Cruz brothers share bit­ter, an­gry his­tory

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Brittany Wall­man and Me­gan O’Matz Staff writ­ers

In a pho­to­graph from their child­hood, Niko­las and Zachary Cruz sit arm in arm, grin­ning like the best of bud­dies. But their re­la­tion­ship was much more tor­mented.

The frac­ture be­tween Niko­las Cruz and his younger brother haunted the school killer, ac­cord­ing to records and fam­ily friends. By all ac­counts, it was an im­por-

tant el­e­ment of his twisted psy­che. Niko­las Cruz was un­able to cope with the broth­erly strife that an av­er­age boy might have shrugged off.

The split was so deep that in mid­dle school, Niko­las Cruz slept with scis­sors and knives, ap­par­ently fear­ful of his brother, their adop­tive mother told a psy­chi­a­trist. Un­til she died in Novem­ber, his mother was his clos­est friend, sid­ing with him as he warred with his brother and the world around him.

Since Niko­las Cruz con­fessed to mur­der­ing 17 peo­ple and in­jur­ing 17 oth­ers on Feb. 14 at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High School in Park­land, he and his one­time ad­ver­sary seem to be in an even darker or­bit than the one that marked their younger years.

Zachary Cruz has been ar­rested for skate­board­ing at his brother’s crime scene, and sat in an iso­lated cell in the same jail. Po­lice keep track of him with an an­kle mon­i­tor the court or­dered him to wear. He’s been con­fined twice under the Baker Act, which al­lows au­thor­i­ties to in­vol­un­tar­ily hos­pi­tal­ize a per­son for a psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion.

De­spite the brothers’ rocky his­tory, Zachary Cruz vis­its his brother in jail, and at­tends his court hear­ings.

Stark turn­about

“Zachary Cruz is the only per­son in the world that Niko­las Cruz has left to speak to,” the younger brother’s at­tor­ney, Joseph Kimok, said in court pa­pers.

The turn­about is stark. One fam­ily friend told the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel that Zachary Cruz — who grew larger and stronger than Niko­las — teased and tor­mented him be­fore the shoot­ing.

“He cre­ated all kinds of havoc in the house,” for­mer neigh­bor Paul Gold said of Zachary Cruz. “He was his brother’s big­gest bully.”

Zachary Cruz him­self told deputies he and his friends mis­treated Niko­las Cruz, and now he wished they’d been “nicer.”

A re­cent post­ing by Zachary Cruz on In­sta­gram un­der­scores the com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship be­tween the brothers. It seems to have a wist­ful lilt as it starts, but it ends with the fam­ily vi­o­lence noted in a stack of po­lice and men­tal health re­ports from over the years.

“Yeah nick i still can’t be­lieve this s...” Zachary Cruz wrote on In­sta­gram last week. “Feels like yes­ter­day I was yelling at you to close the door when you s .... now you sit be­hind them bricks. i swear i wanna quit. re­mem­ber when we was jits, still got that scar on my head from when you had a fit... tears run­ning down my face but i swear i hear mom telling me not to quit... you my brother we even share the same bi­o­log­i­cal mother. yeah we even had the lo­cal po po go­ing loco. re­mem­ber dur­ing hur­ri­cane irma we ran around the com­mu­nity pool like some damn fools. #snip­pet #mightwrite­abook”

In a live In­sta­gram video re­cently, he an­swered ques­tions posed by the scores of fol­low­ers who have flocked to him. Like his brother, he has at­tracted a fold of new “friends” — strangers who pro­fess to love him and tune in to watch him eat a Hot Pocket.

“Are you and Niko­las very dif­fer­ent?” he read aloud, then an­swered: “No. We have a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties that no­body knows about.”

Both boys have emo­tional and be­hav­ioral prob­lems, records say. Both were treated with men­tal health coun­sel­ing, and med­i­ca­tion. Nei­ther earned a driver’s li­cense, or a high school diploma.

A brother’s re­jec­tion

But there are dif­fer­ences, too.

Zachary Cruz’s In­sta­gram ac­count, zachtheskaterkid, fea­tures video clips from lo­cal skate parks. His brother’s ac­count car­ried images of bul­lets, a bloody frog, guns and a tar­get and de­scribed him as “niko­las an­ni­hi­la­tor.”

Zachary Cruz was the more pop­u­lar brother, able to make friends — some­thing Niko­las ag­o­nized over not be­ing able to do.

“He has no friends in the neigh­bor­hood and feels re­jected by peers in school,” a child psy­chi­a­trist noted in a 2014 school eval­u­a­tion of Niko­las Cruz ob­tained by the South Florida Sun Sen­tinel.

His brother’s re­jec­tion stabbed at him.

A long­time for­mer fam­ily friend who didn’t want her name pub­lished said Zachary’s friends didn’t want Niko­las around. The older Cruz boy threw tem­per tantrums if things didn’t go his way, Their mother forced Zachary to al­low his brother to tag along.

“You can’t go un­less you take Niko­las,” the friend re­called Lynda Cruz telling Zachary.

When she baby-sat the boys, she said Niko­las would stand at the win­dow. When she asked what he was do­ing, he’d say, “Wait­ing for my mother.”

Gold, an­other friend and for­mer neigh­bor, said Zachary Cruz re­sented his brother be­cause “his mother paid more at­ten­tion to Niko­las.”

It was ob­vi­ous, the long­time fam­ily friend said: “When­ever any­thing hap­pened, she would au­to­mat­i­cally say, ‘What did Zachary do now?’”

Roger and Lynda Cruz adopted the boys late in life, form­ing a nu­clear fam­ily in their new Park­land home in Pine Tree Es­tates.

When Niko­las was born in Septem­ber 1998, Roger was 61, and Lynda was one day shy of 49. The fol­low­ing spring, his birth mother was preg­nant again. Zachary ar­rived in Fe­bru­ary 2000, while she was in­car­cer­ated in Ocala, the fam­ily friend said.

Roger died of a heart at­tack in 2004 when the boys were very young.

At wit’s end

Lynda Cruz had a dif­fi­cult time rais­ing them with­out him, and the fam­ily’s seem­ingly idyl­lic sub­ur­ban ex­is­tence quickly turned chaotic.

“It was be­yond her ca­pa­bil­i­ties to take care of those boys,” said Gold, who was a neigh­bor in 2009 and 2010. “I talked to her that she needed to find a boyfriend, some­one to help her take care of the boys. She loved Roger like there was no to­mor­row. I think at the end she wanted to die and join him.”

Both sons were di­ag­nosed with at­ten­tion deficit hy­per­ac­tiv­ity dis­or­der, pub­lic records say. Niko­las Cruz was la­beled in some records as hav­ing autism, and ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der. Zachary Cruz was de­scribed as hav­ing op­po­si­tional de­fi­ant dis­or­der.

When Lynda Cruz was at wit’s end, she’d pick up the phone and dial 911.

One par­tic­u­larly rough year, 2012, Lynda Cruz reached for help from the Broward Sher­iff’s Of­fice at least eight times.

In one call, she com­plained the boys were “out of con­trol” and “de­stroy­ing [the] home.”

In an­other, Lynda Cruz asked deputies to “talk to [Zachary] about his be­hav­ior” be­cause he was “ex­tremely de­fi­ant,” “rude and al­ways runs away from home.”

Still an­other that year came when 12-year-old Zachary and 14-year-old Niko­las “left out their bed­room win­dow and climbed over the fence. … Both didn’t take their meds,” the dis­patcher’s re­port reads. Lynda Cruz was 63 at the time.

With no fa­ther fig­ure in the home, Lynda Cruz reached out to oth­ers. Gold said af­ter he moved to West Palm Beach, he hosted the boys and de­liv­ered a “good pep talk on val­ues.”

In Novem­ber, Lynda Cruz caught pneu­mo­nia and died. She was 68. Gold said Niko­las Cruz blamed cig­a­rette and al­co­hol com­pa­nies be­cause his mother smoked and was a wine drinker.

“I spoke to Nik ex­ten­sively about it,” Gold said. “He was very an­gry about his mother’s death.”

‘Sins’ of his brother

The boys moved in with Rocx­anne Deschamps, a fam­ily friend who had lived with Gold in Park­land. Their en­vi­ron­ment swiftly shifted from the coiffed lawns of Park­land to a mod­est mo­bile home com­mu­nity, Lan­tana Cas­cades.

Niko­las Cruz was kicked out in a mat­ter of weeks. Zachary Cruz still re­sides there.

A for­mer se­nior at Mar­jory Stone­man Dou­glas High, he hasn’t been in school since his mother died.

On March 19, he took his skate­board to the high school in Park­land where his brother shot and killed stu­dents and ed­u­ca­tors he’d once at­tended school with. Broward Sher­iff’s Of­fice deputies stopped the 18-year-old.

The po­lice body cam video shows Zachary Cruz ca­su­ally ex­plain­ing to deputies, “I’ll be straight up, I just wanted to take it all in.”

He was ar­rested for tres­pass­ing and jailed. Au­thor­i­ties said they’d al­ready told Cruz to stay away from the school, in a com­mu­nity where the pain was raw.

Zachary Cruz didn’t re­spond to re­peated in­quiries for this story. His at­tor­ney, Kimok, also de­clined to com­ment.

In court pa­pers, Kimok said his client is be­ing pun­ished “for the sins of [Niko­las].” Zachary Cruz’s bond on the tres­pass­ing charge was orig­i­nally set at $500,000, and pros­e­cu­tors al­leged that “all the same flags” are present in Zachary Cruz as his mur­der­ous half­si­b­ling.

Un­like his brother, though, Zachary Cruz hasn’t hurt any­one and doesn’t have a weapon. He “did not bring any of this upon him­self.”

“Zachary Cruz did not kill 17 peo­ple on a high school cam­pus,” hi Kimok ar­gued. “He should not be treated like he did.”

His brother’s shoot­ing spree left Zachary Cruz re­morse­ful, de­spon­dent, and sec­ond-guess­ing their trou­bled his­tory.

Zachary told a de­tec­tive that the night of the shoot­ing, he was in the car with Deschamps and told her: “I don’t want to be alive; I don’t want to deal with this stuff.” The next night, he felt as if “some­one was try­ing to get me” and was up­set with the me­dia. He “was scared as he thought he had heard peo­ple out­side.”

“Bro,” he said in a re­cent In­sta­gram video, “my ad­dress is all over the news, bro. That’s why I don’t sleep, bro. I be para­noid. That’s why I stay up so late. I don’t even go asleep un­til I see the sun.”

The de­tec­tive con­cluded that Zachary “has no thoughts of want­ing to harm and/or kill any­one.”

One re­cent af­ter­noon, Zachary video­taped him­self for his In­sta­gram au­di­ence sift­ing through a pile of pho­tographs, hold­ing up pic­tures of him­self and his brother as lit­tle boys in the bath­tub, and on a bike ride.

An­other af­ter­noon, Zachary Cruz read from their com­ments on the screen: “A happy child­hood mem­ory?”

“I have a lot of those,” he an­swered, “but I don’t want to share any of them yet.” He paused for a long time and looked away. “Just ’cuz.”

FACE­BOOK/ZACHARY CRUZ/COUR­TESY

A pho­to­graph from Zachary Cruz’s Face­book page shows the brothers at a younger age.

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