When James and Kimberly Snead took in Nikolas Cruz late last year, he was a socially awkward teenager lost in the world, depressed by the death of his beloved mother.
But to the Sneads, Cruz appeared to be progressing.
The young man who had been friendly with their son regularly attended adult-education classes, bicycled to his job as a cashier and watched TV shows with the family. Cruz hoped to become an infantry soldier. With the Sneads’ help, the emotionally troubled 19-year-old planned to resume mental-health therapy begun years earlier.
“Things were looking up,” James Snead told the Miami Herald on Sunday. “Just two weeks ago, he said it was the happiest he’d ever been.”
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That is why Cruz’s horrific rampage last week — gunning down 17 people and wounding 15 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland — came as a stunning blow for a family who wanted nothing but to help a wayward young man.
And the troubling details of Cruz’s past — the visits by police to his old home, the menacing social media posts, the tip to the FBI about his threats that went uninvestigated — were equally as surprising, the Sneads say.
“Everything that everybody now knows about him, we didn’t know,” said Snead, 48, a construction consultant and former U.S. Army soldier.
James Snead shared this story with the Miami Herald, four days after Cruz was captured and arrested for murder and attempted murder in the worst school shooting in Florida history. Cruz’s defense lawyers have already said that he will admit guilt in hopes of avoiding the death penalty.
Since the shooting, the Sneads have faced the glare of law enforcement and media around the world. They first shared the story with the Sun Sentinel.
“What else could this family have done to help put this young man on the right track?” said the family’s attorney, Jim Lewis. “Please don’t blame them for doing the right thing. They’re victims, too.”
Cruz was friends with their teenage son. The two knew each other from the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Douglas High, and had even gone hunting with James Snead last year.
Cruz and his younger brother were adopted as children by Lynda and Roger Cruz. He died over a decade ago. Lynda Cruz struggled with her older son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder. He became known for his erratic behavior around their Parkland neighborhood and his regular outbursts at Douglas High.
In September 2016, Florida’s child welfare agency investigated Cruz’s well-being after the abuse hotline received a complaint that he was cutting himself and planned to buy a gun. The case was closed after investigators determined that he was receiving proper care.
But the following year, on Nov. 1, Lynda Cruz died. The Sneads’ son soon asked his parents whether Cruz could move in with the family at their Pompano Beach home. The couple, who raised three boys, felt the need to help, especially because of the death of Cruz’s mother.
“It really affected him. His mother was everything for him and took care of him. That was his rock. He was very depressed,” Snead said, adding that the woman “kept him sheltered.”
He said: “He was a lost child. He needed guidance.”
At the family’s home, the Sneads gave him his own room and insisted he work and go to school. He got the cashiering job at a nearby Dollar Tree. Around the house, Cruz appeared mostly docile. Snead usually took him to school. He regularly watched shows and ate dinner with the family. He usually went to sleep early.
Cruz had five or six guns, including the legally purchased AR-15 that was later used in the massacre. But Snead — a longtime gun owner — insisted the weapons be locked in a cabinet.
Snead said that Cruz asked to get them only twice. Once, he said no. Another time, about four weeks ago, he allowed Cruz to clean one of the firearms for about 15 minutes.
“I thought I had the only key,” Snead said.
The morning of the shooting, Snead’s son told his father that Cruz wasn’t going to school. “It’s Valentine’s Day. I don’t go to school on Valentine’s Day,” Cruz said.
Snead didn’t think much of it. It was not until later that afternoon that his son called him to tell them he was OK — and there had been a shooting and he had escaped the campus.
As Snead drove to the Walmart next to the school to pick up his son, a Broward Sheriff’s deputy called asking about Cruz, whom he mistakenly believed was his son. He had no idea where Cruz was.
It was soon after that the dreadful realization dawned on him. Cruz was responsible. He immediately called the deputy back, asking that officers rush to the house because he thought the shooter might be home with Kimberly Snead.
The couple was taken to BSO headquarters for questioning, While in the lobby, they briefly saw Cruz being led into the station.
“He looked lost,” Snead said.