Samuel Cruz killing: New Rochelle man 'saw demons' and was off meds, sister says

Maribel Cruz, Samuel Cruz's sister, breaks into tears Maribel Cruz, Samuel Cruz's sister, breaks into tears as she speaks with News12 reporter Blaise Gomez at the entrance to her apartment building in New Rochelle. (May 27, 2013) Photo Credit: Caylena Cahill/Handout

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The sister of a mentally ill man fatally shot by a New Rochelle police officer Sunday after he tried to attack officers with a knife is demanding answers and questioning the tactics used by police during the incident.

"They killed him," Maribel Cruz, 46, told Newsday Westchester on Monday during a tearful interview in the lobby of her New Rochelle apartment complex, two blocks from where her brother Samuel was shot by police. "I don't understand why this had to happen."

Samuel Cruz, 48, was killed by a single shot from a yet-to-be-identified police officer who responded to a call from Cruz's sister and his estranged wife, Elsa Cruz, at his brick apartment complex on Hickory Street, a dead end road near downtown New Rochelle. Police said the officer had been put on "modified duty" pending an investigation.

Maribel Cruz said her brother, an artist, moved from their native Puerto Rico nine years ago and struggled for years with schizophrenia and other mental illness.

She said Samuel Cruz was on disability because of his mental illness and that he volunteered at the New Beginnings Club, which introduces children and adults to the arts. He had been trying unsuccessfully to sell his paintings, his sister said.

"He was a beautiful man, but he was sick," she said. "I know he didn't mean to hurt the police. He saw demons."

She said a local minister advised Cruz about a month ago to stop taking medication to control his violent episodes, but that she and other family members weren't aware he had stopped, though they recently noticed a change in his behavior.

Cruz had a black belt in karate, and his sister said police were aware of that when they confronted him Sunday.

"He threatened me in the past," she said. "But I know him. He wouldn't hurt anyone."

Cruz was estranged from his current wife, and has a 21-year-old daughter, Frances, with a previous wife who lives in Puerto Rico. His sister had not yet called family members there. She said she worries that they will blame her for his death.

"I don't know what I'm going to do now," she said, wiping away tears as she talked. "He looked out for me."

More than 24 hours after the incident, New Rochelle police had not yet identified the officer nor provided additional details about the incident. Police officials on Monday refused to answer questions about the shooting.

"Nothing more is going to be released today," New Rochelle police Sgt. John Inzeo told Newsday Westchester.

The officers arrived at Cruz's Hickory Street apartment about 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Maribel and Elsa Cruz told them Samuel Cruz was "emotionally disturbed" and "off his medication," police said in a statement.

When officers were unable to persuade Samuel Cruz to open his door, they concluded that "Mr. Cruz was behaving irrationally, in distress, and a potential danger to himself and others in the building," the statement said. The police then forced their way into the apartment.

At that point, Cruz threatened the officers with a knife, police said. The police statement said that the officers twice shot Cruz with a stun gun -- shocking him electronically -- but were unable to subdue him.

When Cruz then lunged at police with a knife, an officer fired a gunshot that hit him in the chest, authorities said.

Cruz was taken to Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle, where he was pronounced dead, police said.

Neighbor Keith Ross told News 12 that Cruz was usually peaceful.

"Normally, he's a sweetheart," Ross said. "From what I'm told, he's been off his meds for a couple months."

Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore is expected to conduct a routine investigation of the shooting.

Meanwhile, Cruz's sister was talking about hiring a lawyer after meeting with police officials Monday afternoon.

"They're trying to tell me they had no choice," Maribel Cruz said. "But I just don't think that's right."

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