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School shooter may get inheritance — and be ordered to spend it on legal bills

Nikolas Cruz appears in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Mike Stocker TNS
Nikolas Cruz appears in court for a status hearing before Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Mike Stocker TNS
Published Feb. 21, 2018

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz appears to have been in line for a sizable inheritance. He'll never get to spend it — except perhaps on defense attorneys.

The amount could be enough to compel a judge to order him to hire a private lawyer, rather than be represented by the taxpayer-funded Broward County Public Defender's Office.

The Public Defender's Office, which represents Cruz for now, asked a judge late Tuesday to help figure out exactly how much money will be at Cruz's disposal. His mother died in November, and Cruz told a family he was living with that he had an $800,000 trust fund, most of which he would receive in two years.

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In the court filing, Assistant Public Defender Diane Cuddihy asked the judge to "determine whether the defendant is indigent."

Cruz is in jail after police say he walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Valentine's Day and gunned down 17 people, wounding 15 others. The carnage — yet another American mass shooting — stunned the world and has led to renewed and politically contentious calls for gun control.

Deputies arrested the teenager shortly after the shooting, as he had blended in with panicked students as they fled the Parkland campus. As is routine, Cruz filled out paperwork saying he was too poor to afford a lawyer, and the Broward Public Defender's Office was appointed to represent him at a standard first appearance.

The Public Defender's Office adopted an unorthodox strategy, calling Cruz a "broken child," admitting his guilt and offering to have him plead guilty if prosecutors agreed to forgo the death penalty.

But since then, the office has determined that Cruz may be in line to receive money from the estates of his dead parents. If Cruz can access the money, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer likely would require that he hire his own attorney — and the Public Defender's Office would be off the case, which could be among the most costly in Broward history.

Florida law also allows for the Public Defender to charge someone after the case is finished. "The public is still protected if he comes into money at some later time. The Public Defenders would be reimbursed the cost of its services," said retired Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott Silverman, who is not involved in the case.

Cruz, 19, and his younger brother were adopted when they were very young by Lynda and Roger Cruz, who then lived in New York.

Roger Cruz, who worked in advertising and sales, died in August 2004 of heart failure at age 67. The following year, Lynda Cruz valued his estate as worth more than $1 million, according to probate records.

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She later filed a medical malpractice suit against a doctor and a clinic over his treatment before his death. Lynda Cruz reached a settlement in 2008. As part of the lawsuit, a court-appointed attorney-ad litem was appointed to gauge Nikolas and Zachary's share of the settlement; he recommended the children get the entire amount of $175,000, to be kept in an annuity until they were adults.

The attorney, William Ruggiero, of Miami, did not recall exactly what went into his recommendation a decade ago.

"I must have had a bad feeling about mom," Ruggiero said. "I recommended that she get nothing. I've never done that before."

Lynda Cruz went on to sell the Parkland home, 6166 NW 80th Terr., for $575,000 in January 2017, according to Broward County property records. She died in November of a respiratory illness, leaving Cruz and his brother without family to live with.

After his mother died, Cruz moved in with the Snead family of Pompano Beach — and told them he had an $800,000 inheritance, most of which he said he would get when he turns 22.

"The kid was not hurting for money at any point," said Jim Lewis, the lawyer representing the Sneads. "Everyone knows about it. The question is if it's available now."

One day after the shooting, the Palm Beach County woman who took in Cruz's brother petitioned a court to be named the personal representative of Lynda Cruz's estate. The request is still pending.


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