriff’s Office successfully sought to revoke his gun rights. When they showed up to collect his firearms, including an AR-15, Smith refused to cooperate and was arrested for violating the order – a separate criminal charge on which he is now being held without bond.
Tuter, left to sort out who is a threat and who isn’t, said judges are being asked to anticipate what someone is going to do.
"We're asked to predict human behavior to some extent. Will this person really pose a danger? Is this person just blowing off smoke and saying things they shouldn’t be saying? Or do they really pose a danger to themselves or others?" he said.
The only person to successfully regain his rights is Rene Rios, 38, a federal air marshal.
In February, he opened fire four to five times with his service handgun in his house at what he thought were two home invaders; in fact, he was hallucinating, he testified at his final hearing.
"If you asked me now, I believed two individuals were literally in my home trying to hurt my family and I believed in my heart I was trying to defend them as best I could," he testified.
In fact, he said he now realizes, he was suffering from psychosis due to a sudden withdrawal from alcohol and sleeping pills he’d been taking for years to cope with his job’s demanding schedule.
Unable to get help through work programs to ween himself off the drugs, he said, "I got to the point where I was tired of being sick and tired so I took two weeks off to try and do it myself."
It did not go well.
“I came home with the kids and found Rene in the bedroom talking to himself,” his wife, Roxannie testified.
Asked whom he was speaking with, she answered; "At that moment, God."
After the gunfire, she called Miramar Police. Officer Damaso Espiritusanto testified when he approached Rios, he repeated his claim about home invaders.
“He told me that one was dead inside of the house and the other male had fled,” the officer recalled.
Rios was Baker Acted and entered a 28-day in-patient treatment program.
His wife supported him in court, telling Judge Tuter, “Despite what happened that day, I am not afraid when I’m with Rene, nor do I think he presents a threat to me or my children.”
The judge agreed, saying, “The court finds the incident in question is an isolated incident, the respondent entered successful medical treatment, the respondent does not pose a threat to himself for others.”
He dismissed the temporary risk protection order. And while he could not order Rios to stay away from weapons, Tuter did advise him not to retrieve his weapons unless he was placed back on duty.
Rios testified his security clearance had been revoked and the air marshal service was seeking to fire him.
The agency would not comment on that. But spokesman Thomas Kelley told NBC 6: “The safety and well-being of all of our federal air marshals is paramount to TSA. We take any allegations of inappropriate behavior very seriously and act accordingly.”
As for Rios, he told NBC 6 there are “a lot of things I still have to think about, as far as my job and my career, and to move on from this moment.” His priority now? “Just to move on and get my life back. That’s it.”