Nikolas Cruz's birth mom had a violent, criminal past. Could it help keep him off Death Row?

Brenda Woodard (left) gave up Nikolas Cruz for adoption shortly after giving birth. A career criminal, Woodard never again met Cruz, who would grow up to commit a deadly school shooting in Parkland. Now, Cruzâ\u0080\u0099s defense attorneys may use his genetics to try and spare him the death penalty. Woodward image [Florida Department of Corrections via AP] Cruz image [Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS]
Brenda Woodard (left) gave up Nikolas Cruz for adoption shortly after giving birth. A career criminal, Woodard never again met Cruz, who would grow up to commit a deadly school shooting in Parkland. Now, Cruzâ\u0080\u0099s defense attorneys may use his genetics to try and spare him the death penalty. Woodward image [Florida Department of Corrections via AP] Cruz image [Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS]
Published Sept. 5, 2018

Nikolas Cruz had two mothers: his birth mom, who gave him life, an almond-shaped head and auburn hair — and his adoptive mom, who gave him all the advantages of an upscale, suburban upbringing.

His birth mother, Brenda Woodard, was sometimes homeless, and panhandled for money on a highway exit ramp. His adoptive mother, Lynda Cruz, stayed home to manage a 4,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house in the suburbs, with a two-car garage and a sprawling yard. A career criminal, Woodard's 28 arrests include a 2010 charge for beating a companion with a tire iron; she also threatened to burn the friend's house down. Lynda Cruz had a clean record.

Woodard was so gripped by addiction she was arrested buying crack cocaine while pregnant with Nikolas. Lynda Cruz was known to drink wine, though not excessively.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Nikolas Cruz should have taken after the woman who raised him from birth, rather than the one who shared only his DNA. But little of Cruz's story is conventional. While, by most accounts, Lynda Cruz was thoughtful and disciplined, her adoptive son was violent and impulsive — characteristics he seems to share with the birth mother he never knew.

Now the history of his birth family — sealed by statute and never before reported — could become a factor in his desperate attempt to stay off Florida's Death Row.

Many of the details of Cruz's difficult childhood and stormy adolescence emerged in the months following his deadly Feb. 14 attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and staff members dead: He was a poor student prone to sometimes violent outbursts. He had an unhealthy obsession with guns. He shot and tortured animals. But where Cruz came from, genetically, has remained a missing piece of the puzzle.

Though Nikolas was raised in comfort — Lynda Cruz apparently believed that indulging her son with video games and weapons would soften his moods — the shadow of his genetic heritage seemed to loom over his life.

Experts in criminal law say the Broward Public Defender's Office will likely explore Cruz's genetic makeup and childhood development in their effort to keep the 19-year-old from being executed. His birth mother could be called to testify during the sentencing phase of his trial on 17 charges of first-degree murder and 17 charges of attempted murder.

"Of course, this would be of interest to me," said Bennett Brummer, Miami's elected public defender from 1977 until his retirement in 2009. "The question would be how would I use it."

The details of Cruz's birth mother's life are found largely in the public record: Her lengthy criminal history speaks of a devastating battle with addiction and a propensity for violence.

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So, too, does the life of her daughter, Danielle Woodard — Nikolas' older half sister — who currently is serving an eight-year prison sentence on charges including the second-degree attempted murder of a police officer. As a young woman, Danielle Woodard was twice charged with bringing weapons to school — one of them a firearm. Danielle has been arrested 17 times — not always leading to conviction.

With overwhelming evidence that Cruz was the Parkland shooter — much of the rampage was captured on school surveillance cameras — the defense team's effort likely will be geared toward offering mitigating factors that might persuade a jury to spare his life.

Cruz's public defenders are expected to argue that his youth, history of emotional illness and lack of support from school and social service agencies contributed to the tragedy. His apparent familial inclinations toward addiction and violence may be other themes the defense could pursue.

After decades of seeing the same surnames appear in intake logs, Brummer said, he concluded that environment alone failed to explain the inclination toward violence that appeared to be inherited among certain families like eye color and hairlines : "Families just kept coming back bad," he said. "I don't have any scientific proof, but there certainly is a significant genetic component."

Kevin M. Beaver, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, says he, and others who have studied the issue, do have scientific proof. While there's no such thing as a "crime gene" — as some early researchers posited — an abundance of research shows that the aggregation of certain genetic markers, together with environmental triggers, significantly increases the likelihood that a person will react violently or aggressively.

A good bit of scholarly research has studied adopted children and twins who were separated at birth. One aim: to tease out the effects of genetics, as opposed to the socio-economic conditions in which children were raised, Beaver said. "Genes can have a really strong influence," he said. A 1984 study, for example, looked at 14,427 adoptees, and concluded that an adopted child was more likely to be convicted of non-violent property crimes if his or her biological parents had been convicted of a similar crime.

Beaver also cautioned, however, that "genes and genetics are not destiny...Environment can amplify genetic effects, and also blunt genetic effects," Beaver said. "Genes in and of themselves do not determine criminality. They act in tandem with environments."

Some of the research on genetics has found its way into criminal courtrooms, with mixed results.

"There will be enormous pressure to hang this kid as high as he can — which is very understandable," Brummer said.

Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, who is expected to try the case himself, has already rebuffed Public Defender Howard Finkelstein's offer for Cruz to plead guilty immediately in exchange for prosecutors seeking life in prison rather than the death penalty. Neither Finkelstein nor other members of Cruz's defense team would discuss Cruz's birth family.

Any mitigating arguments made by the defense will only need to convince a single person.

In 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a sentencing judge may not impose the death penalty unless a jury has recommended death unanimously. That means defense attorneys now need persuade only one of 12 jurors to vote for life imprisonment instead of death.

"Now you're talking about trying to sway at least one juror," Brummer said.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of student Jaime Guttenberg, who was killed at Stoneman Douglas, said Cruz's genetics in no way excuse the massacre.

"That birth mother did not raise him," Guttenberg said. "I know lots of people who were adopted. If you go back and look at their birth parents, you're going to find all sorts of stuff. That doesn't mean they're going to grow up that way. Trying to make a sympathetic figure out of the guy who killed my daughter? It's horrifying."

Bad blood

Brenda Woodard, now 62, has not come forward to speak of her relationship with Nikolas Cruz, and jail logs show that she has not visited him since his arrest. Through an attorney who finalized Cruz's adoption, Woodard declined to speak with the Miami Herald. The identity of Cruz's birth father is unclear.

Woodard's third child, Zachary, also was adopted at birth by the Cruz family — and though he had a few minor brushes with the law, he has not been accused of a violent crime. He declined to speak with Herald reporters for this story, but said in a May interview that both he and Lynda Cruz were afraid of Nikolas, who pulled guns on both of them over perceived slights.

"He was mentally ill, and, in hindsight, his actions were a cry for help," Zachary Cruz said of his biological half-brother.

Nikolas Cruz has never crossed paths with either Brenda or Danielle — and the mother and daughter had been separated years earlier when the daughter was taken into state care. Yet the lives of all three followed a strikingly similar downward trajectory.

Though Brenda Woodard had no role in raising Nikolas Cruz, whatever influence she had on his gestational development was likely not positive: On June 7, 1998 — three-and-a-half months before Cruz was born — Fort Lauderdale police officers spotted Woodard driving in an area they said was known for a "high level of drug activity."

Woodard stopped her car in the middle of the road, opened the door and began talking to a man in green pants and a white shirt. The man handed Woodard a clear plastic baggie that held five rocks of crack cocaine. She gave him cash, and was arrested soon after.

Woodard pleaded no contest to cocaine possession after 45 days, and agreed to submit to drug treatment and random urine testing. Then, on Sept. 24, Brenda gave birth to Nikolas, second of her three children, who was adopted almost immediately by Roger and Lynda Cruz, a well-to-do couple who lived in the suburban haven of Parkland. Woodard, meanwhile, did not stay out of jail very long; a month later, she was locked up on a domestic violence charge.

Nikolas Cruz knew he was adopted — and may have been bitter that his adoptive mom waited so long to tell him.

In an interview with a Broward Sheriff's Office detective shortly after the rampage, Cruz said that he had longed to know more about his background but had not sought the identity of his birth parents — or genetic testing to determine his ethnic heritage.

"I never met my real parents," Cruz told Detective John Curcio, according to a transcript.

"How long have you [known] you were adopted?" Curcio asked.

"My mother told me," Cruz replied. "After my dad died but a long time [it] took for her to say something."

Later in the interview, Curcio asked Cruz whether he had wanted to know where he came from. He nodded yes.

"Okay," Curcio said. "But you never tried to find your birth parents?"

"I wanted to," Cruz said.

"But did you ever try to find them?" Curcio asked. "I mean, you wanted to, but I'm saying did you ever actually try to do anything?"

"No," he replied.

Nikolas Cruz grew up in far better circumstances than he would have had he stayed with Woodard.

His adoptive father, Roger, worked in advertising. He and Lynda were able to afford a home now worth $535,000 in Parkland.

But Cruz never fit into the Cruzes' community, and there were disturbing signs of things to come. He shot his neighbor's chickens. He pointed a gun at half-brother Zachary when they argued over a jar of Nutella, and held an AR-15 to his mother's head, yelling that he would blow her brains out. He got into fights at school, was reportedly abusive to a girlfriend and made Internet postings about his fervent desire to shoot up a school, which he finally did with deadly results.

All the while, Lynda Cruz tried her best to protect her son.

"I think she cared. She tried," said Shelby Speno, 49, who lived two doors down from the Cruz family. "It wasn't like he was running around and Lynda was always absent. She was with him at the bus stop. She'd call up and apologize [when he did something wrong]. She took responsibility for what he did."

Lynda's death in November 2017, at age 68, devastated Cruz. Roger Cruz had died when Nikolas was 5. With his mom gone, he had to move in with family friends in a Palm Beach County trailer park.

Hardly anyone came to her funeral.

"I could tell it bothered Nik and it made us feel like we had no one in this world," Zachary told the Herald in May.

While Nikolas Cruz never fell headlong into drugs and alcohol like his birth mother or half-sister, Zachary said he watched his brother "guzzle" their mother's wine.

In his interview with Curcio, the Broward homicide detective, Nikolas Cruz said he used marijuana and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug with sedative qualities.

"A lot," said Cruz, his voice barely audible. "No one knew about it."

Marijuana, Cruz said, helped calm the "demon" he claimed was inside his head telling him to do bad things. Curcio was skeptical that such a demon existed, and asked Cruz why he didn't smoke more marijuana to keep the voices at bay.

"I knew it was illegal and I didn't want to do wrong," Cruz said."But [the demon] wanted to do wrong."

Shared genes

The blood relatives Cruz never met were less a family than two individuals with shared genes and a disposition toward antisocial behavior.

Brenda Norma Woodward was born in 1956.

Woodard was known as a one-woman wrecking crew among law enforcement and drug treatment circles in Broward County throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Her Florida Department of Law Enforcement rap sheet includes 28 arrests, among them drug, car theft, weapons possession, burglary, domestic violence and battery charges.

Her criminal history in Florida began in 1983, when Woodard was 26, with a concealed weapons charge. Five years later, Monroe County sheriff's deputies arrested her for cocaine possession.

New charges were added nearly every year after, until 2011.

She was found with crack cocaine, amphetamines and codeine. She stole a car. She was incarcerated for five months in 1989, then for another seven months the next year. In 1999, she did an 18-month stint for car theft, fleeing a police officer and other charges. By 2003, Woodard was in drug treatment, and a Broward judge allowed her to travel to Miami for the birth of a grandchild. In the coming years, as Woodard aged and her reddish hair turned salt-and-pepper, the woman sometimes known as "Duke" appears to have kicked her addiction.

And though Woodard may not have been using narcotics — her criminal history doesn't include any drug arrests after 2003 — her troubles were far from over: At some point in the mid-2000s, Woodard was homeless and repeatedly picked up trespassing charges for panhandling. In July 2007, Hallandale Beach police arrested her near an interstate exit ramp, where she was holding a cardboard sign that read "Homeless and hungry god bless you."

And her temper remained. In 2010, she was charged with using a tire iron to beat a partner with whom she shared an apartment in a Hallandale Beach senior living complex.

"I observed a laceration approximately two inches in length to the back of the victim's head which was producing a large quantity of blood," a police officer wrote in a report. "I further observed a laceration to the victim's forehead and scratches to the victim's face."

Twice more — in 2012 and 2013 — Woodard's companion complained to authorities, saying Woodard had threatened to "kill her" and to "burn down" her home.

Woodard, the companion wrote, "would not let me go out of [the] house," and warned that "she would kill me" if she sought protection.

Now, Brenda Woodard lives in a subsidized housing complex for people with special needs. Her last arrest — for a misdemeanor battery charge that later was dropped — was in 2011, though she was the subject of a request for a domestic violence protection order in the 2013 incident.

While Woodard perhaps has put her life together, her daughter's has fallen apart.

Danielle Woodard — who shares her mother's distinctive red hair — faced a daunting, uncertain future virtually from the day she was conceived: Brenda had been using cocaine, and Danielle was born already compromised by the effects of drug exposure.

The consequences of Brenda Woodard's drug abuse did not end with her daughter's birth. Brenda stripped her and then beat her when she was 5, and was reportedly neglectful of her child. During the height of South Florida's cocaine epidemic, Brenda encouraged her daughter to steal in order to subsidize her drug habit.

Brenda Woodard's incarceration left Danielle in the custody of her maternal grandmother — and then in foster care at age 12 when the older woman died. Danielle took to the streets. And to drugs.

Danielle had experienced severe physical abuse and trauma throughout her childhood, adolescence and into her adulthood. And it left her largely unable to parent her own children. The Herald sent a letter to the Florida prison where she was incarcerated asking for an interview. It was returned unopened.

Danielle Woodard appears to have notched her first felony arrest in October 1999, an alleged car theft, just four days after she turned 13. It was the first of many. The next year, before Woodard turned 14, she was in custody again on a car theft charge.

The arrests continued: March 12, 2001, petty theft, not prosecuted; March 16, 2001, possession of a weapon at school, outcome unknown; Aug. 17, 2001, battery, outcome unknown; Dec. 3, 2001, grand theft and resisting arrest without violence, outcome unknown; June 12, 2003, possession of a firearm at school, car theft and battery, outcome unknown; Nov. 11, 2003, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and car theft, outcome unknown.

In November of 2005, Danielle Woodard stole another car. The car had been left idling in a driveway as a man went to fetch his cousin. The car's owner, Antonio Rodriguez, felt sorry for Woodard. "I wish you to help this girl," he told Woodard's public defender. "See that she doesn't do this again…[She's] a very young girl. For sure she is not going to do this anymore."

'Poor choices and bad decisions'

But Woodard did do it again. And again. And again.

July 2007: Sweetwater police arrest Danielle Woodard on charges of elder abuse and battery on a disabled person. The complaint says Woodard pushed a man off of his wheelchair, knocked him to the floor and then "struck" the man's 67-year-old companion, injuring both.

January 2010: A Miami police cruiser spots Danielle Woodard in a stolen 1998 gold Nissan Maxima. Woodard darts away, speeds through red lights but eventually is cornered at a dead-end near Northwest Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street. An officer orders Woodard to get out of the sedan, but she guns the engine and crashes into a fence, then reverses. Woodard backs right into a patrolman, who is lunging away trying to avoid being hit.

Woodard pins officer George Guillen between his car door and the rest of the sedan.

"Suffered multiple injuries to my left knee, ankle, left arm, forearm, my cheek, my jaw, left side of my face," Guillen later testified.

Woodard is tasered as she tries to run away, and then fights with a handful of officers who try to arrest her, reports say. Inside the purloined car are a crack pipe and a plastic bag of crack cocaine, reports say.

A year later, while awaiting her fate in a Miami jail, Danielle Woodard apologized to Guillen in an undated letter.

"Not one day passes by that the night of Jan. 29, 2010, doesn't replay in my mind," she wrote. "Through the last 12 months of my incarceration I've had time to reflect on the poor choices and bad decisions I've made... . Being arrested was actually an intervention because if it had not happened I would have ended up dead and leaving my two young sons without a mother. I feel so ashamed and full of regret for all the harm I caused to you and your family."

Woodard largely blamed the incident on drugs and alcohol — a theme that suffuses her lengthy criminal record. "I've made so many changes in my attitude, I've given my life to God and asked Him to forgive me of all my wrong doings. I've seen a lot of change in myself and I never want alcohol and drugs to have control over my life again."

Woodard closed the letter with a poem:

I once was lost,

but now I'm found.

Let me prove

I've turned my life around.

But the epiphany proved short-lived: Woodard kept getting arrested.

September 2015: The manager of a Louis Vuitton store in the Design District calls police when Danielle Woodard and a friend try to buy $880 Cliff Top sneakers and an $805 monogram handbag with a fake debit card. When police detain her, she's holding cocaine in her bra.

June 2016: Danielle Woodard and two friends assault a woman they accuse of cheating on one of them. "Woodard immediately began hitting the victim with an alcohol bottle, telling her that she is 'not loyal'," a police report says. Woodard and an accomplice then punch the woman, "forcibly" yank a watch from her wrist, slash her car's tires and steal clothing and cellphone. "You are lucky we didn't kill you," she says, according to a report.

July 2016: Danielle Woodard asks a stranger in Miami for water. The man tells her to wait for him outside, but she follows him into his house instead, grabs his wallet from his shorts and runs away. Woodard returns to the neighborhood the next day and is spotted by the man, who calls police. When officers arrive to arrest her, she bites one on the left hand, another on the right leg and yet a third on his left hand. Paramedics have to sedate her.

At the time of the robbery, she was sought by police for cutting off an ankle monitor from a prior arrest.

In a 2018 court reckoning, which wrapped several cases cases together, Judge Martin Zilber declared Woodard a "habitual felony offender." The convictions included attempted second-degree murder, cocaine possession, credit-card fraud and battery on a law enforcement officer. With credit for the more than six years she's already served, she is expected to be released in 2020.

And the cycle continues: While Danielle Woodard serves her sentence at the Lowell Annex prison in Ocala, her children are being raised by someone else.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle and Miami Herald writer Adiel Kaplan contributed to this report