Details emerge in accidental shooting in school cafeteria

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Eleven young heads turned toward the explosive noise coming from the side of the school lunchroom. A young girl in jeans and white shoes moved her hands toward her ears. A cafeteria worker ducked behind the counter. White smoke lingered.

It took everyone a moment to process the sound they heard.

A gunshot rang out in the middle school cafeteria.

Standing nearby, Pasco County Sheriff's Corporal Jonathan Cross reacted, too. The 14-year veteran of the department appeared mystified how it happened. He uttered "what the hell?" and more expletives then realized the gunshot came from his own pistol on his right hip. It happened in a busy school cafeteria while he was surrounded by 13- and 14-year-old children, blowing apart a piece of his holster and tearing into his cargo pants. Cross covered his own ears right after the gun fired.

"I don't know what happened," Cross said. "My gun just went off in the holster." He said this to himself, a statement captured on the body camera he had activated in the moments immediately after the pistol fired.

One student in the cafeteria, whose name was censored in an official report released Friday, said he had seen Cross "play with his gun in the past by moving it up and down in the holster," including once as recently as the week before the accident. Some students said they didn't know if the sound was a gunshot; one said she had recognized it as gunfire from her time living in New York.

New details are emerging about the dramatic, terrifying moments that day inside Thomas E. Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel, Florida, just north of Tampa. No one was hurt in the April 30 accident.

Sheriff Chris Nocco announced Wednesday that Cross was fired for mishandling his gun, and on Thursday and Friday the agency released dozens of pages from reports from the official investigation that took nearly six months. Cross had been a school resource officer at the school.

The report released Friday included details of authorities disassembling the gun after the shooting, and inspecting the gun and holster for worn, broken or missing parts. "All parts performed correctly," the report said.

Cross did not respond to a request to be interviewed sent to his LinkedIn social media account, but later updated that account to indicate he was "self employed" and no longer working at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

The new documents reveal that a key piece of evidence was the school security video. The sheriff's office declined to release it to Fresh Take Florida, citing an exemption under Florida's public records law that protects information about surveillance or security systems, but the documents described what the video showed.

Cross was seen moving his hand toward his holster about 11:39 a.m., moments before the gun fired. Cross removed his hand from the gun, covered his ears then began waving his hands. Eleven students were standing nearby.

The sheriff said Cross' actions were "nothing we train."

Cross told investigators that he noticed white smoke and saw his pants ripped. "That's when I realized, oh, crap, my gun went off and I wondered how did that happen," he said.

The incident occurred only one day before Florida lawmakers passed a bill to allow teachers to carry handguns in schools. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill just over one week later. It went into effect earlier this month.

Critics worry that a lack of adequate weapons training among teachers might endanger students. Cross has been a trained law enforcement officer since at least 2002. The bill does not specifically require training teachers how to prevent or what to do after a gun is fired negligently.

The newly released investigative reports include an interview in which Cross told authorities he had a "bad habit" of manipulating a safety strap on his gun holster. Cross told investigators that he developed the habit when he was on patrol and described it as "muscle memory." He added, "I do it sometimes, but don't do it around kids or anyone else around."

The reports said the sheriff referred Cross to state prosecutors on May 8 on charges of culpable negligence, a second-degree misdemeanor. But prosecutors notified the sheriff's office on July 8 that they were declining to file criminal charges against him.

The sheriff said Wednesday that the investigation took so long to finish because "we don't want to rush into something."

The sheriff's office uses 9mm Sig Sauer P320 pistols, the same gun that Cross accidentally fired in the school. The guns are the subject of complaints and lawsuits about accidental discharges. A test done nearly five months ago by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found no mechanical problems with the gun, and it had been modified before the shooting by the manufacturer under a voluntary upgrade program in August 2017 to make the guns less prone to misfires.

A representative from Sig Sauer did not immediately return a phone call to the company's headquarters offices in New Hampshire.

As part of its investigation, Pasco County authorities in May compared the circumstances of the school shooting to a previous incident with the Holmes Beach Police Department, south of Tampa, where the same model pistol and holster had accidentally discharged. But in that case, the holstered gun was being carried inside a bag and the bag's zipper had slipped inside the holster, nudging the trigger enough to cause it to fire, the report said.

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.