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School shooting suspect, who recently lost his mother, had a troubled history

Nikolas Cruz is taken into police custody Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

JOSH COHEN VIA WPTV

By PAULA MCMAHON, STEPHEN HOBBS, ANNE GEGGIS AND SCOTT TRAVIS | The Sun Sentinel | Published: February 14, 2018

PARKLAND, Fla.  (Tribune News Service) — The suspected gunman in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. seemed troubled and depressed in recent years and his adoptive mom died just 3 1/2 months ago, neighbors, friends and family members said.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, was arrested without any serious incident at a nearby house very shortly after the shootings, which left 17 people dead and several more injured, Sheriff Scott Israel said.

Cruz was a former student at the school but was expelled for disciplinary problems, law enforcement said.

His mother, Lynda Cruz, died Nov. 1. She was 68.

Family member, Barbara Kumbatovich, of Long Island, said she heard media reports about the mass shooting in Florida but had no idea the suspect was the son of her recently deceased sister-in-law, Lynda.

“Oh my God,” Kumbatovich said.

Lynda and her husband, Roger, who died many years ago, adopted Nikolas and another boy, Zachary, after the couple moved from Long Island to Broward County.

Kumbatovich said she only met the boys once, when they were very young and attended a family funeral in New York. Lynda was a stay-at-home mom and her late husband had worked in advertising.

Lynda had always wanted to have children and the couple adopted later in life, Kumbatovich said: “I think it was just something she really wanted to do.”

The boys were left in the care of a family friend after their adoptive mom died Nov. 1, she said.

“I know she had been having some issues with them, especially the older one. He was being a problem. I know he did have some issues and he may have been taking medication. (He) did have some kind of emotional or difficulties,” Kumbatovich said. “(Lynda) kept a really close handle on both boys. They were not major issues, as far as I know, just things teenagers do like not coming home on time, maybe being disrespectful.”

Another relative, who spoke on condition of anonymity over the sensitive matter, said Nikolas had been diagnosed with autism.

Lynda, who died of pneumonia, adopted Nikolas the day he was born.

She also adopted his biological brother, the relative said.

Nikolas’ father died from a heart attack, the relative said, and Lynda had sought counseling for Nikolas at a young age: “She did her best getting him any help he needed.”

Nikolas was living with a friend after his mom died.

Janine Kartiganer, who lives two doors down from Cruz’s former home, said Cruz looked “very troubled.”

“He wore a hoodie and always had his head down,” she said. “He looked depressed.”

Emily Sucher, 16, a junior who lives in Parkland, was in her TV Production class when an administrator announced over the intercom to evacuate the building.

She had seen the suspect, Cruz, around school last year and remembers him as an “off kid” who would “smile weirdly, make weird comments.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said on MSNBC that Cruz wore a gas mask and had smoke grenades. “He set off the fire alarm so the kids would come out into the hallways and thus he had the opportunity with a crowded hallway to start picking off people.”

Trevor Hart, 16, who knew Cruz in Spanish class at Marjory Stoneman, said they ate together once in a while in the cafeteria.

“It seemed like he didn’t really like school,” Hart said.

Cruz participated in Army ROTC at the high school. Cruz had “a bunch of weapons” and talked about shooting lizards, squirrels and frogs, Hart said.

Cruz seemed “a little off,” Hart said.

Shelby and Richie Speno moved on to the street where the Cruz family lived in 2005.

Shelby Speno said she’d been warned that Cruz had caused trouble, such as biting a child and stealing neighbors’ mail. One time, he threw eggs at Richie’s car while he was driving.

“Lynda the mom was always apologetic. She had her hands full,” Shelby said.

“They were very much on their own. The kids seem to roam around and come and go as they pleased,” Richie Speno said.

Police were called out numerous times, and Shelby said Cruz was seen shooting at a neighbor’s chickens.

“I told my husband I was so glad they moved. I’m afraid he was the kind of kid who would do something crazy,” Shelby said. “The older he gets the worse kind of trouble he got into.”

“He looked socially awkward,” Richie said.

Jonathan Guimaraes, 17, said he and Cruz were in JROTC together: “He was normal. He didn’t have any issues.”

Cruz liked to go hunting a lot but Guimaraes said he thought Cruz only used non-lethal airsoft rifles.

Cruz was wearing a wine-colored ROTC polo shirt, black pants and black boots, when he was taken into custody. He was placed on a gurney and taken away in an ambulance. At 4:47 p.m., he was wheeled in to Broward Health North hospital in Deerfield Beach.

A short time later, he was brought to Broward Sheriff’s Office headquarters in a marked agency car that was part of a short convoy.

Handcuffed and wearing what looked like a light blue hospital gown, he was led into the building by deputies.

Math teacher James Gard said Cruz, a junior at the time, was in his class last year.

“He was a pretty quiet kid,” Gard said. “He was a very well-behaved kid in my class. He was never a behavioral problem in my class.”

Malcolm and Christine Roxburgh were neighbors of the Cruz family for many years.

“It was a wonderful idea. Two older people to have two little boys to look after. They were just kind people.”

Christine said Lynda asked her daughter, who lives up north, to take the kids when her husband died, but she refused.

He used to get into trouble and harass neighbors, the Roxburghs said. The police came to Cruz’s house many times, they said.

A neighbor across the street kept little pigs as pets.

“He didn’t like the pigs and didn’t like the neighbors so he sent over his dog over there to try to attack them,” Malcolm said.

Christine said one time she saw Nikolas peeking in her window.

“I said what are you doing here? He said he was looking for golf balls. I said ‘this isn’t the golf course,’” Christine said.

One time he said a neighbor spotted Nikolas trying to steal a bike from the garage when the door was open.

Christine said when the boy didn’t want to go to school, he would bang his head against a cement wall.

When their daughter was driving to work, Nikolas “slammed his book bag into the side of her car. She got out and said don’t you ever do that again.”

“He could have killed any of us,” Christine said.

©2018 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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