Psychologist says Parkland school shooter was a child who ‘stuck out like a sore thumb’

Parkland neighbor on troubled Nikolas Cruz: ‘This boy did not go bad. He was never right’

Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill called Frederick M. Kravitz, a clinical psychologist who met Nikolas Cruz when he was a first-grade student at Coral Springs Elementary School. He said he treated him for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – About a decade before the 2018 Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Parkland shooter was a troubled child who displayed symptoms of several mental health illnesses and missed his dead father, witnesses said during their testimony on Wednesday in Broward County court.

Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill called Frederick M. Kravitz, a clinical psychologist who met Nikolas Cruz when he was a first-grade student. Roger Cruz, 67, his adopted father, died on Aug. 11, 2004, when Cruz was five. Kravitz said he treated Nikolas at his office after his 57-year-old widow asked for help.

While treating him for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder, Kravitz said he noticed Cruz also exhibited symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Kravitz said he concluded the disorders were related to developmental delays and the symptoms could improve with treatment.

“Nikolas was a very peculiar little child. He was eight. He probably acted like he was maybe six at the most,” and he was “anxious, tense, short attention span, at times a little bit hyper, obviously aggressive ... fearful at times, rather withdrawn ... I thought he certainly showed some autistic tendencies,” Kravitz said later adding that Cruz “stuck out like a sore thumb” because “he acted peculiar.”

Frederick M. Kravitz, a clinical psychologist, testified about treating Nikolas Cruz as a child in Broward County. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.)

McNeill said on Tuesday that the defense team has over 80 witnesses to testify. They called their first six on Monday and Tuesday to establish Cruz’s biological mother, Brenda Woodard, had used drugs and alcohol while pregnant and Cruz suffered from developmental delays.

Kravitz confirmed Dr. Stephen E. Moskowitz, who made the referral, had diagnosed Cruz with ADHD and prescribed Concerta, a central nervous system stimulant, and two other medications, as he adjusted the treatment. Kravitz also said Cruz had “a pretty active” imagination and average intelligence.

Kravitz also said he realized during his interactions with Lynda Cruz that she had anger issues, “lost her cool frequently,” lacked consistency, and was struggling to manage two “very difficult” and “out of control” boys with “minimal structure” at the home. Kravitz said Cruz’s brother Zachary was being “a tremendous instigator behind the scenes.”

Steven Schusler, a former neighbor of Nikolas Cruz in Parkland, testified on Wednesday in Broward County court. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.)

Steven Schusler, Wednesday’s second witness, said he was a tenant for about six years at the home that was across the street from Cruz’s home at 6166 NW 80 Terr., in Parkland. Schusler said he was in the driveway when he saw an uncoordinated Nikolas Cruz running around with a BB gun and firing airsoft pellets outside of the house.

Schusler stood in front of jurors and with a theatric display he demonstrated how Cruz was gangling along the driveway. His depiction was far from the coordination and skill that Cruz displayed on surveillance video when at 19 years old, he decided to wield an AR-15 to aim at teenagers and adults in a three-floor building’s hallways and classrooms — shooting 34 people.

Schusler said he also saw him, his brother Zachary and three other neighborhood boys smoking cigarettes, and he feared they were capable of mischief. He said he grew more and more concerned with the regular law enforcement visits that Lynda Cruz had attributed to Nikolas Cruz.

“I saw that boy growing up,” Schusler said later adding, “This boy did not go bad. He was never right.”

FacebookLive: Watch proceedings with expert commentary

Caridad Harvey, also known as Caridad Lancho, testified on Wednesday in Broward County. (Copyright 2022 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.)

Caridad Harvey, Wednesday’s third witness, is a licensed mental health counselor who met Cruz when he was a fourth-grade student and she worked for Henderson Behavioral Health, a nonprofit organization. She said he had a diagnosis of ADHD and OCD. She said she met Cruz after school in a small dining room at his “very clean, very nice” home in a “safe neighborhood.”

Harvey said Lynda Cruz was a “very caring mother,” but while missing a father figure, the Cruz siblings’ competed for the widow’s attention, and their “verbal aggression” often “escalated” into fist fights. Cruz suffered from obsessions and catastrophic thoughts, and he also had trouble sleeping, Harvey said.

“In the beginning, his fears were excessive, affecting his daily life,” Harvey said. “The mother established a routine so it would help him relax at night.”

Cruz’s adoptive mother died of complications with pneumonia on Nov. 1, 2017, and his biological mother died of cancer last year.

Prosecutors rested their case on Aug. 4, after calling 91 witnesses in 12 days, including the 17 who survived the shooting wounds they suffered on Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High’s 1200 building.

The defense needs only one of the 12 jurors to oppose the death sentence, so Cruz is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Cruz pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in October.

Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer said the court was in recess until 9:15 a.m. on Thursday.

Watch the 4 p.m. report

Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill called Frederick M. Kravitz, a clinical psychologist who met Nikolas Cruz when he was a first-grade student at Coral Springs Elementary School. He said he treated him for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder.

MENTAL HEALTH TERMS

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Kravitz said he didn’t diagnose him with ASD, but observed “autistic tendencies” such as withdrawal and delayed language skills. According to The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, patients often have problems with social communication and interaction and restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests that make life challenging.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Kravitz said he agreed with Cruz’s ADHD diagnosis, which caused him to have trouble paying attention and controlling impulsive behaviors. The common disorder can cause difficulty at school and can be treated with a combination of behavior therapy and medication, according to the CDC.

Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD)

Kravitz said Cruz was diagnosed with the behavior disorder characteristic of defiance and hostility toward authority figures. ADHD makes it more likely for children to have ODD, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

“His acting out, tantrums, anger outbursts, low frustration tolerance, refusing to do things, running away at times,” Kravitz said listing Cruz’s ODD symptoms.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Kravitz said Cruz displayed some symptoms of OCD. The common anxiety disorder causes irrational thoughts, fears, or worries that some manage through rituals or compulsions that help stop or ease the obsessive thoughts, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

“He repeats questions three or four times ... he did have some obsessive qualities ... he would cross out writing that he did if it wasn’t perfect,” Kravitz said adding Cruz had to “always eat eight chicken nuggets ... not seven, not nine, eight.”

SEQUESTRATION RULE

Scherer warned witnesses who have yet to testify to stop watching the proceedings. She said on Tuesday that the prosecution that is seeking the death penalty had invoked the rule of sequestration, meaning witnesses cannot be in the courtroom to listen to the testimony of other witnesses or watch the proceeding on television or online.

Scherer said her order excludes mental health experts.

“Your testimony could be compromised. Your ability to testify could be compromised,” Scherer warned the witnesses who have yet to testify.

Watch a video of the judge’s order

Broward County Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer, who is presiding over the Parkland school shooter’s death penalty phase, warned witnesses on Tuesday to stop watching the proceedings after the prosecution invoked the rule of sequestration.

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About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Jeff Weinsier joined Local 10 News in September 1994. He is currently an investigative reporter for Local 10. He is also responsible for the very popular Dirty Dining segments.