22-year-old Juan Javier Cruz was out with his friends early Sunday morning when a man suddenly approached them, shouting homophobic slurs. Cruz stood up to the gunman and was fatally shot—but he might have saved his friends’ lives.
After Restaurante Y Pupuseria Las Flores in Lake Worth, Florida, closed around 1am, suspect Nelson Hernandez Mena allegedly confronted Cruz and his friends, harassing the five men, some of whom are gay, threatening their lives.
“I hate you damned gays,” Mena allegedly shouted, according to BuzzFeed News. “I’m going to kill you all here.”
Cruz came to his friends’ defense. But Mena allegedly responded by unholstering a handgun from his pants and firing, fatally shooting Cruz and wounding another man. Cruz’s cousin, Pedro Cruz, believes Mena was targeting him, but that Cruz pushed him out of the way to save his life. Cruz died at the scene, in his cousin’s arms.
Mena was arrested at 10am on Sunday morning. He faces charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and aggravated assault with a firearm. As of Monday, Mena remains held without bail at the Palm Beach County jail.
While an investigation is underway, the Florida State Attorney’s office said it’s too early to say whether Mena will face hate crime charges.
“First-degree murder cannot be enhanced as it’s a capital crime, but any lesser charge could be enhanced if the investigation establishes hate motivation on targeting the victim,” spokesman Michael Edmondson told the Sun Sentinel.