The hero who saved his gay friends: Juan Cruz was out celebrating a new job with friends, whose lives he would save.
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.
Source: The Advocate, August 9, 2017
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