‘No for­get­ting’

The brother of Park­land school shooter Nik Cruz hates him for what he did, but loves him none­the­less

Albuquerque Journal - - NATION - BY JES­SICA CONTRERA THE WASH­ING­TON POST

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — He kept his head down as he walked into the ju­di­cial com­plex, know­ing his pres­ence would at­tract stares. He emp­tied his pock­ets at se­cu­rity and hus­tled onto the el­e­va­tor. He tugged at his tie, the one he’d bor­rowed be­cause he for­got his suit. He hated suits. He hated all of this. But for his brother, he had come back again and again.

Out the el­e­va­tor, down the hall, past the news re­porters and up to the doors guarded by sher­iff’s deputies. They stepped aside and he stepped into the court­room. There in a red jump­suit was his brother, Niko­las Cruz, who had con­fessed to car­ry­ing out a mas­sacre at his for­mer high school.

Four­teen stu­dents and three staff mem­bers were killed that Valen­tine’s Day at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High in Park­land, Fla. Seven­teen oth­ers were in­jured, left with last­ing scars, phys­i­cal and men­tal. Hun­dreds more had their lives up­ended.

Some of those peo­ple were here in the court­room, and slid­ing into a bench be­side them now was an­other per­son whose life was de­railed that day. Zachary Cruz was 17 when his older brother be­came one of the dead­li­est school shoot­ers in Amer­i­can his­tory.

A tough choice

In the months since, Zach had been os­tra­cized by his com­mu­nity, in­vol­un­tar­ily con­fined to a psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity, ar­rested twice, kicked out of his guardian’s home, taken in by strangers who moved him 900 miles north to Vir­ginia, and blamed, not so much by oth­ers, but by him­self.

He craned his neck to get a bet­ter view of his brother. For this Jan­uary hear­ing, Nik was wear­ing new glasses. Zach no­ticed his hair had been buzzed short again.

Zach kept try­ing to make eye con­tact. But Nik’s head was turned to the side, fac­ing away from him.

“We would like to have a trial date to work to­ward,” a prose­cu­tor was telling the judge. The state of Florida, renowned for im­pos­ing death sen­tences, was seek­ing one for 20-year-old Nik. “We’re com­ing up on the an­niver­sary of this in­ci­dent.”

Zach looked down at his skate­board­ing shoes. He and Nik never knew their bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents, and their adop­tive par­ents were dead. Zach alone had joined the grow­ing col­lec­tive of peo­ple whose sib­lings or chil­dren be­came mass shoot­ers. But un­like the rel­a­tives of the Columbine, Vir­ginia Tech and Sandy Hook shoot­ers, his brother, for now, was still alive.

That left Zach with a choice. To sup­port Nik was to for­ever tie him­self to the heinous crime his brother ad­mit­ted to com­mit­ting. To dis­tance him­self was to aban­don the only real fam­ily he has left.

“I al­ways carry it with me. Ev­ery day. There is no for­get­ting,” Zach says. “I’m stuck be­tween lov­ing him and hat­ing him be­cause of what he did.”

The prose­cu­tor kept talk­ing. The judge nod­ded along. And ev­ery few min­utes, Zach looked up again, hop­ing his brother would ac­knowl­edge that he was still here.

Zach spent the af­ter­noon of Feb. 14, 2018, in the place he could al­most al­ways be found. He knew the curve of the skate park’s dips and lifts, the sound his board made as it ground against metal, the sting of a wipeout that meant he’d al­most landed his trick.

Skat­ing had been Zach’s es­cape since the day his mom, Lynda Cruz, re­lented at a garage sale and bought him his first board. He brought it home to the five-bed­room house in Park­land where the boys were be­ing raised and spray-painted it gold.

Lynda and Roger Cruz had adopted Nik first, when he was an in­fant. Seven­teen months later, when they learned Nik’s bi­o­log­i­cal mom had given birth again, they took in Zachary, too.

The broth­ers looked al­most noth­ing alike. Nik was al­ways pale, with light brown eyes and straight hair. Zach’s caramel skin and thick curls made

him as­sume his fa­ther was black. Lynda would never say.

She did not tell the boys they were adopted un­til they were in mid­dle school, long after Roger suf­fered a fa­tal heart attack in 2004. Zach was just 4 when he died, leav­ing their fam­ily with­out his in­come and steady­ing pres­ence. Zach’s only mem­ory of his dad was the way Roger would lift him up, set his lit­tle feet on top of his own and dance around the room.

Theirs was a child­hood filled with those small acts of love. When the boys were tod­dlers, Lynda took photos of them in the bath­tub, Nik’s arms wrapped around Zach.

When they grew big­ger, they would beg Lynda to take them to Lib­erty Park, where there was an elab­o­rate wooden jun­gle gym and a fence en­graved with the names of com­mu­nity mem­bers who do­nated to the park. The boys would run over and find their names, writ­ten side by side.

They learned re­spon­si­bil­ity by car­ing for their dogs, a cud­dly re­triever mix named Maisey and an en­er­getic ter­rier named Kobe.

They didn’t know just how sick Lynda was when, in the fall of 2017, she vis­ited a CVS clinic think­ing she had the flu. The clinic called an am­bu­lance and sent her to the hospi­tal, where she died of pneu­mo­nia. Zach says he was the one who had to tell Nik she was gone.

The boys went to stay with their mom’s friend, Rocx­anne Deschamps, who lived 40 min­utes away, closer to the beach. Nik left within weeks to move in with one of his friends. Zach stayed, reg­is­ter­ing for an on­line school to con­tinue his ju­nior year. But most days, he took off on his skate­board in­stead.

Then, on that Fe­bru­ary af­ter­noon, Deschamps showed up at the skate park, hur­tled out of her car and ran to­ward him.

“She was freak­ing out,” Zach re­mem­bers. “She kept say­ing, ‘Do you know what hap­pened? Do you know what hap­pened?’ ” She thrust her phone into his hands. On the screen was a news ar­ti­cle with a photo of Nik and a head­line that said the words “school shoot­ing.”

Zach’s body car­ried him into the car, back to Deschamps’ trailer and down to the po­lice sta­tion, while his mind was bom­barded with the mem­o­ries that told the whole story of his child­hood:

When the broth­ers made it to the bus stop, Nik would slink across the street, not want­ing to stand with the other kids. Zach didn’t join him.

Their games of Halo some­times ended with Nik scream­ing un­con­trol­lably, punch­ing doors and stab­bing seat cush­ions un­til their mom called the po­lice.

He’d come home to see Nik walk­ing around the house with his shot­gun, pre­tend­ing to shoot in­vis­i­ble peo­ple while he blared “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song about a boy’s fan­tasy of be­com­ing a school shooter.

Once Zach snooped in Nik’s phone and found mes­sages that seemed to show his brother talk­ing to him­self. “I’m gonna go to that school,” Nik wrote. “I’m gonna shoot ev­ery­body.” Zach didn’t tell any­one.

At the time it had all just seemed stupid — em­bar­rass­ing, re­ally, just Nik try­ing to get a re­ac­tion out of peo­ple.

But now a de­tec­tive was across from Zach, ask­ing if he had known what Nik was go­ing to do. In a tran­script of their con­ver­sa­tion, re­leased later by the state at­tor­ney’s of­fice, the de­tec­tive warns Zach that au­thor­i­ties are go­ing to comb through Nik’s phone.

“Noth­ing on his phone is go­ing to show that you knew he was gonna do this to­day?” the de­tec­tive asked. “No,” Zach an­swered. “I guar­an­tee it.”

For nearly two hours, Zach stut­tered and stam­mered, talk­ing in cir­cles, try­ing to ex­plain. He told the de­tec­tive about the shot­gun, the song, the texts.

“Is he go­ing to get the death penalty?” Zach asked. The de­tec­tive wouldn’t say.

When they were fin­ished, Zach had an­other ques­tion for him: “There’s noth­ing that I can do to get him out of this sit­u­a­tion, right?”

“No,” the de­tec­tive said. “Un­for­tu­nately not.”

But what he could do was talk to his brother. Right now. In an­other room, Nik had been un­der in­ter­ro­ga­tion for hours, de­scrib­ing what he did, ram­bling about a de­mon who told him to “Burn. Kill. De­stroy,” hit­ting him­self in the head and whis­per­ing, “I just want to die now.”

Then he asked for an at­tor­ney, mean­ing a de­tec­tive couldn’t keep ask­ing ques­tions un­til one was present. In­stead he could bring in Zach, and hear what Nik said. A video cam­era in the room recorded it all, and the footage — edited by the state — was later re­leased to the me­dia.

“OK, Zach, have a seat,” the de­tec­tive said, point­ing to the plas­tic chair across from Nik. Zach sat and looked at his brother. Nik was wear­ing a pale blue hospi­tal gown. His hands were cuffed be­hind his back. His left foot was chained to the floor.

“What do you think Mom would think right now,” Zach pleaded, “If she was.”

“She would cry,” Nik said im­me­di­ately.

“Peo­ple think you’re a mon­ster now,” Zach said. “A mon­ster?” Nik asked.

“You’re not act­ing like your­self,” Zach said, his anger show­ing now. “Why? Like we’ve — This is not who you are. Like, come on. Why did you do this?”

“I’m sorry,” Nik whis­pered.

“I know what you did to­day,” Zach said. “Other peo­ple look at me like I’m crazy for even — and I don’t, I don’t care what other peo­ple think. Like, you’re my brother. I love you. I want — I want you to ...”

Nik was fully cry­ing now, let­ting out fran­tic, high­pitched sobs. Zach’s head was in his hands. He slammed his hand on the ta­ble and turned to the de­tec­tive. “Can I hug him?” he asked.

He stood up, walked over to Nik and wrapped both arms around his brother.

Caught in the sys­tem

A month later, those arms were in hand­cuffs, pinned be­hind Zach’s back. One sher­iff’s deputy was guid­ing him into a cruiser as an­other yanked a hat off his head.

Some­one had called the cops when they saw Zach rid­ing his skate­board through the park­ing lot of Stone­man Dou­glas High School.

“I just wanted to kinda take it all in,” Zach told the deputies, but they ar­rested him any­way, for tres­pass­ing on school grounds.

His bond was set at $25, the lo­cal stan­dard for a sec­ond­de­gree mis­de­meanor. That night, some­one paid the fee on Zach’s be­half. But the Broward County Sher­iff’s De­part­ment didn’t re­lease him.

The next day, Zach went be­fore a judge with three sher­iff’s deputies stand­ing be­hind him. He got the feel­ing they thought he was dan­ger­ous. Then Zach heard the prose­cu­tor say “he has all the same flags present as his brother.” She ref­er­enced his ju­ve­nile record — he had rid­den his skate­board on a po­lice car and shoplifted from Tar­get. She said he posed a threat of “in­tim­i­da­tion and dan­ger” to the Stone­man Dou­glas vic­tims.

The judge upped his bond to $500,000.

Zach re­mained in cus­tody for 10 days — most of which were spent in a psy­chi­atric fa­cil­ity fol­lowed by a soli­tary cell where he was placed on sui­cide watch, de­spite Zach’s in­sis­tence that he was not sui­ci­dal.

“He was scared, but he was in no way a dan­ger to him­self or oth­ers,” said Joseph Kimok, who was serv­ing as Zach’s as­signed de­fense at­tor­ney at the time.

Kimok was in his of­fice work­ing on Zach’s case when he was un­ex­pect­edly vis­ited by two at­tor­neys from a firm called Nexus Ser­vices, which he had never heard of.

“I got the feel­ing they were look­ing for an in­tro­duc­tion to Zach,” Kimok re­mem­bered.

Nexus, he learned by search­ing on­line, runs a bond ser­vic­ing com­pany that of­fers un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants a way out of de­ten­tion if they agree to wear GPS an­kle mon­i­tors that cost them more than $400 a month. Ad­vo­cacy groups and im­mi­grants them­selves have ac­cused Nexus of prey­ing on the un­doc­u­mented — al­le­ga­tions that the com­pany’s co-founder and CEO Mike Dono­van says are ridicu­lous and un­sub­stan­ti­ated.

After white su­prem­a­cists de­scended on Char­lottesville, Va., for a 2017 rally that turned deadly, Nexus sued the city and its po­lice chief, ac­cus­ing them of fail­ing to pre­vent the clashes. As the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan sep­a­rat­ing im­mi­grant fam­i­lies at the U.S. bor­der last year, Nexus chal­lenged the pol­icy in court and in­vited re­porters to wit­ness emo­tional re­unions be­tween par­ents and chil­dren.

Now Dono­van wanted to help Zach. Once Zach was of­fered pro­ba­tion in ex­change for plead­ing guilty, Nexus con­tacted Rocx­anne Deschamps, the guardian Zach and his dogs were still liv­ing with. They ar­ranged a time for Zach to meet Dono­van, who had been to jail him­self for writ­ing bad checks be­fore start­ing his com­pany. Dono­van wanted Zach to sue Broward of­fi­cials for not re­leas­ing him when his bond was first paid.

On the day in May that Dono­van was set to fly to Florida, he re­ceived a call from one of his at­tor­neys.

“You’re never go­ing to be­lieve this,” Dono­van re­mem­bers the lawyer say­ing. “But Zach’s been ar­rested again.”

Deschamps had called the po­lice on Zach for driv­ing his mom’s old Kia with­out a li­cense. In an email from her at­tor­ney, Deschamps said she’d warned Zach that if he didn’t stop tak­ing the car, she would re­port him for vi­o­lat­ing his pro­ba­tion — and she did.

Dono­van quickly hired a lo­cal lawyer to se­cure Zach’s re­lease. He still trav­eled to Florida, along with his hus­band and com­pany co-founder, Richard Moore, and their then-14-year-old son, Sam.

He held a news con­fer­ence out­side the Fort Laud­erdale jail where Zach and Nik were de­tained to an­nounce a law­suit against the head of the jail, the state’s at­tor­ney and the judge.

That af­ter­noon, Zach walked out of the jail with a GPS mon­i­tor strapped to his an­kle. He fol­lowed Dono­van past re­porters and into an SUV. They drove to the Con­rad ho­tel, where Zach was in­vited up to the fam­ily’s room

Dono­van says he was taken with Zach’s soft-spo­ken man­ner and the way he im­me­di­ately con­nected with Sam.

“We spent the evening with Zach, get­ting to know him and get­ting to know that he was not this boogey­man that peo­ple made him out to be,” Dono­van re­called. “Even­tu­ally, I said to Richard, you know, he doesn’t re­ally have any­where to go . . . . And Richard looked at me and said, ‘He’ll come with us, to Vir­ginia.’ ”

A hard tran­si­tion

Zach was slumped on a couch, his eyes on a mas­sive curved-screen tele­vi­sion. A song by XXXTenta­cion thud­ded through the speak­ers. His dog Kobe was curled up be­side him. It was a De­cem­ber af­ter­noon, six months after Zach’s court-ap­proved move to Vir­ginia.

In his new state, in his new life, this was where Zach could usu­ally be found: In an up­stairs room of Dono­van and Moore’s house, hang­ing out with 15-year-old Sam.

Since mov­ing, Zach had stopped talk­ing to his friends in Florida — the ones who hadn’t al­ready stopped talk­ing to him. He’d started skat­ing less of­ten, then not at all. He’d said good­bye to his dog Maisey, whose back legs had stopped work­ing in her old age. Putting her down felt like los­ing a mem­ber of his fam­ily again.

He didn’t like Halo any­more, or any video games with guns in them. Or movies with guns in them, or mu­sic with the sound of gun­fire. For a while he lived in his own apart­ment, but he de­cided that he felt safer, bet­ter, when he was in­side Dono­van and Moore’s house at the end of a sub­ur­ban cul-de-sac.

Dono­van let a re­porter spend two af­ter­noons with Zach in Vir­ginia and two in Florida. At no time was Zach al­lowed to speak with­out the pres­ence of Nexus of­fi­cials.

Zach ex­pressed noth­ing but ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Dono­van and Moore, who pro­vided him with his own bed­room, gave him keys to a Ford Ex­pe­di­tion after he earned his driver’s li­cense and paid to fly him to Florida any time Nik had a hear­ing. The cou­ple talked about of­fi­cially adopt­ing Zach, even though he was now an adult.

Rather than per­form­ing the promised main­te­nance job, Zach be­gan ac­com­pa­ny­ing Dono­van and Moore on busi­ness trips across the coun­try. Then he was given an of­fice to run his own ex­ten­sion of the Nexus brand: an an­tibul­ly­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion — in­spired by Nik — called “We Iso­late No-one,” or WIN. Its core was a 24-hour hot­line stu­dents could call to re­port bul­ly­ing. The hot­line would be an­swered by Nexus em­ploy­ees at one of the com­pany’s ex­ist­ing call cen­ters. Nexus would then in­form the caller’s school of the is­sue. If the prob­lem was not re­solved, Nexus would pur­sue le­gal ac­tion against the school.

In June, Nexus or­ga­nized a news con­fer­ence to an­nounce WIN’s launch. Zach, stand­ing at a lectern in the Na­tional Press Club in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., read a pre­pared speech about how WIN would one day have chap­ters in high schools and mid­dle schools through­out the coun­try.

The cor­ners of the In­ter­net that had long at­tracted peo­ple ob­sessed with Columbine and other mass shoot­ings had spawned the “Cruzers,” who were fas­ci­nated by Nik, and by ex­ten­sion, Zach. They drew fan art of the broth­ers, dis­cussed their child­hood photos and alerted each other when­ever Zach posted some­thing new on his Instagram page. Zach said he ig­nores them and the mes­sages they send him.

He was in­ter­ested only in what was go­ing to hap­pen to Nik, which was why he re­turned to Broward County for ev­ery pro­ce­dural hear­ing. On the day of Nik’s Jan­uary hear­ing, Zach tried to lis­ten for phrases he could un­der­stand. The at­tor­neys were spar­ring with each other, ar­gu­ing over which side was at fault for the lack of a trial date nearly a year after 17 peo­ple were gunned down.

“I un­der­stand that the state of Florida be­lieves that the guilt phase is rather straightforward and sim­ple,” Nik’s pub­lic de­fender Melisa McNeill said. “But the mo­ment that they file notice of in­tent to seek the death penalty and kill Mr. Cruz, it be­comes an en­tirely dif­fer­ent case.”

She re­minded the court that, in ex­change for a life sen­tence, Nik would plead guilty.

“I have to pro­tect my client’s rights,” she said. Watch­ing her, Zach got the feel­ing she truly wanted to spare Nik’s life. Even­tu­ally, she would have to con­vince only one ju­ror that he didn’t de­serve the death penalty.

But after Zach left the court­room, pass­ing by the peo­ple whose lives, like his, had been for­ever changed by Nik’s ac­tions, he felt like he knew what was com­ing for his brother: “He doesn’t have much time left on this earth.”

“You ex­cited to see him, Zach?” Dono­van asked as they hur­ried up the steps of the jail.

“Yeah,” Zach said, even though he didn’t think what they were about to do re­ally counted as see­ing his brother.

They checked their phones into the lock­ers near the door and again emp­tied their pock­ets for se­cu­rity. A deputy es­corted them up the stairs and into a room filled with rows of com­puter screens. Zach said later that he sat at one in the back cor­ner. He picked up the phone be­side it. The screen turned onand his brother was wait­ing. Nik never made eye con­tact with him in court the day be­fore, and now, be­cause of the an­gle of the cam­era set up in Nik’s cell, Zach only re­ally saw the top of Nik’s head.

Zach learned that be­cause Nik was ac­cused of as­sault­ing a jail of­fi­cer, he was now in soli­tary con­fine­ment for 23 hours a day, a pun­ish­ment that left him even more bored than be­fore.

They talked about the gov­ern­ment shut­down and how cold it was get­ting in Vir­ginia. Nik said it was al­ways cold in the jail.

“How’s Kobe?” Nik asked, and as Zach started to ex­plain that he was do­ing good, Nik asked again about Maisey, the dog that had to be put down. They had al­ready talked about it. Zach said he re­minded his brother that Maisey’s legs had stopped work­ing. It was her time. Nik seemed fix­ated.

“But why did you do it?” he asked.

Zach re­peated him­self.

“Why did you do it?” Nik said again.

“Can we just ...” Zach stam­mered. “Can we just not talk about death right now?”

Nik dropped it. Zach tried to think of some­thing else to talk about. He wasn’t sure how much time they had left. “In case it shuts off, I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too,” Nik said, and then al­most right away, the screen went black.

MATT MCCLAIN/ WASH­ING­TON POST

Lo­cal res­i­dent Steve Zip­per vis­its a makeshift memo­rial in Park­land, Fla., in Fe­bru­ary 2018.

PHOTO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST BY JU­LIA RENDLEMAN

A child­hood photo of Zach Cruz, left, and his brother, Niko­las Cruz, whom he calls Nik.

PHOTO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST BY JU­LIA RENDLEMAN

Zach Cruz, 18, is the brother of Park­land, Fla., shooter Niko­las Cruz. He now lives in Vir­ginia.

BROWARD COUNTY SHER­IFFS OF­FICE

Niko­las Cruz is the 19-year-old sus­pect charged with the school shoot­ing in Park­land, Fla.

MATT MCCLAIN/WASH­ING­TON POST

Ka­reen Var­gas, 27, prays out­side Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Fe­bru­ary 2018 in Park­land, Fla.

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