FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Chaos reigned in the home where Florida school gunman Nikolas Cruz grew up, as evidence from his ongoing trial has shown.
He and his half-brother Zachary tormented their adoptive and widowed mother, Lynda. By the time Cruz reached middle school in the early 2010s, the pair took their fists and baseball bats to the walls, leaving gaping holes. They smashed televisions and gouged out furniture, witnesses said.
Zachary might have been two years younger, but he was bigger and stronger and relentlessly went after his brother – a social worker recalled Zachary climbing up a counter and stepping into Nikolas cereal during that he ate.
Lynda Cruz called sheriff’s deputies at the family’s 4,500 square foot (420 square meter) home at least two dozen times between 2012 and 2016 to attend to one or the other or both sons. Most of the calls were to fight, destroy her property, disrespect her, or run away.
“Nikolas was very easily triggered and I think Zachary enjoyed pushing Nikolas’ buttons,” said Frederick Kravitz, one of Cruz’s child psychologists. In turn, “they were very good at pushing (their mother’s) buttons”.
Nikolas Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October to the murder of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. His trial is only to decide whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. The trial resumes Monday after a week-long hiatus.
Lead prosecutor Mike Satz’s case was simple. He played security videos of the shooting and showed the AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle used by Cruz. Teachers and students testified that they watched others die. He showed graphic autopsy and crime scene photos and led the jurors into the still bloodstained and bullet-riddled classroom terrorized by Cruz. Parents and spouses have made tearful and angry statements about their loss.
In an attempt to counter this, Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill and her team have made Cruz’s story the centerpiece of their case, hoping that at least one juror will vote for life. A verdict of death must be unanimous.
The defense wants to show that from Cruz’s birth to an alcoholic, crack-smoking Fort Lauderdale prostitute, he never got the help he needed, even as he grew increasingly out of control.
And nowhere was that more evident than in the home Roger and Lynda Cruz built in Parkland, an upscale suburb of Fort Lauderdale. They adopted Nikolas at birth in 1998 and, in 2000, Zachary, who had a different biological father.
Lynda Cruz, who turned 50 shortly after adopting Nikolas, was a stay-at-home mom. Roger Cruz, then 61, had a successful marketing business.
Lynda Cruz “had wanted a child, always wanted a child. So once she had Nikolas, she felt like her family was complete,” her friend Trish Davaney-Westerlind said. “She was a sweet little baby. She would get her all those sailor outfits. She was just the happiest I’ve ever seen.
But in preschool, Cruz showed extreme behavior. Neighbors and teachers testified that he hit and bit other children and did not socialize. He was anxious, fell while running and could not use utensils. Nikolas started seeing psychiatrists and psychologists when he was 3 years old and didn’t fully talk or potty train until he was 4 years old.
At 5 years old, when Cruz enters kindergarten, he sees his father suffer a fatal heart attack in the family lair. This left Lynda Cruz alone in her mid-50s with two sons who would have challenged a much younger couple.
Out of a job, she became paranoid about spending, keeping her air conditioner thermostats in the 80s (25 to 30 degrees Celsius) and unplugging unused appliances. A friend said his monthly electric bill was $80, a fraction of what the owner of a large South Florida home typically pays.
She padlocked the fridge so her sons couldn’t eat without permission and kept it so poorly stocked that neighbors gave her groceries.
Friends have given conflicting testimony as to whether Lynda Cruz was truly strapped for money or had wealth she didn’t want to spend.
Either way, she had expenses that other parents didn’t. Cruz’s mental health treatments were not fully covered by insurance. He enjoyed online video games, which were often violent, but hated losing – which led him to destroy televisions and damage walls. She sometimes locked her video game lawyer in her car as punishment – and Cruz at least once broke a window to get it back.
“She was a little scared of him,” neighbor Paul Gold said.
Despite Cruz’s tantrums, Lynda Cruz told teachers and counselors that he was sweet and loving, a mama’s boy. Friends testified that it wasn’t entirely a facade — Cruz and his mother had a strong, often affectionate attachment, and she favored him over her brother.
Still, Zachary remained popular in the neighborhood while Cruz was the outcast — and not just with the kids.
Steven Schusler testified that shortly after moving nearby, his landlord called the Cruz boys and pointed to Nikolas, then about 10.
“He’s the weird one, isn’t he Nicky?” Schusler recalled the woman saying. Cruz “curled up” and “looked like a snail when you put salt in it”.
But Cruz’s behavior was often strange and sometimes violent. When he was 9 years old, a parent called the police after hitting his child on the head with a rock. When his dog died after eating a poisonous toad, he went on a killing spree against amphibians. In middle school, his outbursts disrupted classes, and he covered his homework with racial slurs, swastikas, obscenities, and stick figures having sex or shooting each other.
Lynda Cruz became so overwhelmed in Cruz’s early teens that a social services agency was assigned to help her. That’s what brought Case Manager Tiffany Forrest home. She said that Lynda Cruz complained that Nikolas didn’t bathe, so Forrest tried to explain to her the importance of hygiene. Cruz got up, got out and jumped fully dressed into the swimming pool. He then descended.
“I took a shower,” he told Forrest.
In the coming weeks, Cruz’s attorneys are expected to present testimony about his transfer to a school for students with emotional and behavioral problems, his move to Stoneman Douglas, and call his brother to the stand.
Their mother died less than four months before the shooting.
AP writer Freida Frisaro in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this report.