The family of Juan Cruz, a South Florida man police say was murdered while protecting his gay cousin and other friends from a killer hurling homophobic taunts, dealt this weekend with the sudden loss of the 22-year-old. But it came as no surprise that Cruz would act so heroically even in the face of deadly violence.
“I know he would save anybody’s life,” says sister Erika Cruz. “It doesn’t matter if they are gay. It doesn’t matter if they are a friend or a stranger. He would still be of that mind.”
Those mourning Juan Cruz say he was always an ally, and partly attribute that to the number of loved ones in his own life who came out as gay or lesbian. Erika Cruz, now 27, came out as lesbian to her family at age 17 and recalls it didn’t phase her little brother at all. “He didn’t care if I was gay or straight; he always loved me the way I am,” she says. “He would tell me, ‘Girl, you are lucky to have a lot of cute girlfriends.’”
Though Juan Cruz always identified as straight, he had seven cousins who came out as LGBT. He was out with one of those cousins, Pedro Cruz, on Saturday night when a run-in with another group of people outside a Lake Worth restaurant turned violent.
Pedro Cruz, 36, breaks into tears as he describes the evening to The Advocate. An immigrant from El Salvador and a Spanish speaker, Pedro recounted events in his native tongue while Brenda Carballo, another of Juan Cruz’s cousins, translated the words to English. “I don’t understand and don’t know how to explain why everything happened the way it happened,” he says.
Pedro and two of his friends went out Saturday evening with Juan and ended up at Las Flores, a Salvadorean restaurant, and enjoyed a relatively uneventful evening. Pedro does recall a man, later identified by law enforcement as Nelson Hernandez Mena, in another party at the restaurant glaring at him through the evening. But Pedro says it wasn’t until he, Juan, and company left the restaurant that trouble began.
“We were leaving when the other group followed us to the entrance of the restaurant,” he says. “It’s hard for me to think about everything that happened.”
Juan and Pedro Cruz stood side-by-side when Hernandez Mena and four other men confronted them. One of the men in the other group said that in other nations, men like Pedro and his friends would get killed. Hernandez Mena then said, “In my country I kill them like rats,” according to Pedro Cruz.
Juan tried to break up the taunts, saying, “Man, don’t say that. We are in the United States and we are all the same,” Carballo recounts. “You need to calm down before we call the cops.”
But then Nelson took out a gun and started to fire, first at the ground. Pedro’s feet felt cold, and he worried he’d been hit. He hadn’t, but when he looked up at Juan, he saw that blood covered his young cousin’s face. “After that, he just fell to the floor,” says Pedro. “I yelled at him, ‘Juan, what happened?’ But he just never got up again.”
The scene turned to chaos and most of the men fled, Pedro says, while he tried to help his cousin. Neighbors who overheard the struggle called 911 and came down to help. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s investigators would contact and interview witnesses. Another person in Pedro’s party, who so far has not been identified by investigators, had suffered a gunshot to his ankle but would recover. Sunday morning, deputies arrested Hernandez Mena, a Honduran national, on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault with a firearm.
Hernandez Mena told police that he’d consumed 15 to 20 beers that evening, and that his pistol had been purchased off the street for protection. He alleged that Juan Cruz’s party started a fight and that he defended himself. A judge Monday denied Hernandez Mena bond. Carballo, who attended Hernandez Mena’s first court appearance, says the family wants justice and requests that the state pursue the death penalty.
Juan Cruz’s older sister Nancy Benitez this weekend posted a GoFundMe page seeking $12,000 to cover funeral expenses. Perhaps thanks to news around the murder, the page in three days raised more than $5,500, including more than $650 in anonymous donations.
In his 22 years, Juan Cruz lived a sometimes tumultuous life. He was born in El Salvador, and his mother, Amanda Cruz, left for the United States when he was just 2 years old, but she eventually amassed enough money to bring her younger children to the United States, including Juan when he was 7 years old. The fifth of seven children, he spent much of his childhood in Florida, attending two elementary schools between age 7 and 12 before moving to Charlottesville, Va., with Amanda, Erika (pictured below with Juan), and younger sisters Kassandra and Sarah.
He attended Jack Jouett Middle School in Virginia but didn’t continue his education past eighth grade. A little more than three years ago, he moved back to Florida and started working in various construction trades, first as a landscaper and later installing drywall. He worked for a short time as a cashier in Lake Worth, but was doing landscaping again shortly before his death, according to cousin Brenda Carballo. He actively sought a better job, and it was landing work as a painter that prompted his going out to celebrate with with Pedro on Saturday night.
“We were all like brothers and sisters,” says Carballo, who has handled many of the media interviews following the shooting. She says Juan never gave a second thought to whether anyone in the family was gay or straight, and would constantly tell his gay cousins and his older sister not to let anybody judge them.
“‘Always keep your head held high,’ he’d say,” Carballo recalls. “‘Don’t ever let nobody make you feel less than what you are.’ That was one of his qualities. And you could be President Obama or a homeless person on the street, he would talk to you the same way, with the same kind of respect.”
On Juan’s Facebook page, he mocked right-wing politicians and joked about partying. He regularly posted pictures of family, especially his young niece. He would post in English or Spanish alternately, and said that once he mastered Portuguese he’d be trilingual. The night of his death, he checked in on Facebook at Las Flores with the uneventful status update, “Just cooling.”
Family says that in real life, he sought to get his life on track. According to Pedro Cruz, Juan had set an appointment with an immigration attorney for Monday, the day after he died, and had plans to seek U.S. citizenship through the DREAM Act, which grants a path to undocumented individuals who emigrated to the U.S. as children and attended school in America.
“In my mind,” Erika Cruz says, “I think of everything that happened to him and it’s not fair. And I think of everything good he did when he was alive." Erika lives with her fiancée in California — Juan had told her that her current girlfriend was the one and that she needed to settle down. The sister last saw her brother in April. “We would always fight, to play and stuff, but we always loved each other,” she recalls.
The family members, still dealing with the aftermath of the shooting, have yet to finalize funeral arrangements but have gathered in Florida to support one another. Investigators say that in interviews with Hernandez Mena, the suspect indicated Cruz was not his intended target when he pulled out his weapon. That’s no surprise to Pedro. Juan was straight. He knows for whom that bullet was intended.
“I’m only here thanks to God and to Juan,” he says. “If Juan hadn’t pushed me out of the way, I would be dead, but at least nothing would have happened to Juan.
“I want to remember him as my hero. I will always remember him as my little cousin. He was just a kid.”
Pedro says that right now, he sees Juan’s bloodied face every time he shuts his eyes. “Sometimes I call to his phone, to hear it go straight to voice mail just so I hear his voice. I like to think he’s going to pick up the phone,” he says, “but he never does anymore.”