6 Dead and 14 Hurt in Rampage : Florida Shooting Suspect 'Meanest Man on Block'

Times Staff Writer

William Bryan Cruse, a 60-year-old retiree with a bad temper and a sick wife, hated it when the neighborhood kids cut through his yard.

He knew plenty of curse words and he used them often. He owned rifles and guns and he used those too.

On at least one recent occasion, he fired warning shots over some teen-agers' heads. "Scared me to death," said Derrick Suarez, 14, who lives across the way.

But even the neighbors, who thought Cruse scary and ornery and maybe a little crazy, never expected the meanest man on the block to be arrested as a killer.

It is Cruse, Palm Bay police say, who went on a shooting spree Thursday evening that left six dead--including two police officers--and 14 injured.

Cruse was formally charged Friday with multiple counts of murder, attempted murder and kidnaping during a six-minute hearing. Circuit Judge Harry Stein ordered him held without bail.

Cruse seemed unmoved by the proceedings. "I had a car, don't know what happened to it," he said softly before being declared indigent.

In this city of 48,000 just south of Cape Canaveral--a booming place full of homes in fine, new developments and near jobs in high-tech factories--the events of Thursday evening became a suburban nightmare. A man's fury was spent in two crowded shopping plazas. People were slain at random in the parking lots. Hostages were held in a grocery, some rescued only after SWAT teams stalked their suspect through the aisles of bread and meat and vegetables.

"We tried to gain rapport with him . . . " Police Chief Charles R. Simmons said of failed negotiations during a 7 1/2-hour ordeal at the Winn-Dixie supermarket. "But nothing worked."

Police finally tackled Cruse in a haze of tear gas and smoke bombs. Cruse had dropped his weapons and rushed for a rear door. He kicked and screamed until subdued.

"Fought them all the way to the police car," witness Buddy Donald said.

After Washing Dishes

As pieced together from eyewitness accounts and police reports, Palm Bay's night of horror began at dinner time. Millie Cruse, hobbled and pained by Parkinson's disease, told neighbors that her husband had just washed and dried the dinner dishes and put them away.

"She said then somebody ran through the yard and her husband got upset and he just ran out after the kids," said Kathy Stearn, the neighbor with whom Mrs. Cruse is now staying.

William Cruse, dressed in camouflage pants and a white T-shirt, burst out of the front door, past the bottlebrush tree and oleander bushes that decorate his neat yard.

He carried a shotgun and he fired it in the direction of Johnnie Rich, a teen-ager who was shooting baskets in a driveway across the street. The boy collapsed, hit in the back but not fatally wounded.

To Shopping Center

Neighbors then saw Cruse hop into his white Toyota and speed away from Creel Road. He would wind his way a half-mile to the Palm Bay Shopping Center, location of the big K mart and the Publix food store.

When he arrived, he started shooting.

Stephanie Call, waiting on customers at the Hallmark card shop, stared at the commotion out the window. "He didn't care," she said. "He was amazing. He was just shooting at anything."

At his reach were at least one revolver and .223-caliber rifle. He had a satchel full of ammunition.

Ken Weiss, retired from the New York City Police Department, could not believe what he was seeing from the Publix ice cream counter, near the checkout line.

"He had two men on the ground--shot," Weiss said. "Then he fired one shot into one of the downed men's lower stomach. . . .

"He turned around and fired about seven shots toward the K mart." Frightened shoppers rushed out of the back of the stores. Others squirmed on the ground, peeking at the bloodshed.

Suddenly, Cruse was back in his Toyota.

"He then careened around in the car to Luria's (a jewelry store) and shot an elderly woman in a car," witness George Luniz said.

Cruse peeled across Babcock Street to Sabal Palm Square--just across the busy four-lane road. He opened fire in the parking lot.

The first police officer to respond to the emergency calls was Officer Gerald Johnson, 28, with a year on the job. His squad car pulled up at 6:24 p.m. Cruse killed him with eight shots into the windshield, officers said.

Then came Officer Ron Grogan, 27, a rookie cop. Police said he died in an exchange of bullets, trying to reload.

By then, the parking lot was strewn with people, some hiding beneath their cars, others wounded or dead.

Cruse rushed into the Winn-Dixie store, knocked over a cash register and started firing again.

Jan Roshto, 33, was in the checkout line, holding her 5-month-old daughter, Brittany. "I got to the back door and ran out," she remembered. "Then I ran to a ditch and laid on top of my baby."

Several other shoppers lay beside her, pinned down as Cruse fired into the twilight.

"Mothers and kids were running all over the place," said Ray Mendoza, a cook at a restaurant in the plaza. "It was chaos out there."

As Cruse rushed to the back of the Winn-Dixie store, many escaped through the front door. A few others were caught inside. Three hid in a walk-in freezer throughout the ordeal, and the gunman never found them.

"Trust us. We trust you," police implored through a bullhorn.

By 9 p.m., a siege was on.

Nearly 200 policemen from a half-dozen forces surrounded the store. Four SWAT teams moved into place. An armored vehicle hauled the wounded from the lot. A large helicopter was on standby in case of multiple casualties.

Police tried to negotiate with the gunman, using a bullhorn and later offering him a battery phone. He refused.

"He went from melancholy to fits of rage," Chief Simmons said of the brief, frustrating exchanges.

But finally, around 1 a.m., he agreed to release his final hostages, vaguely requesting in return a car or car keys.

Sixteen minutes later, the first tear gas grenades went off. Police crept in, securing the store aisle by aisle.

"You move, you're a dead man!" they shouted.

Cruse tried to bolt. The back door was his chance. They had to wrestle him down.

"It does not appear at this time that he is concerned one way or the other," Chief Simmons said after questioning the gray-haired prisoner about the lives he had taken. None of the questioning has yet produced a motive. Cruse has no prior criminal record.

Recent Contact

Police, however, did have some recent contact with the retiree, who moved here from Kentucky three years ago.

Last Friday, neighbor Ronald Stearn complained to police that Cruse had chased his 6-year-old son and frightened him with obscene comments and gestures. The next day, an officer came by to see Stearn.

"He told me Cruse admitted to everything," Stearn said. "He said the guy was really wacko and needed 72-hour evaluation.

"But get this. The cop said it was a Saturday, and it was too hard to get hold of a state attorney to file charges."

Problem Drinker

The Stearns have taken in Millie Cruse, who stood outside her home Thursday night during the ordeal, looking frail and confused. She admitted to them that her husband is a problem drinker.

"But she said she didn't think he had been drinking heavily (that night), maybe just a six-pack," Kathy Stearn said.

The Cruse home, white stucco with a red roof, has a for-sale sign out front. William Cruse, who told people he had a degree in library science, worked almost every day on his large yard. He considered the adjoining lots part of his property and did not tolerate stray dogs on a romp or children taking a shortcut.

Circulated Petition

Last fall, irate neighbors circulated a petition against their cantankerous neighbor. He had torn down a laundry line that was, he said, too close to his property. He had chased kids playing touch football near his house.

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