Dressed in a slim gray suit, Zachary Cruz took the stand in a Florida courtroom last week to ask for a second chance.
A few weeks after his brother, Nikolas Cruz, allegedly killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Zachary Cruz had been arrested for trespassing at the same school. Then the 18-year-old was arrested again this month for violating probation.
On Friday, Cruz asked a Broward County judge to transfer his probation case to Virginia, where a company had offered the teen free housing, a job and a fresh start.
It “seems to be a wonderful opportunity,” Judge Melinda Brown said to him. “I’m not going to stop you. I’m going to send you to Virginia.”
After the hearing, a smiling Cruz stood next to the company’s chief executive, Mike Donovan, and told a throng of reporters,“I’m looking forward to starting a new life there.”
Unmentioned during the hour-long hearing, however, was that the company sponsoring Cruz has been accused of preying on undocumented immigrants and is under investigation by a federal agency and three states for its business practices.
Libre by Nexus — an immigration bond services company — and its parent company Nexus Services are the subjects of probes by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well as attorneys general in Virginia, New York and Washington state.
Reached by The Washington Post, neither prosecutors nor Cruz’s attorney said they were aware that Nexus is under investigation. Both said the investigations could have had an impact on the hearing.
“Might I have mentioned it? Maybe,” said Broward prosecutor Sarahnell Murphy, who did raise questions during the hearing about the company and Cruz’s new living arrangement. “This move is not without trepidation on my part.”
“I think it might have made the court a little more curious about the company,” said Cruz’s attorney, Mark Lowry.
The judge declined to comment.
Nexus said it got involved in the case not to seek publicity but to help Cruz.
Donovan, the company said in a statement, “has funded and supported hundreds of human-rights cases. We would be delighted if the media would cover them all, since shining the light on injustice is often the best way to end it.”
Libre by Nexus helps post bond for people being held in immigration detention centers while they wait for their cases to be heard in backlogged courts. In exchange for their freedom, immigrants sign contracts promising to pay Libre about $420 per month while wearing the company’s GPS ankle devices.
The contracts have been the subject of lawsuits and allegations of fraud by immigrants who say they did not understand them. Libre by Nexus has vigorously denied wrongdoing, saying its contracts are transparent and preferable to people remaining behind bars.
Over the past year, as inquiries into the company have gained steam, Nexus and Donovan have increasingly inserted themselves into high-profile news events around the country.
In August, the company’s legal-aid branch, Nexus Caridades, filed a federal lawsuit against a Tennessee judge who offered defendants shorter jail sentences if they were sterilized. The judge was “playing God,” Donovan said at a news conference in Nashville.
Then Nexus Caridades sued Charlottesville and its police chief for failing to prevent violent clashes between white supremacist protesters and counterprotesters.
“What happened in the city should not happen in a modern American city,” Donovan said on Sept. 1, standing at a Nexus podium in front of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The proposed removal of the statue had sparked a “Unite the Right” rally that led to the violence.
Last month, Nexus attorneys sued Virginia Tech on behalf of Yunsong Zhao, a 19-year-old student from China arrested in January on weapons charges. Local media reported that Zhao had an assault rifle and tried to purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition. Nexus attorneys said the school violated his constitutional rights.
The company said Donovan, who has a criminal record for writing bad checks, wanted to help Cruz because no one was there to help him when he was in trouble.
Lowry said he was contacted by Donovan early on May 2 and hired to represent Cruz, who had already pleaded no contest to misdemeanor trespassing at Stoneman Douglas — where he said he had come to “reflect” on what his brother had done — but then had violated his probation by driving without a license.
The next day, Donovan held a news conference in Florida to announce a federal lawsuit against Broward officials. He accused jailers of “torturing” Cruz using “sleep-deprivation tactics we wouldn’t tolerate on the battlefield.”
The lawsuit also targeted a judge who gave Cruz a $500,000 bond, which Nexus called “clearly excessive.”
In a motion filed Thursday, Lowry asked Brown, the judge, to let Cruz move to Staunton, Va., 100 miles west of Richmond, where Nexus had a house and a $13-an-hour handyman position waiting for him.
“Mr. Cruz thus has an incredible opportunity to restart his young life in a fresh location where the stigma of his brother’s alleged actions will not isolate him from the world,” Lowry wrote in his motion.
During Friday’s hearing, Terry Ann Johnson, a Nexus official, said she would personally ensure that Cruz goes to work, attends therapy and checks in with his probation officer.
“He has to report to me every day,” she testified. “I’ll probably see him every day.”
“I’m holding you responsible,” Brown told her.
Murphy said she was assured that Johnson — not Donovan — would be in charge of Cruz’s second chance.
Although she said the ongoing investigations into Nexus were of concern, she said they probably wouldn’t have precluded the company from sponsoring Cruz.
“The situation was that either this individual would be homeless in Broward County, which makes monitoring him next to impossible, or he would go with this woman who, although employed by this company, has no criminal background,” she said. “There you go. Those are the choices.”
Lowry also said he thought Virginia was the best option. He said he thought Nexus was “trying to do the right thing and not just out for personal gain.”
On Sunday, Donovan drove Cruz to a pet hotel to pick up his two dogs before driving to Virginia. Television cameras were waiting for them.
“I think getting him to a new place where he can come out of the shadow of his brother’s heinous acts and get an opportunity for a fresh start is really important,” Donovan said while wearing a Nexus shirt.
“We’re excited to get him home.”