By TERRY SPENCER Associated Press
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — When one of Florida school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s dogs died after eating a poisonous toad, he began to lash out at amphibians, a former neighbor testified Wednesday, adding that Cruz’s temper was so unstable that he should never have been allowed to own a gun or other weapons.
Paul Gold, who lived next door to the Cruz family when the would-be mass killer was 10 to 12, told jurors he knew Cruz had psychological issues from their first meeting, when neighborhood children turned themselves in home to play with his daughter and son-in-law. While he was showing them how to play pool, he threw the cue ball into the other balls during the break and the loud noise “freaked out” Cruz.
“He went and sat on the couch, holding his ears and moving up and down in a weird way. … He might have screamed a bit,” said Gold, who moved in 2011, seven years before Cruz murdered 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on February 14, 2018. He later described repeatedly seeing Cruz burst into anger and then apologize after to be calm.
Under intense cross-examination, prosecutor Jeff Marcus asked Gold if Cruz had any issues with loud noises when he fired 139 shots inside a classroom. After Cruz’s lawyers vehemently objected, Marcus rephrased the question and asked if firing that many shots would have been strong.
“Absolutely,” Gold replied.
Cruz, 23, pleaded guilty in October. The jury trial of seven men and five women will determine whether he is sentenced to death or life without parole. The jury must be unanimous to impose a death sentence.
His public defenders are in their second week of presenting testimony about Cruz’s troubled life — from his birth to a crack-addicted, alcoholic prostitute who put him up for adoption to a childhood full of emotional and psychological problems that, according to the witnesses, have never been sufficiently addressed.
Their defense strategy aims to thwart the emotional, gruesome, and graphic evidence and testimony the prosecution presented for three weeks as it described the murders and how Cruz planned the attack.
Gold met Cruz after moving in with his then-fiancée Rocxanne Deschamps, who lived next door to Cruz; Cruz’s widowed mother, Lynda, who was a close friend of Deschamps; and Cruz’s younger half-brother, Zachary.
READ MORE: FL v. Cruz: Parkland shooter penalty phase
Gold, like previous witnesses, said Cruz was a “strange” child who had trouble making friends and was bullied by his brother, who had grown bigger and stronger. He said that Cruz would become obsessed with subjects, recalling that he once had a year-long obsession with penguins.
“That was all he was talking about,” Gold said.
He recalled several occasions when Cruz erupted in violence. For example, Cruz got mad at him and started hitting a motorcycle trailer he owned with a golf club.
“It was just weird how angry he got, how unstable he was. It was very disturbing to watch. It was not normal behavior for a child,” Gold said.
But after Cruz calmed down on this and other occasions, he would apologize profusely.
“It was like someone else did it. But then it would do it again,” Gold said.
He said Cruz was close to his family’s dogs, and when one of them died after eating a poisonous toad, Cruz “went on a killing spree” against the amphibians.
“He tried to kill all the toads in the neighborhood,” Gold said.
He said it wasn’t until after the massacre that he learned that Cruz had several firearms.
“He wasn’t the kind of person who should have owned any type of weapon,” Gold said.
Gold, Deschamps and their family eventually moved on, then the couple separated and got into a nasty custody battle over their youngest son. Gold also developed a rift with the Cruz family after believing Zachary stole a computer.
After Lynda Cruz died less than four months before the massacre, Cruz and her brother lived with Deschamps for about a month.
During his cross-examination, prosecutor Marcus attacked Gold’s credibility, accusing him of offering to hire a lawyer for Cruz to prosecute Deschamps before the shooting, which Gold denied.
Gold also denied wanting to make a movie about Cruz’s life. This prompted Marcus to play a recording of a jail call in which Gold told Cruz that a movie producer he knew had suggested he do such a movie. Cruz said he didn’t want this, but Marcus accused Gold of trying to cash in on his relationship with the killer.
“Any exploitation of that would be terrible,” Gold replied.