Florida shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz: Guns, depression and a life in trouble


February 15, 2018

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on Feb. 14, 2018 in Parkland, Fla. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. – Joe Raedle/Getty Images

February 15, 2018

People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on Feb. 14, 2018 in Parkland, Fla. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. – Joe Raedle/Getty Images

He had been getting treatment at a mental health clinic, but he had stopped. He had been expelled from school for discipline problems. Many of his acquaintances had cut ties in part because of his unnerving Instagram posts and reports that he liked shooting animals. His father died a few years ago, and his mother, among the only people with whom he was close, died around Thanksgiving. He was living in a friend’s house. He was showing signs of depression.

And Nikolas Cruz, 19, had a fascination with guns. He owned an AR-15 assault-style rifle.

Though school officials, students and others who knew him were aware that something was off with Cruz, it is unclear if anyone had a full picture of what was building within him in recent months. Had everyone who knew of his struggles sat down in a room and compared notes about his recent past, perhaps an alarm would have sounded ahead of what emerged on Valentine’s Day, when Cruz allegedly walked into a suburban South Florida high school and carried out one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.

“Weird” was the word students had used for Cruz since middle school. At first “it was nothing alarming,” said Dakota Mutchler, 17, who attended middle school with Cruz, adding that there was something “a little off about him.” But that was it — for a while.

As Cruz transitioned into high school, he “started progressively getting a little more weird,” Mutchler told The Washington Post. Cruz, he said, was selling knives out of a lunchbox, posting on Instagram about guns and killing animals, and eventually “going after one of my friends, threatening her.”

On Wednesday night, Mutchler recalled Cruz as an increasingly frightening figure, being suspended from school repeatedly, before he was expelled last year. “When someone is expelled,” Mutchler said, “you don’t really expect them to come back. But, of course, he came back.”

He came back to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a vengeance, according to the Broward County sheriff, who identified Cruz as the gunman who marched through the school with an AR-15 assault-style rifle, killing 17 people and wounding at least 15 others. He has since been booked on 17 counts of premeditated murder in connection with the deaths.

“I think everyone in this school had it in the back of their mind that if anyone was supposed to do it, it was most likely gonna be him,” Mutchler said.

Mutchler spoke as he stood outside a Marriott Hotel where families and students had been told to gather so they could find each other and go home. Still looking dazed, the young man also spoke with the benefit of hindsight.

Math teacher Jim Gard, who taught Cruz last year before he was expelled from Stoneman Douglas, said that at some point the school administration sent out a note with a vague suggestion of concern, asking teachers to keep an eye on Cruz. “I don’t recall the exact message,” Gard said, “but it was an email notice they sent out.”

“We were told last year that he wasn’t allowed on campus with a backpack on him,” Gard told the Miami Herald. “There were problems with him last year threatening students, and I guess he was asked to leave campus.”

And Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told CNN that Cruz had been getting treatment at a mental health clinic for a while, but that he had not been back to the clinic for more than a year. “It wasn’t like there wasn’t concern for him,” Furr told CNN. “We try to keep our eyes out on those kids who aren’t connected. … In this case we didn’t find a way to connect with this kid.”

Cruz apparently fell off the radar, but he was having a rough time.

Roger Cruz — who along with his wife Lynda, had adopted Nikolas — died of a heart attack several years ago. Then in November, Lynda Cruz, 68, died of pneumonia, according to her sister-in-law, Barbara Kumbatovic.

With her death, Cruz and his half brother lost one of the only relatives he had left in the world, according to family and friends.

“Lynda was very close to them,” Kumbatovic told The Post. “She put a lot of time and effort into those boys, trying to give them a good life and upbringing.”

While one boy was quiet and seemed to stay out of trouble, Nikolas kept getting into problems at school, Kumbatovic said.

“Lynda dealt with it like most parents did. She was probably too good to him,” Kumbatovic said. “She was a lovely woman. She was a hard-working woman. She made a beautiful home for them. She put a lot of effort and time into their schooling, their recreation, whatever they needed. She was a good parent. And she went over and above because she needed to compensate for being a single parent.”

“I don’t think it had anything to do with his upbringing,” she said. “It could have been the loss of his mom. I don’t know.”

Neighbors told the Sun-Sentinel that police were called out repeatedly to deal with complaints about Cruz. Shelby Speno said he was seen shooting at chickens owned by a resident. Malcolm Roxburgh told the Sun-Sentinel that Cruz took a dislike to the pigs another family kept as pets. “He sent over his dog … to try to attack them.”

After Lynda Cruz’s death, Nikolas Cruz and his half brother stayed with friends in Lake Worth, in Palm Beach County. Then he asked a former classmate from Stoneman Douglas High School if he could move in with him. Cruz’s friend and his friend’s parents agreed and opened up their home to him, said Jim Lewis, an attorney representing the family who took in Cruz. “It wasn’t working out” in Lake Worth, Lewis said.

“The family brought him into their home,” Lewis told The Post. “They got him a job at a local dollar store. They didn’t see anything that would suggest any violence. He was depressed, maybe a little quirky. But they never saw anything violent. … He was just a little depressed and seemed to be working through it.”

Those who were acquainted with Cruz through school, like Mutchler, had seen enough to disturb them in recent years.

Joshua Charo, 16, a former classmate during their freshman year, told the Miami Herald that all Cruz would “talk about is guns, knives and hunting.” While Charo said Cruz joined the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a freshman, he continued to be “into some weird stuff,” like shooting rats with a BB gun.

Drew Fairchild, also a classmate during Cruz’s freshman year, agreed. “He used to have weird, random outbursts,” he told the Herald, “cursing at teachers. He was a troubled kid.”

He was suspended from Stoneman Douglas for fighting, Charo told the Herald, and because he was found with bullets in his backpack.

A classmate, Victoria Olvera, 17, told the Associated Press that Cruz was expelled last school year after a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.

Officials would not comment on Cruz’s school record for privacy reasons. Broward County Sheriff  Scott J. Israel said at a news conference that Cruz was ultimately expelled from Stoneman Douglas for “disciplinary reasons.”

He had since enrolled in a program trying to obtain his GED, Lewis said.

Cruz already owned the AR-15 rifle when he moved in with his friend’s family, Lewis said, nothing that he was told that Cruz had bought it legally. “It was his gun. He had brought it to the house when he moved in. It was secured in a gun cabinet in the house, but he had the key to it. I believe it was secured in his room,” Lewis said. The family had not seen Cruz shooting the AR-15 since he moved in with him.

Authorities confirmed that Cruz bought the AR-15 himself, and so far it is the only gun that has been recovered as part of the investigation, said Peter J. Forcelli, special agent in charge of the Miami field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“He purchased the firearm legally,” Forcelli said in an interview Thursday morning. “No laws were broken in his acquisition of the firearm.”

In his social media postings, Cruz has been seen wielding other firearms, so officials are continuing to look for any additional weapons, but they have not found any so far, Forcelli said. Investigators also are reaching out to gun shops across the region to see if Cruz had attempted to buy other weapons.

Mackenzie Hill, a 17-year-old junior at Stoneman Douglas, told The Post she has known Cruz since middle school, when he was always getting in trouble. More recently, she remembered seeing him at the dollar store where he worked.

“He would talk to me like he knew me, and it creeped me out,” Hill said. “I always had a bad feeling about him.” Hill, like others, also cited Instagram posts, which, in the wake of the killings, Israel called “very, very disturbing.”

An Instagram account that appeared to belong to the suspect showed several photos of guns. And one appeared to show a gun’s holographic laser sight pointed at a neighborhood street. A second showed at least six rifles and handguns laid out on a bed with the caption “arsenal.” Other pictures showed a box of large-caliber rounds with the caption “cost me $30.” One appeared to show a dead frog’s bloodied corpse. Most of the photos were posted in July 2017.

Just the day before the shooting, Cruz had gone to work his job at the dollar store, Lewis said. On most days the father of the family he was staying with dropped Cruz off at his school. But Lewis said that on Wednesday, Cruz told the family something to the effect of: “I don’t go to school on Valentine’s Day.”

Authorities found and arrested Cruz not far from the house where he lived Wednesday afternoon following a manhunt that transfixed the region and spread panic through many nearby schools.

Michael Nembhard, a retiree who lives in Coral Springs, said he witnessed police arrest Cruz just outside his house near the corner of Wyndham Lake Boulevard and Coral Ridge Drive. A little after 3 p.m., Nembhard was sitting in his garage watching the news on television with his garage door open when he heard an officer yell, “Get on the ground!”

When he looked up he saw a teenager lying on the ground, wearing a burgundy hoodie and dark pants. “The cop had his gun drawn and pointed at him,” Nembhard said.

Nembhard said he believes Cruz had been walking on foot when he was arrested. At first, Nembhard saw only the one police officer and his police cruiser alongside the suspect on the ground with no other vehicles in sight. Within minutes, however, a swarm of officers and cruisers had descended on the quiet neighborhood.

From about 150 feet away, Nembhard watched as authorities handcuffed Cruz and put him into a police cruiser. A few minutes later, authorities took him out and put him into an ambulance.

Courtesy/Source: Washington Post