He killed squirrels with a pellet gun. He stole neighbors’ mail. He tried to get his dog to attack and bloody the pet piglets being raised in the house across the street. He picked fights with other kids constantly, biting one kid’s ear. He threw rocks and coconuts, vandalized property. He lurked at late hours along drainage ditches that run alongside the back yards of every house on this block. One neighbor caught him peeking into her bedroom window.
Residents said they called police constantly. Every other week, it seemed, police cruisers would pull up to the house to sort out the latest complaint.
“Just about everybody on this part of the street had a run-in with him. He was always getting into trouble, that kid,” said longtime neighbor Malcolm Roxburgh. “He was not right in the head.”
Things only seemed to get worse, recently. Over the past year, he was expelled from school for disciplinary problems. Many of his acquaintances had cut ties in part because of his unnerving Instagram posts. His mother, among the only people with whom he was close, died around Thanksgiving. He was living at a friend’s house. He was showing signs of depression.
And Cruz, 19, had a fascination with guns. He owned an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
Although school officials, students and others who knew him were aware that something was off with Cruz, it is unclear whether 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 to describe 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 been booked on 17 counts of premeditated murder.
“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 going to 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 one another and go home. Still looking dazed, the young man also spoke with the benefit of hindsight.
Brody Speno, 19, grew up with Cruz and attended Riverglades Elementary and Westglades Middle School alongside him. When Cruz was in third or fourth grade, Speno remembers watching him try his best to use a pellet gun to kill a squirrel. His affinity at killing animals grew. Speno said he was seen shooting at chickens owned by a resident.
Cruz owned at least two dogs, but neighbors said he trained them to be weapons. Several said Cruz would take his dog to the house across the street where another neighbor raised a pet potbelly pigs, and Cruz would try to get the dog attack and kill the little piglets. Another neighbor recalls watching Cruz trying to kill a squirrel and feed it to his dog. A fourth neighbor recalled Cruz taking a stick to rabbit burroughs, trying to ram it down as hard as he could to kill any bunnies inside.
“People were afraid of him,” Speno said, who watched over the years as Cruz become increasingly bizarre, withdrawn and hostile. “We waited for the bus every day together at a bus stop.”
Math teacher Jim Gard, who taught Cruz at Stoneman Douglas last year before he was expelled, 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.”
Broward County Mayor Beam Furr told CNN that Cruz had been receiving treatment at a mental health clinic for a while, but that he had not been 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 they had left, according to family members 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.”
One boy was quiet and seemed to stay out of trouble, but Nikolas kept having 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.”
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 whether he could move in with him. Cruz’s friend and his friend’s parents agreed and opened 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, such as 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,” such as 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 GED program, Lewis said.
When he moved in with his friend’s family, Cruz already owned the AR-15 rifle, Lewis said, noting 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.
Authorities confirmed that Cruz bought the AR-15 himself, and 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, Forcelli said. Investigators also are contacting gun shops across the region to find out whether Cruz had tried to buy other weapons.
Mackenzie Hill, a 17-year-old junior at Stoneman Douglas, told The Post that she has known Cruz since middle school, and that he was always getting into 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 body. Most of the photos were posted in July.
The day before the shooting, Cruz had gone to work at the dollar store, Lewis said. On most days, the father of the family with whom he was staying 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 arrested Cruz not far from the house where he lived Wednesday afternoon, after a manhunt that transfixed the region and spread panic through many nearby schools.
Michael Nembhard, a retiree who lives in Coral Springs, said he saw police arrest Cruz just outside his house near 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 the 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 thinks Cruz had been on foot when he was arrested. At first, Nembhard saw only the one 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 put him into an ambulance.
David Weingrad reported from Long Island, N.Y.; Kevin Sullivan, in Parkland, Fla.; and Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Samantha Schmidt and Fred Barbash in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.