Shooter’s birth fam­ily has history of vi­o­lence, drug abuse

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Opinion - By Fred Grimm Fred Grimm (@grim­m_fred or [email protected]), a long­time res­i­dent of Fort Laud­erdale, has worked as a re­porter or colum­nist in South Florida since 1976.

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.

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