When Nikolas Jacob Cruz was born in South Florida 19 years ago, his adoptive mother Lynda was in the delivery room to watch him emerge. The nurse handed the baby to her. She was elated.
By the time he was 3, he was diagnosed with developmental delays. By the time he was 6, he’d suffered the trauma of witnessing his father’s death. By the time he was 16, he was preoccupied with wars, death and killing, school records reveal. And he never made it to 20 in the outside world.
Lynda and Roger Cruz knew their new son had challenges, but neither lived to see what he was capable of.
Cruz sits in the Broward County main jail. He confessed to shooting 33 former classmates, coaches and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the school he was kicked out of in his junior year. Seventeen of his victims died.
Cruz’s troubled life is coming into sharper focus, through police and school records and interviews with friends, family and former classmates.
The young man has been described as “lost,” “lonely” — and violent. He badly wanted to attend a “regular” high school, school records say. His wish was granted, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas was that school.
A loving family
One day before her 49th birthday, Lynda Cruz’s adopted son was born, on Sept. 24, 1998. She and Roger Cruz had married late in life. He was 61 and had four kids from a previous marriage.
A close family friend and former neighbor, who asked that her name not be published, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that the couple arranged the private adoption through an attorney. They insisted the birth mother pass drug tests and visit the doctor. The baby’s father was unknown, the friend said.
Less than a year later, the same woman got pregnant again. The baby had a different father. Lynda and Roger adopted that boy, Zachary, as well. Their family was complete.
“They had a beautiful house,” said Ben Aaronson, who was close to Lynda and Roger Cruz. The couple had moved from New York and had their five-bedroom, three-bath home built in Parkland, at 6166 Northwest 80th Terrace, county property records show. They had a pool and jacuzzi in the backyard.
“They had a very close relationship with their father,” Aaronson recalled of the boys. Roger Cruz was in marketing and traveled for business. But “when he was home,” Aaronson said, “he was all about his kids. I remember Roger having this entire, like, really extended type jungle gym out back, in the backyard, being built,” he said. “They built another wing to the house, and the kids just had plenty to do.”
A golfer and “suit-and-tie man,” the elder Cruz didn’t own guns, Aaronson said.
Lynda Cruz was a stay-at-home mom. She drove a minivan, and she was an involved mother, ferrying the boys to Zachary’s sports games and involving them in the building of Parkland’s Liberty Park, the friend said.
The 7-acre playground opened in 2000. A fence slat on Liberty Park’s perimeter is still emblazoned with the name “Nikolas J. Cruz.” Another bears Zachary’s name.
The boys were raised Catholic and had their communions and confirmations, the family friend said.
But their life story soon took an unexpected turn.
When Nikolas was 5, he was in the den with his father. His mom was in the kitchen, the friend said.
”Nikolas came down the hallway and he went to his room, and he was crying. She said, ‘What’s the matter, did Daddy punish you?’ Just as clear as day, he said, ‘Nope. Daddy’s dead.’ ”
Roger Cruz was dead of a heart attack at age 67.
Lynda Cruz sued two heart doctors and won a small settlement for her sons a few years later, court records show.
She was left to raise the two boys alone.
Nikolas wasn’t an easy child. He had been diagnosed with a string of disorders and conditions: depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, emotional behavioral disability and autism, records from the state Department of Children and Families show. His mom told sheriff’s deputies he also had obsessive-compulsive disorder and anger issues.
He had counselors in school and at home, according to DCF records, and he took medications.
Nikolas’s mother doted on him, friends told the Sun Sentinel, and he was still learning to do household chores and laundry in his late teen years.
He was “a momma’s boy,” said the family friend. “She was his best friend.”
But Nikolas had trouble making friends among peers, school records say. When Zachary wanted to play with friends, their mother would make him take Nikolas along, the former neighbor and friend said.
At 5 foot 7 and 120 pounds, the slight Nikolas Cruz was bullied, records indicate.
Nikolas was a peculiar boy. He was particular about food. He was socially awkward.
His brother told Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies last week that “he and his friends, when they were younger, had bullied Nikolas, which he now regrets ever doing,” the agency’s report says. The deputy wrote that “Zachary wishes that he had been ‘nicer’ to his brother” and that there may be resentment between the two “as Nikolas may have been the favored brother.”
Nikolas wasn’t the model son. His mother called the police to say he got physical with his brother and with her. The agency responded to 23 calls over 10 years, the Broward Sheriff’s Office said.
When he was 14, his mother reported that he had hit her with the plastic hose from a vacuum cleaner. A few months later, she told deputies he had thrown her against the wall because she took away his Xbox gaming system. A year later, she told deputies Nikolas, then 15, had punched the wall after she took away his Xbox.
Cruz never graduated high school, though he was still trying at age 19.
Foul language, insults, disobedience, disruption — Cruz’s behavior was exactly what schoolteachers frowned upon.
It didn’t work out for Cruz to remain at Westglades Middle School in Coral Springs. Records show he left during eighth grade for Cross Creek School in Pompano Beach, which offers a program for emotionally and behaviorally disabled children.
He didn’t want to be there but attended through January in his 10th-grade year.
“Nikolas’ personal goal is to [be] mainstreamed to his home high school,” according to a Broward school system report from June 2015, the end of his ninth-grade year. “He often perseverates on the idea that his current school is for students that are ‘not smart’ and that he can now handle being in ‘regular’ school.”
He was conscientious about his grades, the report said. But Cruz couldn’t control himself.
At a peer’s urging, he jumped out of the back of a bus, the school district report says. He was “punched numerous times” for using racial slurs toward a peer.
And more alarming, he was fascinated by guns. And death.
“He is very concerned about his grades and how he is doing academically in class,” the school report reads. “Nikolas at times will be distracted by inappropriate conversations of his peers if the topic is about guns, people being killed or the armed forces. He will also engage in the conversation,” the report says, going on to note that “Nikolas benefits from verbal praise and positive reinforcements.”
On Jan. 13, 2016, less than a year after documenting the student’s morbid preoccupation, the school district allowed Cruz to enroll in Stoneman Douglas High.
The A-rated school is one of the best in the school district. But Cruz showed signs of trouble almost immediately. During his first month there, he posted on Instagram that he planned to shoot up the school, a neighbor’s son told BSO. The ominous tip was forwarded to the deputy assigned to the school, Scot Peterson, records say.
Cruz passed 10th grade there. He hoped to join the military one day and was a member of JROTC.
A month into the following school year, though, Cruz seemed to fall apart.
First, he was suspended for fighting. Then, just before his 18th birthday in September, a peer counselor told Deputy Peterson that Cruz might have tried to kill himself by ingesting gasoline, and said he wanted to buy a gun. Five days later, Cruz was reported to the state for cutting his arms on Snapchat, the mobile app.
“Mr. Cruz has fresh cuts on both his arms. Mr. Cruz stated he plans to go out and buy a gun. It is unknown what he is buying the gun for,” the DCF report reads.
He also had “hate signs” — including a Nazi symbol and the words “I hate N——” — drawn on his book bag.
His mother told investigators he’d just had a breakup with a girlfriend.
But Cruz wasn’t fitting in at Stoneman Douglas any better than he had anywhere else in life.
Senior Tyra Hemans remembers Cruz as a loner who walked the halls solo. She sat across from him in her first period reading class when they were juniors.
“He always stared at everyone,” she said. “He would stare into your soul.”
Hemans says she treated him with kindness.
“I was taught not to judge anyone one,” she said. “But he was a little off.”
One day, she noticed him holding his crotch during class.
“I looked close and I saw he was holding a dead bird near his genitalia,” Hemans said. “I saw some feathers and I knew it was a bird. That was disturbing. But I just looked away because it wasn’t my business.”
Hemans now wonders if he kept the bird in his lunch box. She never told a teacher – just her best friend, Pollack.
“We kept it to ourselves. She sat right next to me,” Hemans said. “We just minded our business.”
A tipster to the FBI later reported that one time Cruz took a dead bird into the kitchen of his home and cut it open, saying he wanted to see inside.
Urge to kill
Cruz’s attempt to make it at his neighborhood school failed.
In January 2017, shortly after Cruz inexplicably stopped undergoing mental health treatment, Lynda Cruz sold the expansive family home in Parkland, and the trio moved into a smaller condo.
He assaulted someone at Stoneman Douglas that month and was ejected soon after.
On Feb. 8, 2017, Cruz was transferred to an alternative school.
On Feb. 11, according to the gun store attorney — three days after his removal from Stoneman Douglas — he bought the AR-15 he used in the mass killing.
For the next year, the troubled young adult attended Broward’s public alternative schools, still trying to get a diploma.
At the beginning of his senior year, a commenter named Nikolas Cruz wrote on a Mississippi video blogger’s YouTube page: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” The blogger alerted the FBI.
Then, in November, Lynda Cruz died of pneumonia. She was 68.
Cruz was devastated and lost without her, those who know him said.
The orphaned brothers went to live with a former neighbor, Rocxanne Deschamps, in her Lantana mobile home.
It wasn’t long before Cruz was kicked out. On Nov. 29, Deschamps called 911 to say Nikolas Cruz wasn’t welcome back, and a shaken Cruz called 911 to say her son threatened to “gut” him if he returned.
Deschamps told the dispatcher she’d taken the boys on errands, including stopping by the funeral home. Nikolas wanted to be dropped off at a friend’s in Parkland. When she said no, he threw a tantrum, she told the dispatcher. He punched walls at her home and threw things.
When Deschamps’ 22-year-old son intervened, Cruz punched him in the face, she said.
“I’m afraid [if] he comes back, and he has a lot of weapons,” she said in the 911 call released by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. She said he’d purchased a gun and left to get it, taking one bullet with him.
“He was just somebody I took in because his mother just passed away,” she said. “ … That’s all he wants is his gun and that’s all he cares about is his gun.”
She told the dispatcher that Cruz dug a hole in the backyard and she suspected he was going to bury the gun there, because she told him guns weren’t allowed in her home. He already had eight guns, she said, kept at a friend’s house. And he had a “plate carrier” — a bulletproof vest — she said.
“He put the gun to the head of someone before… and he did that to his mom,” she told the dispatcher. She said he also had once put a gun to his brother’s head.
Cruz placed his own call to 911. “I was just assaulted now. Someone attacked me,” Cruz said when he called from a nearby park he ran to that day. “And they said they were going to gut me if I came back.”
Cruz told deputies that he’d gotten upset when he misplaced a photograph of his late mother.
“The thing is, I lost my mother a couple weeks ago,” he said, “so, like, I’m dealing with a bunch of things right now.”
He sounded like he might be crying. “I understand,” the dispatcher said gently.
The next day, a caller from Massachusetts told police that Nikolas was collecting guns and knives and could be a “school shooter in the making.”
A family in Parkland took him in.
The Sneads, whose son was friendly with Nikolas, said he followed their rules and kept his weapons locked up. They insisted he enlist in classes, and he had a job at Dollar Tree, the company confirmed.
Cruz seemed emotionally down for the few months they knew him. But in the last two weeks before the shooting, he told them he was happier than he’d ever been before, the Sneads told the Sun Sentinel.
“He wanted a girlfriend so bad,” Kimberly Snead said, “and I said, ‘Girls are trouble, stay away from them. It’s not worth it right now. You focus on getting yourself doing something in life.’ ”
“I think he was lonely,” James Snead said.
He wore torn clothes; he carried a lot of cash; and though he didn’t seem overtly religious, he had a gold cross in his gun cabinet, they said. He was loving toward Lenny and Harley Quinn, the family dogs, and the six cats.
On Jan. 5, a caller told the FBI that she wanted to get her fears about Cruz’s potential for violence off her chest.
“I want to kill people,” she said he wrote on one of his Instagram social media accounts.
She said he’d once pulled a rifle on his mother.
“It’s alarming to see these pictures,” she told the FBI, “and to know what he’s capable of doing, and what could happen.”
On Feb. 14 — the day of the shooting — Cruz told the Sneads he’d be skipping school.
“It’s Valentine’s Day, and I don’t go to school on Valentine’s Day,” the Sneads said he told them.
At 2:06 p.m., he caught an Uber to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, arriving when school was letting out.
He left the high school a mess of bodies and terrorized children.
In court five days later, Cruz sat with his head bowed. No friends or family appeared in court on his behalf.