Nikolas Cruz had just broken up with his girlfriend, who had been cheating on him, and he’d gotten into a fight with another boy. He’d drawn a “Nazi symbol” on his book bag. And Broward mental health authorities were worried that his chronic depression was worsening.
It was Sept. 28, 2016, and Cruz — who since has admitted to perpetrating one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history — took to his arms with a knife.
“Mr. Cruz was on Snapchat cutting both of his arms,” the Florida Department of Children & Families’ abuse hotline was told at 1:48 p.m. “Mr. Cruz has fresh cuts on both his arms. Mr. Cruz stated he plans to go out and buy a gun.”
In the short report, Cruz, then 18, was listed as an “alleged victim” of medical neglect and inadequate supervision; his mother, 68-year-old Lynda Cruz, the “alleged perpetrator.”
DCF’s investigation was completed that Nov. 12. The agency concluded that Cruz had not been mistreated by his mother, that he was receiving adequate care from a counselor at Henderson Mental Health, and was attending school.
“Henderson came out and assessed the [victim and] found him to be stable enough not to be hospitalized,” the report said.
Cruz had been diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder that often leads to social awkwardness and isolation, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
The three-page report detailing Cruz’s encounter with DCF in September 2016 was the subject of a petition filed by the agency Friday asking a Broward Circuit judge to make its history with the family public. That petition has not yet been ruled on.
Following the massacre, DCF wrote in the petition, much of Cruz’s confidential history has been emerging, including: that he had been adopted, that he had a lengthy history of mental illness, and that DCF had investigated his safety. Some of the information in the “public domain,” DCF wrote, was inaccurate.
Michael Alessandri, a clinical professor of psychology at the University of Miami, cautioned that Cruz’s diagnosis of autism should not be viewed as a cause of his attack at Stoneman Douglas High.
“It is a terrible, terrible tragedy,” said Alessandri, who is the executive director of UM’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. “I can assure you that autism is not what pulled the trigger for this young man,” he added. “This is unquestionably an issue of mental illness. Autism is not that. It is a social communication disorder, not a violent disorder.”
Cruz, now 19, has been charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder in connection with Wednesday's massacre at Stoneman Douglas High.
He arrived at the school in an Uber, wearing a dark hat and carrying a black bag that contained an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle that he had brought one year earlier from a Sunrise “tactical supply” store. He walked the interior, firing at students and teachers. Then he left on foot, blending in with panicked students, stopped at a Walmart, where he bought a drink and visited a McDonald’s. Spotted by a deputy after leaving the Walmart, he was detained and cuffed.
His lawyers say Cruz plans to plead guilty if prosecutors will avoid seeking the death penalty.
“We are trying to save this child’s life,” said Gordon Weekes, the Broward Public Defender’s Office’s chief assistant. “We have put on the table that we are inclined to resolve this case and spare the community having to relive this issue over again in court.” Weekes said he is hoping prosecutors will forgo a request that Cruz be executed.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office issued a statement Saturday saying “the death penalty was designed for” cases such as Cruz’s, but that the office had not made a decision on whether to seek it.
Defenders also have asked Henderson Mental Health, which appears to have had a long history with Cruz, for its records of his treatment. What little the lawyers know, Weekes said, comes from the three-page DCF report, which suggests authorities had significant contact with Cruz in the months or years preceding the rampage.
“There are checks and balances in place to identify individuals in crisis, to get them help, and to protect them and protect others,” Weekes said. “They did not do that.”
“Every single bell had been rung with this child,” Weekes said, “and nothing had been done.”
DCF’s only contact with Cruz specifically involving neglect allegations appears to have been triggered by a fight between Cruz and his mother, Lynda Cruz, who now is deceased. DCF had been told initially that Cruz and his mom fought over an ID card the teen needed to buy some kind of game. The details are unclear, but DCF was told that Cruz then took to Snapchat and began “cutting both of his arms.”
The investigation that followed revealed troubling signs: Cruz “stated he plans to go out and buy a gun.” Earlier, he had placed “hate signs” on his book bag, and wrote “I hate n-----s.” He had a history of depression.
Some time in the past, the report said, Henderson had been summoned for Mr. Cruz to be involuntarily committed, “but he denies everything,” the report added.
An assessment of Cruz’s mental health determined that his depression and other issues “impair his ability to cope with the demands of everyday life without the use of medication.” Though Cruz was physically capable of seeing to his own welfare, the report said, he “at times lacks the motivation” to do so.
If Cruz had, in fact, been cutting himself that day, an investigator appears to have made little effort to confirm the allegation: The investigator, the report said, “was not able to see any scars or cuts on the [victim’s] arms because he was wearing long sleeves.”
Cruz declined to discuss the allegations with DCF, and his counselor from Henderson “stated that there are no issues with the [victim’s] medication and he has been compliant with taking his medications and keeps all of his appointments.”
Lynda Cruz told investigators that the fight between her and her son was over the boy’s recent breakup, not an ID card, and that the romance had ended when the girl’s mother declared “it was unhealthy for everyone.” Lynda Cruz told investigators her son started cutting himself only after he’d broken up.
Lynda Cruz denied her son was a racist, and said he wouldn’t knowingly draw racist or Nazi symbols on his belongings. Cruz, she said, claimed he didn’t know what the symbols were.
Henderson’s mobile crisis unit already had interviewed Cruz at his school, the report said. Cruz had disclosed to a counselor “that he was feeling depressed and started cutting himself.” The counselor “stated that she was concerned about the [victim talking] about wanting to purchase a gun and feeling depressed.”
Nevertheless, the assessment team “determined that he was not at risk to harm himself or others.” The team “found him to be stable enough not to be hospitalized,” the report said.
Cruz’s “crisis clinician” had the teen sign a “safety contract,” though the report does not specify what the contract required, other than to say that Cruz would continue with counseling and remain in school.
The Miami Herald confirmed that, over the following year and a half, Cruz managed to acquire not only the AR-15, but five other firearms.
Weekes said the report is a recitation of missed opportunities.
“There were instances of cutting, he was exhibiting threats to himself, and potential threats to others, there were indications he was depressed and wanted to buy a gun — and yet nobody did anything,” Weekes said. “He fell through the cracks.”
“They did not involuntarily commit him, and if he were to have been committed, it might have slowed down his ability to obtain a gun in the future,” Weekes added.
“This is an emotional case that has devastated the community, and we recognize the considerable loss,” Weekes said. “Families are mourning, and the community is mourning. People have to go through a period of grief. But as we dissect this child’s life, there were warning signs, clear signals sent to those people who are supposed to respond to a mental health crisis.”