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Highlights from a long article-
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 semi-automatic.
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 authored Florida's cruelest and bloodiest school shooting and the dynamic within his household.
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. Cruz 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," Cruz 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 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.
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 Christmas time, 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 him 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 talk with his brother.
“He was crying as I was talking to him,” Cruz 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."
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 stick up for 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, wishes he had stood up for Nikolas.
He wishes that Feb. 14 never happened, that none of the students or teachers had been ripped from their loved ones, that he couldn 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.”
I have said this before, but it needs repeating. How the hell did Nikolas NOT get help!? How was he overlooked?