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To neighbor, school shooter Nikolas Cruz was lonely, volatile, ostracized

Suspected school shooter Nikolas Cruz makes a video appearance in Broward County court before Judge Kim Theresa Mollica on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Cruz is facing 17 charges of premeditated murder in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
February 18, 2018

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is the jewel of Parkland, graduating top-notch students and athletes who grow up in a dignified affluence far removed from the gritty urban sprawl of Miami.

Many live in vast gated communities enveloped by horse pastures and pristine nature trails. Rated among the best high schools in Florida, Stoneman Douglas has won five national math championships, has the state’s top marching band and boasts science and engineering programs where students fly weather balloons and drones.

But Nikolas Cruz never felt a part of this warm nest of promise and achievement. The warning signs of a simmering danger brought on by his mental illness were documented by his school, his fellow students, his family, the police, child welfare agencies, the FBI and even by his own hand, on social media.

Cruz’s Valentine’s Day rampage at Stoneman Douglas that ended 17 lives came after months and years of violent, erratic outbursts that often frightened fellow students and others who came in contact with him, records show.

To Cruz, the campus’ sun-splashed courtyards were a dark place where he was mocked and ridiculed for his odd behavior, according to interviews with close family friends, students and recently released police and mental health reports.

“Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,” said student Manolo Alvarez, 17, who had history class with Cruz. “I regret definitely not saying anything.”

Cruz, 19, is charged with entering the school near dismissal time, armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He then strolled through the halls, firing into classrooms. Fifteen students and two staffers were killed, and more than a dozen others were injured.

On Saturday, Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz described the crime as “the type of case the death penalty was designed for.”

Yet there have been reams of reports, replete with one red flag after another, detailing Cruz’s violent descent, events that were mostly dismissed, downplayed or filed away by many of those in society entrusted with recognizing the potential danger that he posed to his family and to his community.

Cruz — at 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds — was scrawny, and rarely, if ever, felt comfortable with other kids, either in his Parkland neighborhood or at Stoneman Douglas, according to Paul Gold, who lived next door to the Cruz family and remained in touch with Nikolas up until his mother’s funeral in November.

Cruz had been diagnosed with the neurological disorder autism. Michael Alessandri, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Miami, cautioned that Cruz’s diagnosis of autism should not be viewed as a cause of his attack at Stoneman Douglas High.

“It is a social communication disorder, not a violent disorder,” Alessandri said.

“He was ostracized his whole life,” said Gold, who said he was one of only four people, including Nikolas, and his younger brother, Zachary, who attended the funeral of his mother, Lynda Cruz, in November.

Nikolas was treated for depression and attention deficit disorder, and his mother found it increasingly difficult to control his behavior from the time he was an adolescent, despite periodic interventions by mental health counselors and law enforcement authorities, records show.

“His mother made a major push to have him lead a normal life,” said Gold, “But toward the end of her life, she really had given up.”

BSO deputies were summoned to their Parkland home more than 30 times in the past seven years, records show. The complaints ranged from petty domestic disputes to a time Nikolas threw a vacuum cleaner at his mom.

Gold said Lynda Cruz was strict with her sons, and was not averse to strike them when they misbehaved. At least one time, DCF investigated her for possibly abusing the boys and inadequately supervising them. The case was closed. Nikolas was getting treatment at Henderson Mental Health, the DCF report said. Still, they concluded he was not enough of a threat to be hospitalized or committed to a facility.

Nikolas was about 11 when Gold and his girlfriend, Rocxanne Deschamps, moved next door to them in Parkland. Nikolas’ father Roger — everyone called him “Ray” — was a self-employed advertising salesman who died of a heart attack in 2004 when Nikolas was 5, county records show.

Roger Cruz bought the five-bedroom, three-bath home in Pine Tree estates for $94,000 in 1996. By the time he died, he left a $1 million estate, including the house, which by then was worth more than $570,000, county records show.

He and his wife met when they were married to other people, then married later in life after divorces. Gold said he wasn’t sure when the boys were adopted, but they didn’t learn they were adopted until they were in their teens.

“The family had money. Lynda even had his life insurance money — but she was very, very frugal,” Gold said. Lynda Cruz stayed home with the boys, and sometimes watched Gold’s daughter, who was friends with the boys.

Gold said he recognized right away that Nikolas needed psychological help.

“He would bang his head with his hands, and often lose control over minor things, like loud sounds,” Gold recalled.

He once smashed some golf clubs into one of Gold’s vehicles. He struggled to make friends.

Gold recalled seeing Cruz as a kid attempt to join other kids riding their bicycles in the neighborhood, but the kids brushed him off and called him names.

He would come home from school angry or depressed. “He would come over after school and was visibly upset about being teased, but he pretended that he really didn’t care,” Gold said.

“Despite his mother’s attention, he just felt horribly unloved, and felt he had no one to turn to,’’ Gold said.

Gold and Deschamps tried to help their mother, who was in her 60s and in poor health.

Nikolas’ school life was particularly difficult to watch, Gold said.

Alvarez, 17, said he remembers Cruz being teased in 10th grade. By then, Cruz was getting attention from students for his bizarre social media postings. In some of them, he posted pictures of himself with knives and guns. In others, he showed animals, such as frogs, that he claimed to have butchered.

Other kids at the school would mock Cruz for being a loner.

The district did not release his disciplinary records or whether the district investigated the bullying. But Superintendent Robert Runcie said he was not aware of any reports about Cruz being harassed.

In August 2016, DCF records show, Cruz had just broken up with his girlfriend, and got into a fight with another boy. Several students told Buzzfeed News that they reported him to school security and other administrators after he threatened them during a profane exchange over the ex-girlfriend.

Around that time, Cruz drew a Nazi symbol on his book bag and was using hate language. Records show that Broward mental health authorities were worried that his chronic depression was worsening.

Runcie said contrary to media reports, Cruz wasn’t expelled, but rather he was transferred to a school for students with behavioral issues.

“Clearly the student had mental and behavioral issues and we have services we provide in schools when they don’t fit into a normal school environment,” he said.

Gold said that Cruz escaped his misery by playing video games for eight, 12, even 15 hours a day. Gold, who owns a film and video production company, sometimes would play a game or two with them.

“It was kill, kill, kill, blow up something, and kill some more, all day,” he said.

Last November, someone with his name posted a threat on YouTube that was reported to the FBI. In it, he claimed he wanted to be a school shooter. The FBI admitted on Friday it had failed to follow up on that tip, and another in January that went into even greater detail about his threats and the possibility that he had acquired a number of weapons.

In spite of the police reports and his mental health history, Cruz was able to pass a background check and buy the rifle in February 2017. In Florida, absent a felony or domestic abuse conviction, almost any adult can walk into a gun store and walk out the same day with an AR-15 rifle and a cache of ammunition after clearing a simple background check.

Cruz also managed to legally purchase at least five other guns in the past year, said a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation. They were recovered from the home where he was living with a friend’s family after the shootings.

After Gold and Deschamps split up and went their separate ways a few years ago, Nikolas stayed in touch with Gold. His mother remained best friends with Deschamps, who took Nikolas and his brother into her home after their mother died.

But Nikolas left that locale a few weeks later, after a dispute over him having a gun. Gold said Nikolas moved with his gun to live with the family of a friend near Pompano Beach. They required him to keep the gun in a locked cabinet, said their lawyer, Jim Lewis.

“When we first had the opportunity to see those records, we were pretty stunned to learn of all the alarms that were being rung with this child,’’ said Chief Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes. “The system totally failed him, and it failed the community, as well.”

Gold said he believes a host of factors contributed to Nikolas’ instability: his mental illness, the bullying, an obsession with violent video games, his mother dying, no safety net.

“None of this is an excuse for the horrible, horrible thing that he did,’’ Gold said. “None of it — but if you wanted to create a kid who was a serial killer, this is how you would do it.’’

Lynda Cruz came down with the flu last year and refused to get medical treatment, Gold said. “She was so frugal, she didn’t want to spend the money, she wanted to save everything for the boys,’’ Gold said.

By then she had sold the house and moved into an apartment. When she died, Nikolas called Gold and asked him if he would drive him to the funeral. The only attendees, Gold said, were Nikolas, his brother, Gold and Deschamps.

“He was very strange at the funeral,’’ Gold said. “He was emotionless. He was polite and grateful but he didn’t shed a tear. His mother was the most important person in his life, but that boy did not feel the way that normal people feel.”

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© 2018 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.