Shooter’s birth family has history of violence, drug abuse
The birth mother of Nikolas Cruz has been arrested 28 times since
1983. Her rap sheet describes a petty criminal with a touch of thug. Car theft, burglary, domestic violence, weapons possession, battering a roommate with a tire iron. Drugs, drugs, drugs.
But nothing particularly notable. Nothing except an arrest on June 7, 1998, when Fort Lauderdale police caught Brenda Woodard in a drug-infested neighborhood purchasing five rocks of crack cocaine. She was five months pregnant.
That bust offers circumstantial evidence, at least, of prenatal substance abuse. If nothing else, Woodard showed more deference for her crack habit than the well-being of her unborn son. Maybe that explains something.
Two decades later, that same son planned and executed the most wretched crime in South Florida history. Nikolas Cruz callously murdered 17 and wounded another 17. Since then, the community has been thrashing about for explanations, trying to understand the transformation of a pathetic high school misfit to crazed killer.
Last week in the Miami Herald, Carol Marbin Miller and Nicholas Nehamas reported elements of the Woodard family history that might explain something about Cruz. Perhaps, it began in the womb.
Miller and Nehamas found public documents, including arrest records, that read like warning markers along the troubled lives of Brenda Norma Woodard, 62, and Danielle Woodard, 32, her oldest and the one child she kept. Too bad for Danielle, who, according to the Herald, was abused and beaten and taught to steal by her drug-addled mother, then left to roam the streets. The daughter has compiled a criminal record even more dreadful than her mother’s: theft, drug charges, beatings, robbery, gun possession and disturbing bursts of violence, including an attempt to drive a stolen car into a police officer.
After her latest arrest, which included her biting a police officer in a fit of rage, Danielle (the mother of two young children herself ) was declared a habitual offender and consigned to state prison.
Brenda Woodard didn’t even attempt to raise her next two babies. Nikolas and his younger half-brother were adopted by a prosperous couple from Parkland. Presumably, that should have spared Nikolas from the criminal life that befell his half-sister. Except, like Danielle, his prenatal development was probably impaired by his mother’s abuse of drugs and alcohol. He was born with cognitive disorders that would cripple his social and scholastic development.
No matter that he had been separated from his criminal mother and raised by responsible parents. Nature, in the most horrible way, had thwarted nurture.
The Woodard family history adds another depressing aside to the Parkland tragedy. But Broward County has grappled with this before — criminal behavior as a seemingly heredity trait.
Percy Campbell, at age 13, was once South Florida’s most infamous juvenile delinquent. In
1993, after his 57th arrest (including 38 felonies) since age 8, he was dubbed “Crime Boy.” But the community refused to accept that he was a lost cause. The courts, social services and church groups intervened. The community had high hopes after Percy graduated from Last Chance Ranch, a tough juvenile rehab program. In 1999, Broward New Times wrote an uplifting piece on the redemption of Crime Boy.
But his family was his fate. His grandmother, Gladys Jackson, the woman who raised him, had been raped and impregnated at age 11. Her daughter Sandy, Percy’s mother, had likewise been raped and impregnated at age 11 by one of Jackson’s boyfriends. "We were babies raising babies," Jackson told me in 1993, at her decrepit little house in northwest Fort Lauderdale.
Percy was a second-generation progeny of rape, a third- generation criminal. His grandmother had done a stretch in prison. His mother received a life sentence at 24 after she smuggled a gun into a Georgia prison. Her boyfriend killed a guard as he shot his way out. Percy’s Aunt Lisa went down on armed robbery charges. Uncle George, at 16, had taken
12-year-old Percy along when he robbed a convenience store and shot the clerk.
Crime Boy was a product of Crime Family. And he reverted to family tradition. The redemption story was followed by more arrests and, finally, a hitch in the state prison from
2000 to 2004.
Who knows? Nature or nurture? How can you test the nature hypothesis in an atmosphere bereft of nurture? Hard to argue that criminal inclinations were scripted into the DNA of Nikolas Cruz without considering the cognitive damage likely caused by his mother’s ingestion of street drugs. And could anyone argue that Percy Campbell, born to a child mother, raised in a house of felons, wasn’t a product of his environment?
Still, there’s one sure conclusion. In a community beset with drug-addled mothers-to-be, disappeared fathers, abused and neglected children and impregnated young girls, tragic and violent awful outcomes can’t be a surprise.