Brian Halem was supposed to go shooting last Saturday with his new friend from work, Nikolas Cruz.
Halem, 19, a Florida Atlantic University freshman, asked for Cruz’s number so they could coordinate their trip to the range at Gun World of South Florida in Deerfield Beach. “Save it as, ‘Crazy Nick,’” Cruz joked.
Their outing never happened. And Cruz’s joke now seems ominous.
The day after they made their plan, Cruz went on a murderous rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Now, he’s sitting in Broward County Jail on 17 counts of premeditated murder.
It’s something that Halem and Cruz’s other co-workers at the Dollar Tree in Parkland never saw coming. Several spoke to the Miami Herald nearly one week after the massacre.
They remember Cruz as a quiet and helpful colleague — a far different portrait from the one painted by classmates, neighbors and teachers who were so concerned by his erratic and violent behavior and obession with guns.
“He was always happy, he was always smiling,” said April Woods, who last worked with Cruz on Tuesday, the day before the Stoneman Douglas shooting.
Woods said coworkers never saw him as threatening in any way. Cruz was small and always wore a green hoodie, complaining of the cold. She knew he got picked on at school.
“I called him Fragile Nick,” she said.
Cruz started working at the store in a Parkland strip mall around November, after his mother, Lynda Cruz, died, said Hunter Vukelich, the former manager. Vukelich said he invited Cruz to play basketball several times, trying to make the 19-year-old feel included. Cruz never showed up.
“He seemed like a loner,” Woods said.
But he did make one friend at the store. Halem said he and Cruz bonded over their shared enthusiasm for firearms.
“Cruz was a walking dictionary,” said Halem, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas last June. “He knew guns in and out.”
They talked about everything from types of weapons to survival and combat tactics in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, inspired by recent news from North Korea. In hindsight, Halem said, the conversations about tactics — like using doors as cover and wearing a gas mask during a firefight – might have been a red flag.
But he was still shocked by Cruz’s rampage.
“He was like Two-Face [the Batman villain] but I only saw one face,” said Halem, who lost two friends to Cruz’s bullets.
The only other warning sign: A red cast.
Cruz said he’d grown angry when another friend shot him in the ribs with a pellet gun in early January, Halem said. Rather than punch his friend, Cruz punched the wall, breaking his hand. Other co-workers heard a different story: He fell, maybe when he was drunk.
The cast, Halem said, would have prevented Cruz from pulling the trigger of the AR-15 he used at Stoneman Douglas. But Cruz wasn’t wearing it when police captured him Wednesday not far from the massacre.
Now, Halem says he wouldn’t be sorry if his former friend is put to death.
“He’s a disgusting and vile human being,” he said. “Whatever happens to him he deserves.”