BROWARD COUNTY, Fla.
Out the elevator, down the hall, past the news reporters and up to the doors guarded by sheriff’s deputies. They stepped aside and he stepped into the courtroom.
There in a red jumpsuit was his brother, Nikolas Cruz, who had confessed to carrying out a massacre at his former high school.
Fourteen students and three staff members were killed that Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. Seventeen others were injured, left with lasting scars, physical and mental. Hundreds more had their lives upended: parents suddenly without children, students rallying for gun control by day and dealing with panic attacks at night, first responders denounced for the choices they made amid the chaos.
Some of those people were here in the courtroom, and sliding into a bench beside them now was another person whose life was derailed that day. Zachary Cruz was 17 when his older brother became one of the deadliest school shooters in American history.
In the months since, Zach had been ostracized by his community, involuntarily confined to a psychiatric facility, arrested twice, kicked out of his guardian’s home, taken in by strangers who moved him 900 miles north to Virginia, and blamed, not so much by others but by himself.
He craned his neck to get a better view of his brother. For this January hearing, Nik was wearing new glasses. Zach noticed his hair had been buzzed short again.
Zach kept trying to make eye contact. But Nik’s head was turned to the side, facing away from him.
“We would like to have a trial date to work towards,” a prosecutor was telling the judge. The state of Florida, renowned for imposing death sentences, was seeking one for 20-year-old Nik. “We’re coming up on the anniversary of this incident.”
Zach looked back down at his skateboarding shoes. He and Nik never knew their biological parents, and their adoptive parents were dead. Zach alone had joined the growing collective of people whose siblings or children became mass shooters. But unlike for the relatives of the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shooters, his brother, for now, was still alive.
That left Zach with a choice. To support Nik was to forever tie himself to the heinous crime his brother admitted to committing. To distance himself was to abandon the only real family he has left.
“I always carry it with me. Every day. There is no forgetting,” Zach says. “I’m stuck between loving him and hating him because of what he did.”
The prosecutor kept talking. The judge nodded along. And every few minutes, Zach looked up again, hoping his brother would acknowledge that he was still here.
Zach spent the afternoon of Feb. 14, 2018, in the place he could almost always be found. He knew the curve of the skate park’s dips and lifts, the sound his board made as it grinded against metal, the sting of a wipeout that meant he’d almost landed his trick.
Skating had been Zach’s escape since the day his mom, Lynda Cruz, relented at a garage sale and bought him his first board. He brought it home to the five-bedroom house in Parkland where the boys were being raised and spray-painted it gold.
Lynda and Roger Cruz had adopted Nik first, when he was an infant. Seventeen months later, when they learned Nik’s biological mom had given birth again, they took in Zachary, too.
The brothers looked almost nothing alike. Nik was always pale, with light brown eyes and straight hair. Zach’s caramel skin and thick curls made him assume his father was black. Lynda would never say.
She did not tell the boys they were adopted until they were in middle school, long after Roger suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004. Zach was just 4 when he died, leaving their family without his income and steadying presence. Zach’s only memory of his dad was the way Roger would lift him up, set his little feet on top of his own and dance around the room.
Theirs was a childhood filled with those small acts of love. When the boys were toddlers, Lynda took photos of them in the bathtub, Nik’s arms wrapped around Zach.
When they grew bigger, they would beg Lynda to take them to Liberty Park, where there was an elaborate wooden jungle gym and a fence engraved with the names of community members who donated to the park. The boys would run over and find their names, written side by side.
They learned responsibility by caring for their dogs, a cuddly retriever mix named Maisey and an energetic terrier named Kobe.
Then came the days of walking to the bus stop together, of long rounds of Halo on the Xbox, of moaning in unison when Lynda would yank its plug from the wall, saying they were wasting power.
They didn’t know just how sick she was when, in the fall of 2017, she visited a CVS clinic thinking she had the flu. The clinic called an ambulance and sent her to the hospital, where she died of pneumonia. Zach says he was the one who had to tell Nik she was gone.
The boys went to stay with their mom’s friend, Rocxanne Deschamps, who lived 40 minutes away, closer to the beach. Nik left within weeks to move in with one of his friends. Zach stayed, registering for an online school to continue his junior year. But most days he took off on his skateboard instead.
Then, on that February afternoon, Deschamps showed up at the skate park, hurtled out of her car and ran toward him.
“She was freaking out,” Zach remembers. “She kept saying, ‘Do you know what happened? Do you know what happened?’”
She thrust her phone into his hands. On the screen was a news article with a photo of Nik and a headline that said the words “school shooting.”
“At first, I thought it was a prank,” Zach said. But there were dozens more stories, all naming his brother as the suspected gunman.
Zach’s body carried him into the car, back to Deschamps’s trailer and down to the police station, while his mind was bombarded with the memories that told the whole story of his childhood:
When the brothers made it to the bus stop, Nik would slink across the street, not wanting to stand with the other kids. Zach didn’t join him.
Their games of Halo sometimes ended with Nik screaming uncontrollably, punching doors and stabbing seat cushions until their mom called the police.
She would call the police on Zach, too, when he stayed out late without permission. He’d come home to see Nik walking around the house with his shotgun, pretending to shoot invisible people while he blared “Pumped Up Kicks,” a song about a boy’s fantasy of becoming a school shooter.
Once Zach snooped in Nik’s phone and found messages that seemed to show his brother talking to himself. “I’m gonna go to that school,” Nik wrote. “I’m gonna shoot everybody.” Zach didn’t tell any one.
At the time it had all just seemed stupid — embarrassing, really, just Nik trying to get a reaction out of people.
But now a detective was across from Zach, asking if he had known what Nik was going to do. In a transcript of their conversation, released later by the state attorney’s office, the detective warns Zach that authorities are going to comb through Nik’s phone.
“Nothing on his phone is going to show that you knew he was gonna do this today?” the detective asked.
“No,” Zach answered. “I guarantee it.”
For nearly two hours, Zach stuttered and stammered, talking in circles, trying to explain.
“You have to understand him where, like, I realize, like, he’s not that bad,” Zach said. “I just — I don’t know. I feel bad because, like I feel like I haven’t, like, been like a real brother to him. I feel like I kind of let people make fun of him. Like I — people — I wouldn’t stick up for him.”
“Well, you know, hindsight’s always 20/20,” the detective said. “You can’t blame yourself for situations like this.”
“I mean,” Zach said. “I could have told somebody, like . . . when I found — when I saw this —”
He told the detective about the shotgun, the song, the texts.
“Is he going to get the death penalty?” Zach asked.
The detective wouldn’t say.
When they were finished, Zach had another question for him: “There’s nothing that I can do to get him out of this situation, right?”
“No,” the detective said. “Unfortunately not.”
But what he could do was talk to his brother. Right now. In another room, Nik had been under interrogation for hours, describing what he did, rambling about a demon who told him to “Burn. Kill. Destroy,” hitting himself in the head and whispering, “I just want to die now.”
Then he asked for an attorney, meaning a detective couldn’t keep asking questions until one was present. Instead he could bring in Zach, and watch to see what Nik said. A video camera in the room recorded it all, and the footage — edited by the state — was later released to the media.
“Okay Zach, have a seat,” the detective said, pointing to the plastic chair across from Nik. Zach sat and looked at his brother. Nik was wearing a pale blue hospital gown. His hands were cuffed behind his back. His left foot was chained to the floor.
“What do you think mom would think right now,” Zach pleaded, “If she was —”
“She would cry,” Nik said immediately.
“People think you’re a monster now,” Zach said.
“A monster?” Nik asked.
“You’re not acting like yourself,” Zach said, his anger showing now. “Why? Like we’ve — This is not who you are. Like, come on. Why did you do this?”
“I’m sorry,” Nik whispered.
Zach tilted his head toward the ceiling. “This is not even a game. You’re not gonna wake up and be out of here,” he said, and then he was reminded of another memory of Nik. “Remember when mom died? Remember we were walking down the hallway and I told you?”
Nik shook his head.
“You probably don’t because you just did some f–ed up s—,” Zach said. “I told you when we were walking down the hallway that it’s just me and you, and I had your back.”
Zach leaned forward. “I know you, you probably felt like you had nobody but I, I care about you. . . . I know I made it seem like when we were growing up that I hated you. . . . but truth is I just didn’t want to look like a — I didn’t want to look weak. I love you with all my heart.”
“You’re not acting like yourself ... This is not who you are.”— Zach Cruz
Nik started to shake.
“I know what you did today,” Zach said. “Other people look at me like I’m crazy for even — and I don’t, I don’t care what other people think. Like, you’re my brother. I love you. I want — I want you to —”
Nik was fully crying now, letting out frantic, high-pitched sobs. Zach’s head was in his hands. He slammed his hand on the table and turned to the detective.
“Can I hug him?” he asked.
He stood up, walked over to Nik and wrapped both arms around his brother.
A month later, those arms were in handcuffs, pinned behind Zach’s back. One sheriff’s deputy was guiding him into a cruiser as another yanked a hat off his head.
Someone had called the cops when they saw Zach riding his skateboard through the parking lot of Stoneman Douglas High School.
“I just wanted to kinda take it all in,” Zach told the deputies, but they arrested him anyway, for trespassing on school grounds.
His bond was set at $25, the local standard for a second-degree misdemeanor. That night, someone paid the fee on Zach’s behalf. But the Broward County Sheriff’s Department didn’t release him.
The next day, Zach went before a judge with three sheriff’s deputies standing behind him. He got the feeling they thought he was dangerous. Then Zach heard the prosecutor say “he has all the same flags present as his brother.” She referenced his juvenile record — he had ridden his skateboard on a police car and shoplifted from Target. She said he posed a threat of “intimidation and danger” to the Stoneman Douglas victims.
The judge upped his bond to $500,000.
Zach remained in custody for 10 days — most of which was spent in a psychiatric facility followed by a solitary cell where he was placed on suicide watch, despite Zach’s insistence that he was not suicidal.
“He was scared, but he was in no way a danger to himself or others,” said Joseph Kimok, who was serving as Zach’s assigned defense attorney at the time.
Kimok was in his office working on Zach’s case when he was unexpectedly visited by two attorneys from a firm called Nexus Services, which he had never heard of.
“I got the feeling they were looking for an introduction to Zach,” Kimok remembered.
Nexus, he learned by searching online, runs a bond servicing company that offers undocumented immigrants a way out of detention — if they agree to wear GPS ankle monitors that cost them more than $400 a month. Advocacy groups and immigrants themselves have accused Nexus of preying on the undocumented — allegations that the company’s co-founder and CEO Mike Donovan says are ridiculous and unsubstantiated.
As Donovan fended off lawsuits by immigrants and investigations by state and federal agencies, he was using the pro-bono legal wing of Nexus to take on high-profile civil rights cases around the country.
After white supremacists descended on Charlottesville for a 2017 rally that turned deadly, Nexus sued the city and its police chief, accusing them of failing to prevent the clashes. As the Trump administration began separating immigrant families at the U.S. border last year, Nexus challenged the policy in court and invited reporters to witness emotional reunions between parents and children.
Now Donovan wanted to help Zach. Once Zach was offered probation in exchange for pleading guilty, Nexus contacted Rocxanne Deschamps, the guardian Zach and his dogs were still living with. They arranged a time for Zach to meet Donovan, who had been to jail himself for writing bad checks before starting his company. Donovan wanted Zach to sue Broward officials for not releasing him when his bond was first paid.
On the day in May that Donovan was set to fly to Florida,he received a call from one of his attorneys.
“You’re never going to believe this,” Donovan remembers the lawyer saying. “But Zach’s been arrested again.”
Deschamps had called the police on Zach for driving his mom’s old Kia without a license. In an email from her attorney, Deschamps said she’d warned Zach that if he didn’t stop taking the car, she would report him for violating his probation — and she did.
Donovan quickly hired a local lawyer to secure Zach’s release. He still traveled to Florida, along with his husband and company co-founder, Richard Moore, and their then-14-year-old son, Sam.
He held a news conference outside the Fort Lauderdale jail where Zach and Nik were detained to announce a lawsuit against the head of the jail, the state’s attorney and the judge.
“We have a toll-free, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week hotline,” Donovan said from a Nexus-logoed lectern. “Anyone, anywhere in the country can contact that hotline if their civil rights have been abused.”
That afternoon, Zach walked out of the jail with a GPS monitor strapped to his ankle. He followed Donovan past reporters and into an SUV. They drove to the Conrad hotel, where Zach was invited up to the family’s room: an oceanfront penthouse suite that typically costs more than $1,200 a night.
Then Moore took Zach to the hotel’s gift shop.
“He started buying me jeans and shirts,” Zach remembered. “I was like, g–d—, I’m just getting clothes thrown at me?”
Donovan says he was taken with Zach’s soft-spoken manner and the way he immediately connected with Sam.
“We spent the evening with Zach, getting to know him and getting to know that he was not this boogeyman that people made him out to be,” Donovan recalled. “Eventually, I said to Richard, you know, he doesn’t really have anywhere to go. . . . And Richard looked at me and said, ‘He’ll come with us, to Virginia.’ ”
They asked Zach.
“I didn’t know what to think at first,” Zach said. He wanted to stay close to Nik, to keep the promise that he made to his brother. But he didn’t feel comfortable in South Florida anymore — and he didn’t have a place to live.
The next week, Donovan bought Zach a suit from Men’s Wearhouse and escorted him back to court. Although Zach had turned 18 by then, he was still on probation, meaning he needed a judge’s permission to move out of Florida. A Nexus official testified that the company would provide Zach with a job working maintenance in its real estate division and a rent-free apartment near its headquarters in Augusta County, Va., a rural area just west of Charlottesville.
The judge granted his request.
“I’m looking forward to starting a new life there,” Zach told reporters afterward.
He picked up Kobe and Maisey from the dog boarding facility they had been staying in. He visited his mom’s grave and packed her elephant figurines.
Before the 14-hour drive to Virginia began, he asked Donovan if they could stop by Liberty Park. Zach had heard what the city had done there, but he wanted to see for himself. He walked past the wooden jungle gym over to the fence.
His name was still engraved on one of the fence posts. Beside it, Nik’s name was gone, replaced with a piece of wood that had been left blank.
Zach was slumped on a couch, his eyes on a massive curved-screen television. A song by XXXTentacion thudded through the speakers. His dog Kobe was curled up beside him. It was a December afternoon, six months after Zach’s move to Virginia.
In his new state, in his new life, this was where Zach could usually be found: In an upstairs room of Donovan and Moore’s house, hanging out with 15-year-old Sam. The age difference didn’t bother Zach, who liked having someone to watch music videos with. They spent hours in front of the Xbox, dissecting the lyrics and beats of their favorite rap songs.
“This is a good one, right?” Sam asked, tapping the controller.
Zach agreed, listening for a while until he interrupted the song to say, “Put on ‘Hope.’ ”
Sam looked at him. They had played this song dozens of times. Too many times. Sam typed it into the YouTube search bar anyway.
They knew the opening bars, the first words XXXTentacion would say: “Rest in peace to all the kids that lost their lives in the Parkland shooting. This song is dedicated to you.”
Sam watched Zach nod along, then stop nodding, and then stare blankly ahead. Sam had a phrase for moments like this: “Zach’s going ghost on everybody,” he says.
Since moving, Zach had stopped talking to his friends in Florida — the ones who hadn’t already stopped talking to him.
He’d started skating less often, and then not at all. “The skate parks here are just like, playgrounds,” he said. “With kids on scooters and their moms watching them. It doesn’t have the same energy.”
He’d said goodbye to his dog Maisey, whose back legs had stopped working in her old age. Putting her down felt like losing a member of his family again.
He didn’t like Halo anymore, or any video games with guns in them. Or movies with guns in them, or music with the sound of gunfire. All of it made him envision Nik in the Stoneman Douglas hallways, a semiautomatic rifle in his hands.
For a while he lived in his own apartment, but he decided that he felt safer, better, when he was inside Donovan and Moore’s spacious house at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac.
Outside, there is armed security at all times. Donovan liked to joke he hired the guards because of the lawsuits against his company but kept them for the teenagers.
Donovan allowed a reporter to spend two afternoons with Zach in Virginia and two in Florida. At no time was Zach allowed to speak without the presence of Nexus officials.
At Donovan’s home, a Nexus spokesman followed Zach upstairs to the game room. At Nexus headquarters, a company official hovered over Zach’s shoulder, telling him what to say as he spoke on the phone. In Florida, where Zach revisited the parks he used to skate in, an armed security guard, Donovan and five other Nexus officials came to watch. Later, Donovan acknowledged that his employees were recording and photographing interactions between Zach and the journalist.
Besides occasionally turning to ask if he was allowed to answer a question, Zach paid little attention to his entourage of handlers.
He expressed nothing but appreciation for Donovan and Moore, who provided him with his own bedroom, gave him keys to a Ford Expedition after he earned his driver’s license and paid to fly him to Florida any time Nik had a hearing. The couple talked about officially adopting Zach, even though he was now an adult.
“They literally saved me. If I didn’t meet Mike and Richard, I don’t know what would have happened,” Zach said. “They feel like parents to me. . . . If I left, I wouldn’t find that anywhere else.”
Rather than performing the promised maintenance job, Zach began accompanying Donovan and Moore on business trips across the country. Then he was given an office to run his own extension of the Nexus brand: an anti-bullying organization — inspired by Nik — called “We Isolate No-one,” or WIN. Its core was a 24-hour hotline students could call to report bullying. The hotline would be answered by Nexus employees at one of the company’s existing call centers. Nexus would then inform the caller’s school of the issue. If the problem was not resolved, Nexus would pursue legal action against the school.
In June, Nexus organized a news conference to announce WIN’s launch. Zach found himself in a suit again, standing at a lectern in the National Press Club in Washington reading a prepared speech about how WIN would one day have chapters in high schools and middle schools throughout the country.
“I cannot stand here today to defend my brother or make excuses for him,” Zach told a room full of reporters. “However, I can say very clearly today that our schools all across the country have ticking time bombs in them . . . ”
“Every day and every night I think to myself about how this could have been prevented,” he said. “And it haunts me.”
When the reporters were gone, and his suit jacket was off, when he was alone in his bedroom at night, Zach stayed awake rewatching cellphone and security footage of the shooting.
“Falling asleep is the hardest part for me,” he said.
“Every day and every night I think to myself about how this could have been prevented. And it haunts me.”— Zach Cruz
He sometimes came up with song lyrics to describe his feelings. His childhood dream of becoming a pro skater had been replaced with a vague notion that he wanted to work in the music industry. He wanted to get his high school degree first. But he hadn’t signed up for any classes.
When he wasn’t at home in the game room or on a Nexus business trip, he spent time at the company headquarters, where the employees all knew him by name. He reviewed reports from the WIN hotline. In the first six months, there were 414 callers. Some people sounded truly desperate for help. Others seemed to be calling only because they wanted to talk to Zach.
The corners of the Internet that had long attracted people obsessed with Columbine and other mass shootings had spawned the “Cruzers,” who were fascinated by Nik, and by extension, Zach. They drew fan art of the brothers, discussed their childhood photos and alerted each other whenever Zach posted something new on his Instagram page. Zach said he ignores them, and the messages they send him.
In September, when the Miami Herald published a story identifying Zach and Nik’s biological mother for the first time, he tried to ignore that, too. Donovan and Moore told him about 62-year-old Brenda Woodard, who has been arrested 28 times for drug use and violent outbursts, the story said, including beating a partner with a tire iron. Zach refused to read it.
“I don’t look at that lady as my mom,” he said. “My mom was my adopted mom. It doesn’t change anything.”
He was interested only in what was going to happen to Nik, which was why he returned to Broward County for every procedural hearing. On the day of Nik’s January hearing, Zach tried to listen for phrases he could understand. The attorneys were sparring with each other, arguing over which side was at fault for the lack of a trial date nearly a year after 17 people were gunned down.
“I understand that the state of Florida believes that the guilt phase is rather straightforward and simple,” Nik’s public defender Melisa McNeill said. “But the moment that they file notice of intent to seek the death penalty and kill Mr. Cruz, it becomes an entirely different case.”
She reminded the court that in exchange for a life sentence, Nik would plead guilty.
“I have to protect my client’s rights,” she said. Watching her, Zach got the feeling she truly wanted to spare Nik’s life. Eventually, she would have to convince only one juror that he didn’t deserve the death penalty.
But after Zach left the courtroom, passing by the people whose lives, like his, had been forever changed by Nik’s actions, he felt like he knew what was coming for his brother: “He doesn’t have much time left on this earth.”
You excited to see him, Zach?” Donovan asked as they hurried up the steps of the jail.
“Yeah,” Zach said, even though he didn’t think what they were about to do really counted as seeing his brother.
They checked their phones into the lockers near the door and again emptied their pockets for security. A deputy escorted them up the stairs and into a room filled with rows of computer screens. Zach said later that he sat at one in the back corner. He picked up the phone beside it.
The screen turned on. His brother was waiting to talk to him.
Nik never made eye contact with him in court the day before, and now, because of the angle of the camera set up in Nik’s cell, Zach could only really see the top of Nik’s head.
“How’s it going?” Zach said, and then he had one hour to be there for his brother before the screen would shut off again.
He learned that because Nik was accused of assaulting a jail officer, he was now in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, a punishment that left him even more bored than before. He said he had been sticking his head in the water for fun.
“Like, in the toilet?” Zach remembered saying.
“No,” Nik answered. “The sink.”
They talked about the government shutdown, and how cold it was getting in Virginia. Nik said it was always cold in the jail.
“How’s Kobe?” Nik asked, and as Zach started to explain that he was doing good, Nik asked again about Maisey, the dog that had to be put down.
They had already talked about it. Zach said he reminded his brother that Maisey’s legs had stopped working. It was her time. Nik seemed fixated.
“But why did you do it?” he asked.
Zach repeated himself.
“Why did you do it?” Nik said again.
“Can we just — ” Zach stammered. “Can we just not talk about death right now?”
Nik dropped it. Zach tried to think of something else to talk about. He wasn’t sure how much time they had left.
“In case it shuts off, I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too,” Nik said, and then almost right away, the screen went black.
Julie Tate and Mark Berman contributed to this story.