Pedro Cruz felt the bullets whiz by him as he sensed his cousin’s arm move to protect him outside a downtown Lake Worth restaurant Sunday morning.
A chill went through his body — he thought he had been hit.
The next thing he saw was the blood pouring from his 22-year-old cousin’s head.
In an instant, Juan was gone.
Speaking in Spanish to The Palm Beach Post, Pedro, 36, reflected on the early morning events of Aug. 5, his emotional tie to his cousin and how he is dealing with the agony.
“Empecé a gritar. ¿Por qué mataste a Juan?” … “I started screaming. ‘Why did you kill Juan?’”
“There was nothing anyone could do for him,” Pedro lamented.
Juan died defending his cousin and friends after a group of men had harassed them in Restaurante y Pupuseria Las Flores on Lake Avenue for being gay, witnesses said. Pedro claims one of the antagonists mentioned the 2016 Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando where 49 people were slaughtered and dozens more were injured at the gay club.
Nelson Hernandez Mena, 48, was arrested Sunday and faces charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after the shooting that killed Juan Cruz and injured another man, according to The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
A friend of Mena adamantly denied to The Post on Monday that the fatal shooting occurred because of any racial or sexual prejudices.
Pedro is gay and his cousin had always been supportive, but Pedro never thought the man he considered a brother would take a bullet for him.
“I can’t sleep because I see Juan,” Pedro says, becoming emotional. “I hear him calling me and there’s nothing I can do.”
Mena, who remains in jail, admitted to drinking about 15 or 20 beers the night of the homicide, according to the arrest report. He told investigators Juan was not the intended target.
Mena’s first-degree murder charge can’t be prosecuted as a hate crime, said State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Edmondson, because it is punishable by life in prison. But the lesser charges against Mena, including attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault, could be elevated, Edmondson said.
What sparked the rage on Lake Avenue?
On Saturday, Juan, Pedro and a few friends had spent the day at a friend’s Quinceanera (15th birthday) and decided to continue the celebration at Las Flores, a local Salvadoran restaurant. Juan was looking forward to starting a new job the following Monday, Pedro said.
With tears streaming down his face as he recalled the grim details, Pedro said it all happened so fast.
“Never did I think things were going to turn out the way they did,” he said.
While the friends were celebrating, another group was drinking nearby, Pedro recalled. The two groups had very little interaction most of the night, but Pedro said one man kept staring at him, which was strange, but nothing seemed amiss. Another friend in the group also noticed one of the men giving them angry looks, according to an arrest report.
When one of Juan’s friends asked a man in the other group for his phone number, a person in the other group said “In Orlando, they kill you for that,” referring to the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub.
“Why would you say something like that?” Pedro remembered asking.
Throughout the interaction, Mena didn’t say a word. Pedro was uncomfortable with the exchange and decided to go outside.
Mena, originally from Honduras, followed Pedro out of the restaurant and told him “In my country, I kill these rats however I like.”
Juan stepped in and said to Mena “We’re in a free country and you can’t treat us this way. Who do you think you are?”
The semi-automatic handgun appeared out of nowhere, Pedro said.
Mena had pulled the weapon from his pants. Pedro encouraged Juan to relax. But the next thing Pedro heard was Mena firing his gun until there were no more bullets. Juan was hit in the head and their friend in the ankle in the spray of bullets, Pedro said.
Mena stated “he was very drunk” that night, according to the report. The shots weren’t intended for Juan and he didn’t mean to hurt anyone with his gun, Mena told investigators.
Santos Mendosa Figueroa told The Palm Beach Post on Monday that he was hanging out with Mena at Las Flores that night but he went home before the incident. When he left, everything was normal, he said. Figueroa didn’t remember much interaction with the other group of men, but he adamantly denied that the fatal shooting occurred because of any racial or sexual prejudices. Figueroa did not provide details on how or why he believed that.
Lake Worth has long been known as a city open to the LBGTQ community.
The diner near where Sunday’s fatal shooting occured is about two blocks from Compass Community Center, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender group.
The aftermath: Dealing with a tragedy
Pedro has had trouble eating and sleeping since the night of the murder, he said. Sometimes, he shouts out Juan’s name. Often, he asks God why this man killed his cousin. Pedro was hospitalized after the shooting because of a panic attack, he said.
“(Some) people said he died because of me, because I’m gay. They blame me, but it’s not my fault,” Pedro said. “If he had wanted to kill me, he could have. That would have been OK because I would be with Juan.”
Pedro, who has lived in El Salvador most of his life, claims he has experienced multiple acts of violence because he is gay. The abuse he endured in the Central America country just south of Guatemala and west of Honduras, helped him get a visa to the U.S., he said. Once here, he was attacked again for being gay.
Juan and Pedro, who both moved to the U.S. from El Salvador, always had a special connection, Pedro said. Juan used to say Pedro was the “primo” he most loved and the two were together all the time.
“I just don’t feel right. Here I am, alive,” Pedro said. “Juan didn’t have to die.”
Juan, who has always cared for others, came to the U.S. with his family when he was 7, his sister Erika Cruz said.
“It could be his cousin, a friend or somebody he didn’t know, and Juan would help,” said Amanda, who traveled from San Francisco when she heard the news. She said she’ll remember him as a hero.
Juan was especially close to his mother, Amanda Cruz. Though he had moved out of her house, he called her regularly to see how she was doing and would take her to church, Amanda said.
On the Saturday that he went to Las Flores, Amanda told him “Juan, be very careful,” she said. The last words he said to her were that he would be careful and that he loved her.
“He always told me, ‘Mom, I’m going to work hard to build you a house. Just be patient mom. I’m going to do it,” Amanda said through a wave of tears.
The family has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for the funeral this weekend. The funeral will be 10 a.m., Saturday at Palm Beach Memorial Park in Lantana.
This week, Pedro sat in his aunt’s home in Lake Worth surrounded by family, repeating the events of Saturday night and struggling to understand the incomprehensible.
“This is really hard,” he said. “I don’t know how I will ever get over this.”