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Is Zachary Cruz, jailed on $500K bond, being punished for brother's crime?

Piles of flowers sit outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a visual reminder that the campus is still a place...

Posted: Mar 29, 2018 4:04 AM
Updated: Mar 29, 2018 4:04 AM

Piles of flowers sit outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a visual reminder that the campus is still a place where students and faculty honor the lives of the 17 people who were gunned down on Valentine's Day by Nikolas Cruz. It is the last place some in this community would expect or want to see Cruz's younger brother.

Yet Zachary Cruz was arrested last week, accused of trespassing on school grounds. Police say he has visited the campus at least three times since the shooting. On his last visit, Cruz, clad in a white T-shirt, blue shorts and a baseball cap, calmly told deputies he was there to "reflect on the school shooting and to soak it in," according to a probable cause affidavit. He did not enter any buildings.

Normally, trespassing in Broward County is a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. The bond typically is $25, but the judge in Zachary Cruz's case set bail at $500,000. The judge also ordered a psychological evaluation, electronic monitoring, no communication with Nikolas Cruz and a search of Zachary's residence for any weapons.

These actions have raised questions about whether Zachary Cruz, 18, is being treated more harshly because of his brother's crime.

Zachary Cruz's attorneys argue their client -- who allegedly skateboarded through campus -- is being treated unfairly and is the victim of "hysteria" fueled by a massacre that traumatized the community.

"He is being held because of who he is related to, not because of anything that he did," attorney Joseph Kimok told Judge Kim Theresa Mollica.

Assistant State Attorney Sarahnell Murphy and the sheriff's office counter that argument, saying Zachary Cruz poses a danger to the community. The Broward County Sheriff's Office alleges Cruz has a violent and combative past and is likely mentally ill; and it's using a new Florida law enacted after the Parkland shooting, to restrict Cruz from getting his hands on a gun. (Zachary Cruz told deputies he did not own firearms or ammunition, according to court documents.)

When Zachary Cruz was interviewed two days after the Parkland shooting, the officer noted there was a shotgun and a rifle in the house that needed to be secured, according to Palm Beach County records.

The community, too, has differing views on the treatment of Zachary Cruz.

"He [Zachary Cruz] has become a villain because of his name," said Lindsay Joly. The Parkland mother says she hopes he gets help.

Eric Lipetz, who also recently visited the memorial, was less sympathetic: "Give me a break. He had an attitude. I could see it in his face," he said of seeing the suspect on TV news coverage.

Cruz's lawyers are scheduled to argue for his release at a Thursday hearing.

Is Zachary Cruz a victim?

Joelle Guarino watched the Cruz brothers grow up across the street. Zachary, she said, was the cool skateboarder kid. He was popular and made friends easily. Like most brothers, Zachary and Nikolas joked and poked at each other, she said.

When Guarino learned Zachary Cruz was accused of trespassing onto the Marjory Stoneman Douglas campus, she immediately flashed back to his childhood, when she says she saw him being blamed for everything his brother did.

"He is a victim in all of this," Guarino told CNN about Zachary Cruz's bond and pretrial restrictions.

Guarino says Nikolas started exhibiting aggressive tendencies at a young age and Zachary appeared to fear his older brother. When Nikolas had outbursts and destroyed property, their mother, Lynda Cruz, blamed Zachary for everything, Guarino said. Lynda Cruz died last year.

But former neighbor Paul Gold told CNN that Zachary Cruz, though more than a year younger, grew up to be bigger and more physically developed. Eventually, Gold said, Zachary and other kids ostracized and bullied Nikolas.

"They were constantly alienating him and not allowing him to partake in games, like kickball on the street or riding bicycles," Gold said. "Nikolas would constantly go home very angry."

A 2014 psychiatric memo written about Nikolas Cruz says he kept knives and scissors in his bed to protect himself. The brothers were living in the same home at the time. The memo said Nikolas had been receiving mental health services for two years and was on two medications.

In an interview with Palm Beach County deputies two days after the shooting, Zachary Cruz said that he "wishes that he had been "nicer" to his brother," according to the police report.

Attorneys for Nikolas and Zachary Cruz have not responded to CNN requests for comment.

Is Zachary Cruz a danger?

In his first court appearance through closed-circuit TV, on March 20, Zachary Cruz was shackled and surrounded by three armed deputies, not a common sight for someone appearing on a trespassing charge.

At the bond hearing, prosecutors only mentioned three prior crimes in which Zachary had pleaded guilty. But records CNN obtained from the Broward County sheriff's Office and Coral Springs police show his encounters with law enforcement were much more extensive: Zachary Cruz is named or referenced in at least 36 incident, investigation and call reports, between 2011 and 2017.

The alleged behaviors that triggered calls to the police ranged from Zachary running away to hitting his mother.

Documents show he exhibited "increased aggressive and defiant behavior" toward his mother, had been temporarily placed in residential counseling and suspended from school.

Starting in 2012, the reports begin to paint a much darker picture about both Zachary and Nikolas Cruz. During that year, Lynda Cruz called authorities multiple times about her sons "threatening her," "cursing at her and being disrespectful," "out of control," "destroying the home," and not taking their medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In October and November 2013, their mother called police twice about Zachary, specifically. She told dispatchers he was attempting to "break the window" of their home. He was transported to the Lippman Youth Shelter in Oakland Park and placed in resident counseling.

In a statement, Lutheran Services Florida, which operates the shelter, said records are confidential. "Our goal is to help resolve conflict and reunite families" and programs are designed to be "life changing."

Balancing personal rights, safety for everyone else

At last week's hearing about bond, Assistant State Attorney Murphy said most concerning was a conversation the siblings had in jail after Nikolas' arrest, during which Zachary allegedly mentioned his brother's notoriety and the pair discussed a "fan club" that could attract girls.

Murphy asked for a $750,000 bond. "Stoneman Douglas students and all Broward students deserve to be protected," she told Judge Mollica.

The sheriff's office has been widely criticized for missing the Nikolas Cruz red flags leading up to the massacre.

Gold, the former neighbor, agrees with prosecutors when they point to behavior and actions authorities say the younger Cruz exhibited for years.

"I think he deserves to be in jail," he said. "I'm not saying something is going to happen for sure, but he is a candidate for something bad happening and nobody wants to see that."

Paul Callan, a former New York City homicide prosecutor, said it's imperative that authorities not miss red flags again.

"The facts presented to the court fully justified the sensible and careful approach ordered by the judge in Zachary's case," Callan said, adding that Cruz's record "is arguably every bit as bad or possibly worse than that of his brother Nikolas before the massacre at Parkland."

Two days after Zachary Cruz's bond was set at $500,000, his attorney filed a motion for his release, calling the treatment of his client immoral, reprehensible, unlawful and unconstitutional. There is no evidence that the defendant threatened anyone when arrested, Kimok wrote.

"There is no justice where the government seeks to hang a man for the crimes of his brother," argued Kimok in court documents.

Zachary Cruz denied wanting to repeat his brother's atrocious act or wanting to hurt himself or anyone else, according to interviews conducted by a Palm Beach County deputy.

Zachary Cruz "doesn't understand why his brother would have done this," reads the deputy's note.

Legal analyst Mark O'Mara, an attorney who most notably defended George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, says it is improper to judge someone on the actions of another.

"To increase Zachary Cruz's bond to $500,000 is a violation of the very tenets of justice that we enjoy as Americans," O'Mara said. "If we can't assure Zachary we will protect his rights, we are next."

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