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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Rafael Olmeda and Susannah Bryan

Jury hears more unsettling details about Parkland gunman’s troubled childhood

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Lynda Cruz saw her son run from the den of their Parkland home to his bedroom, crying.

“Nikolas, what happened?” she asked, trying to comfort him. “Daddy yelled at you?”

The boy looked up at her and answered in a calm voice: “No. Daddy’s dead.”

Defense lawyers in the sentencing trial of the Parkland gunman presented jurors on Monday with an account of the 2004 death of Roger Cruz, a pivotal moment in the life of the young boy who had been adopted nearly six years earlier.

Nikolas Cruz was already showing signs of developmental and behavioral difficulties. He would go on to become the worst mass shooter in Broward County history.

Jurors heard the story from Finai Browd, a family friend who knew Lynda and Roger Cruz from their time in New York and, with her husband, followed them to South Florida. Browd offered more glimpses into the Parkland gunman’s childhood, his frequent tantrums, quirky eating habits and inability to get along with other children his age.

Her video testimony was recorded before the trial started. In poor health, Browd was unable to attend the trial. Prosecutors agreed to let the defense introduce the recording for the jury’s consideration.

The jury is tasked with deciding whether Cruz should be sentenced to death or life in prison for the 17 murders he committed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018. Defense lawyers hope to drum up enough sympathy for Cruz to persuade the jury to spare his life.

The jury also heard from speech pathologist Shameka Stanford, who reviewed the defendant’s history and said exposure to alcohol could have had an impact on his brain development. Cruz did not start speaking until he was 2 years old, she said, far later than most children. His progress remained slow for years, she said.

Defense lawyers have asserted that Cruz suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome as a result of his biological mother’s habits while she was pregnant with him.

Lynn Rodriguez, a retired special ed teacher, was Monday’s first witness.

She taught Nikolas Cruz in both third and fourth grade. It was clear he had behavioral and language problems, she told the jury.

Nikolas was thin and very small for his age, she said. He was quiet and kept to himself, avoiding interaction with his classmates. He showed no self-control, ripping up other children’s classwork and calling them names.

But the highlight of Monday’s testimony was Browd’s recording. By the time Nikolas was 4 years old, you could tell he was different, Browd said. “He’d have tantrums when he didn’t get his way,” she said. “A full-blown tantrum, kind of out of control. He’d throw things. Kick the floor. Lie down and scream and cry.”

As a young boy, he was so attached to his mom it was hard for her to leave him even to run errands.

“She couldn’t go anywhere,” Browd testified. “He’d have a meltdown when she left.”

He’d stand for hours at the window wailing, waiting for her return.

Even more bizarre were the moments he’d growl and roar like an animal, Browd testified.

“He’d out of the clear blue sky start acting like a lion,” she said. “He’d go right in your face. When we’d tell him to stop he wouldn’t listen.”

The odd behavior went on “forever,” she testified. “For years.”

Though two years older than his brother, Nikolas was far behind in many ways, Browd testified.

“Zachary could do things Nik couldn’t,” she said. “Zachary was not hard to potty train. He learned how to swim. Nikolas couldn’t. He’d sit on the steps. His hand coordination wasn’t developed like Zachary. He’d eat with a fork. Nikolas couldn’t.”

Nikolas insisted on eating specific foods, living on a diet of chicken nuggets and hot dogs. They had to be cooked in a microwave, no other way. Otherwise, he’d have a tantrum.

Just before he turned 6, Nikolas saw his father die. Lynda Cruz was left alone to to raise two boys.

“My best friend, my soulmate is no longer here,” Browd recalls her friend telling her.

Lynda Cruz kept the adoption of Nikolas secret from her own family and her husband’s family as well, Browd testified.

“She let people think he was her own biological child. She’d tell Nikolas he looked just like her when she was his age. And she told Zachary, ‘You look just like daddy. And Nikolas looks just like mommy.’”

During her recorded testimony, Browd held up a photo of a smiling Lynda Cruz holding baby Nikolas after his baptism.

In another photo, Lynda Cruz kisses his chubby cheek when he was a baby.

“You can see the love she had for him by looking at this picture,” Browd said.


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