Zachary Cruz: “I told him: ‘If you are going to shoot me, shoot me.’ ”
Zachary Cruz wasn't present at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when his older brother went on a murderous Valentine's Day rampage, killing 17 students and educators with an AR-15 semiautomatic.
But Zachary knows what it's like to face an armed and menacing Nikolas Cruz.
It happened a few months earlier, when their mother brought home the groceries. Nikolas snatched a jar of Nutella, unscrewed the lid, scooped out the gooey contents with his unwashed hand then licked his sticky fingers. Then he dipped into the jar again. Appalled at Nikolas' manners, Zachary pushed or slapped the jar out of his hands.
Nikolas charged upstairs, grabbed a long gun out of his bedroom closet, descended the stairway, sat down, loaded the firearm and pointed it at his brother in front of their horrified mom, according to Zachary.
"If you're gonna shoot me, shoot me!" Zachary shouted.
The rage receded. Nikolas bounded back upstairs, stashed the gun and sat down to watch a little TV.
"After that day," said Zachary, "I never messed with him again."
No one knows 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz as well as his brother Zachary, one year his junior but more physically imposing. He sat with the Miami Herald for an interview that lasted three hours, providing the most complete portrait yet of the young man who carried out Florida's cruelest and bloodiest school shooting.
Speaking haltingly, sometimes barely audibly, he described Nikolas as chronically depressed, isolated from peers because of his autism, prone to livid outbursts and beguiled by firearms and violence.
Despite the difficulties he would have posed to a parent, Nikolas had the much closer relationship with their mother, Lynda, Zachary said.
His supposed favored-son status did not prevent Nikolas from threatening their mom.
He recalled one blistering episode. "Nik got his AR-15 and put it to my mom's head," Zachary said of the September incident. "He was yelling at her because she wouldn't take him to a cabin."
"He yelled at her and said, 'I'm gonna blow your [expletive] brains out!' " Lynda Cruz jumped in her car and fled.
Nikolas followed her outside with his weapon. Zachary peered down from his second-floor bedroom window.
"He was in the middle of the driveway, in the middle of the street with his AR-15," Zachary said. "I had 911 ready to go on my phone. I was scared. I think he just came up and he put his gun away and I hung up."
After that, it was like the confrontation never happened. His mother, though no gun enthusiast, had come to fear confronting her well-armed son.
Portions of Nikolas' psychiatric file, obtained by the Miami Herald in March, portray a young man who exhibited frequent and extreme mood swings. His attitude would brighten for weeks at a time, then darken into anger and paranoia.
Zachary can attest to that: "He was mentally ill, and in hindsight, his actions were a cry for help."
Nikolas would punch holes in walls, engage in frequent fistfights and once brought bullets to school in a backpack. He also guzzled his mom's wine.
Once, Nikolas told a therapist he had a dream of being drenched in human blood. After relating that tale, Nikolas "smiled and told the therapist that sometimes he says things for shock value,” according to the May 3, 2014, notation.
In fact, Nikolas was a self-cutter who commonly drew his own blood, Zachary said.
One day, Zachary said, he walked by the bathroom and saw his big brother with his wrists dripping blood, earphones on his head, "rubbing his hands on his white shirt."
"He was listening to music really loud," Zachary said. "He said something about demons. I hate saying it but I shrugged it off.
" 'I don’t know how to make friends. People don’t like me,’ Nik would tell me. And the truth is, nobody wanted to be near him or around him. They thought he was weird.”
Nikolas wore tattered clothes and was smaller than most kids his age. He swung around a lunch box — one of the only kids with a lunch box as opposed to a paper bag.
"He just stood out, him in his baggy clothes and undone shoelaces," Zachary said of Nikolas, who had attended Stoneman Douglas, a haven for high achievers, for a while but had been transferred to another school.
“My heart still feels heavy because of all of it,” Zachary said. “I should have stepped up. He had nobody.”
Zachary said his brother liked to kill lizards and then photograph their corpses next to his pellet gun. He also liked to kill squirrels and birds.
"He would kill the squirrel and preserve its tail. Like when a hunter kills a deer and hangs its head on the wall. He had a whole collection of squirrels' tails," Zachary said.
His mom and brother weren't the only ones to let Nikolas' aberrant behavior slide.
Again and again, authorities were warned about the teen’s explosive tendencies and lack of impulse control. Again and again, they ignored the warnings.
As reported immediately after the massacre, the FBI failed to act on two tips about Cruz, one involving an online post in which Nikolas said he planned to become a “professional school shooter.” The Broward Sheriff’s Office was also warned about the teen, and had received a report that he “planned to shoot up the school.”
Zachary said he feared doing anything to push Nikolas over the edge. “I was afraid to get him mad. I slept in the room next to him and I can’t lock my door," he said. "I was always afraid he’d snap.”
And then he did.
He arrived at Stoneman Douglas at 2:19 in an Uber on the afternoon of Feb. 14, strode into the freshman building carrying a black bag containing his gun and multiple clips, then roamed the halls and stairwells, shooting students randomly.
The toll was staggering: 17 dead, 14 of them students, and 17 wounded. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Before and since, Zachary's coping mechanism has always been the same: skateboarding. He was as partial to skateboards as Nikolas was to his arsenal of lethal weapons.
“My mom always said it, we’re two different people. One skates; the other one stays inside, plays games and likes guns.”
After past school rampages, the burden has fallen on baffled parents and surviving siblings to explain the inexplicable, endure cold stares at the grocery store and serve as a focus of a community's grief and resentment.
But Zachary Cruz, adopted as an infant by parents who have both died, is alone.
Birth Mom Behind Bars
He and Nikolas have the same mother but different fathers. Their mother was incarcerated when she gave birth, Zachary said.
They were adopted by Roger Cruz, who worked in advertising, and Lynda Cruz, a stay-at-home mom, and lived mostly in the leafy Northwest Broward municipality of Parkland. Roger Cruz died of a heart attack in 2004. His widow died last November, a death that devastated the already volatile Nikolas, according to Zachary.
The funeral was sparsely attended, further upsetting Nikolas.
"I could tell it bothered Nik and it made us feel like we had no one in this world," Zachary said.
A conversation the brothers had a month or two before Lynda's death haunts Zachary.
The two had spent the evening at the community pool. As they walked home, Zachary asked Nikolas about their sick and aging mother.
"What would you do if mom died?"
"I would just kill people," Nikolas responded, nonchalantly.
Zachary changed the topic.
After the loss of their mom, Nikolas and Zachary moved in with Rocxanne Deschamps, a former Parkland neighbor who lives in a Lantana trailer park. Zachary says they were virtual strangers.
According to Deschamps, the Nikolas she previously knew was troubled but sweet — sometimes chivalrously opening doors for others, yet sometimes flying off the handle without warning.
But as he got older, Nikolas' behavior became increasingly bizarre, almost as if "possessed," she said.
"He lost it. He went through a phase. He got crazy. Got weird, cold, distant; his face got mean," Deschamps said. "Someone took over."
Close to Christmastime, shortly after Lynda Cruz's death from respiratory disease, Nikolas began to act out in new ways, Deschamps said.
"He began making demon noises through the night. It lasted a few days," she said.
What sounded like a dark, screeching, squealing horse echoed through the trailer home.
"Me and my mom were so afraid that we slept together, blocked the door with the dresser, machete in hand," she said. "His fascination with demons continued to grow."
Deschamps kicked Nikolas out.
Zachary stayed in the trailer home but wasn't happy. He and Deschamps squabbled over his late mother's brown Kia.
It was Deschamps who showed up at the Coral Springs skate park on the day of the massacre to explain what Nikolas had done.
Or rather, she showed him on her phone.
On the glowing screen was the news of the Stoneman Douglas attack — and his brother's arrest.
“My whole mind just flipped and did spins,” Zachary recalled. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. I felt like I was going to black out.”
That night, after talking to the FBI, Zachary was allowed to speak with his brother.
“He was crying as I was talking to him,” Zachary said. "I was yelling at him and told him everything he was gonna miss out on."
He ticked off those things: their dogs, a young Kobe and 15-year-old Mazie. Getting married. Having children. Brotherhood.
Zachary asked him why — why did he do it?
Nikolas uttered something about his "demons."
After a horrific event like the Stoneman Douglas massacre, another brother might have maintained the lowest of profiles. Zachary, who has had his own brushes with the law over the years, has not managed to do that.
His erratic behavior has gotten him into trouble — repeatedly.
In a decision that stunned the Stoneman Douglas community, he showed up on his skateboard on the locked campus, after hours. He was arrested for trespassing. Bond was set at a whopping $500,000.
"I regret making people feel scared because that wasn't my intention," Zachary said. "I had to go. I had to see it for myself. I was trying to make sense of it all."
The hairs on his arms stood on end as he toured the murder site. The imagery became vivid.
Blood and bullets. Dead classmates. Grieving parents. His heart raced.
"I kept picturing myself stopping him. That’s all I keep thinking about," he said, clutching his brother's first work badge from the Dollar Tree. "That's why I went. It haunts me."
After the trespassing arrest, the unlicensed Zachary twice took his mother's car for a ride to the skatepark in defiance of Deschamps. After the second instance, Deschamps called the police, describing him as the brother of the Parkland shooter.
As part of his release on the trespassing charge, Zachary was barred from coming within a mile of Stoneman Douglas.
His actions have since gotten him death threats on social media. He's also been denied service at a barbershop and has been followed in parking lots. Prosecutors have accused him of gushing about his brother's popularity during a jailhouse visit, something Zachary calls "a flat-out lie."
"I was trying to make him understand that what he did was a big deal, that it’s serious. I tried to make him understand that it goes beyond Parkland, the news was all over the world, just like Osama bin Laden,” Zachary told the Herald. "There's nothing to admire about what he did. Tell that prosecutor to release those conversations. I have no problem with that."
Earlier this month, a Virginia-based nonprofit group, Nexus Derechos Humanos, convinced a judge to let him move to that state under the group's supervision.
"There are still many Nikolas Cruzes out there. Either we're going to learn from this or continue to fail future Niks," said Nexus CEO Mike Donovan. "You just don't get there by blaming the mass murderer's brother."
Zachary was offered a $13-an-hour job and a place to live. He hopes to earn a high school diploma online and launch a nonprofit that would "fight to end bullying."
"I saw the effects of it. And I feel like I was a bully too,” he said. "I have a new purpose."
He left town almost immediately after talking to the Miami Herald, an interview observed by a representative of the nonprofit.
Throughout the interview at a hotel near West Palm Beach, as he described all that has happened, an exhausted and depleted Zachary displayed a wry, incongruous smile, more of a mask or a tic than a show of his feelings.
He said he is distraught over what his brother did. And he desperately wants people to know he is not his brother.
He feels guilt that he didn't embrace Nikolas when his brother felt isolated. One memory sticks with him. During middle school, Nikolas and the other special needs students would be required to enter the school bus first and be harnessed into their seats.
It made him different.
Kids being kids, there could occasionally be hurtful comments as the others filed aboard the bus. Zachary realizes that nothing excuses the horror that Nikolas unleashed. Still, he wishes he had stood up for Nikolas.
He wishes that Feb. 14 had never happened, that none of the students or teachers had been ripped from their loved ones, that he couldn't have been there that day to talk Nikolas out of his rampage.
He wishes that Nikolas could have been happy and well-adjusted, that his brother hadn't been allowed to indulge his obsession with guns. And, failing all else, that someone, anyone could have shielded Nikolas and the devastated Parkland community from his brother's "demons."
“A lot of people failed him,” Zachary said. “Including me.”
Monique O. Madan, @MoniqueOMadan, 305-376-2108