Gateway mall shootings: Shooting is last act of a traumatic, violent life — (Tampa Bay Times)

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Tampa Bay Times

By JAMIE THOMPSON and CARRIE JOHNSON

Published November 20, 2004

Before Thursday’s attack that killed three, including himself, Justin Cudar’s temper often led to trouble.

ST. PETERSBURG – As the two cars idled at a traffic light, the teenager glanced to his left and noticed the other driver giving him a dirty look.

“You got a problem?” asked Marcus Ferraro, 18.

At the next stoplight, 25-year-old Justin M. Cudar jumped out of his car and spit at Ferraro, then kicked his door so hard it dented.

The light turned green and Cudar took off, tailgating Ferraro. At the next intersection, he got out and smashed Ferraro’s window with an anti-theft device.

Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies were still searching for Cudar hours later when his temper exploded in a more horrific way.

The day after Cudar took the lives of two innocent bystanders, then shot himself to death in a RadioShack store, a picture began to emerge of a man with a traumatic childhood who used violence to deal with problems. Last year, he was accused of trying to run over a U.S. Coast Guardsman with his car.

The tragedy of Thursday’s shooting is compounded by its apparent randomness. While most criminals have some link to their victims, police say Cudar never met the people he killed, nor had he ever worked at the RadioShack. Store officials don’t even have a record of Cudar as a customer.

Even Cudar’s twin sister couldn’t explain what set him off.

“I think all people have their limits,” said Jessica Cudar. “We all can handle so much … Justin had reached his limit.”

Signs of trouble

Cudar’s family got a hint of the trouble to come about 5 p.m. Thursday when Deputy Jason Brown arrived at the small gray house on 58th Avenue N and spoke with Cudar’s mother, Barbara.

The deputy needed to talk to Cudar about the road rage incident with Ferraro. He probably wasn’t going to jail, the deputy said, because Ferraro didn’t want to press charges. Still, he needed to get Cudar’s side.

Cudar’s mother explained that her son had left home with his gun bag, heading to the indoor pistol range at Bill Jackson’s in Pinellas Park.

Cudar had purchased the Glock .40-caliber handgun at AAA Firearms at 5018 66th St. N in early November for about $500.

Barbara Cudar promised to call Deputy Brown when her son returned.

Whether Cudar made it to the range is unknown, police said, and the company owner refused to discuss it on Friday.

But deputies believe Cudar knew they were searching for him. And they say he drove his green Ford Focus over to his grandmother’s house on First Street N, complained of car trouble and asked to borrow her blue Mercury.

Cudar climbed behind the wheel and, for reasons unknown, drove to Gateway mall.

“Senseless killing’

Flooded with families buying detergent, shoes and Thanksgiving fixings, the shopping center at 7951 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N was the last place anyone expected to hear gunfire.

The scene Thursday night was even more frightening because of the apparent senselessness of the crime.

“All violence is disturbing, but it’s more disturbing when we can’t even make sense of it,” said police spokesman Bill Proffitt. “People understand drug problems, robberies or domestics, but a random, senseless killing – with no meaning whatsoever – is troubling to most of us. That seems to be the common reaction to this homicide right now.”

Family members said they didn’t notice anything different about Cudar during the last few weeks. He had psychological issues for years but was never diagnosed with a mental illness, said Jessica Cudar.

She said the problems stemmed from a traumatic childhood. She declined to give details but said the divorce of their parents in 1990 was tough on the entire family.

She and her twin brother attended Riviera Middle School, where they both played in the band. Justin Cudar moved to Raleigh, N.C., to live with his father during his freshman and sophomore years of high school, but later returned to St. Petersburg.

“He didn’t like the cold,” Jessica Cudar said. “It was very isolated.”

Justin Cudar played football at Northeast High School and received good grades, according to his sister. But he drifted for a while after graduation, briefly attending St. Petersburg College, then spending a year at the University of Georgia.

Justin Cudar had been taking classes at the University of South Florida earlier this year, although he was no longer enrolled, according to university spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon.

Jessica Cudar said her brother was planning to study engineering psychology, which examines human interaction with technology, including problem-solving and mental workload.

“I think his own need for healing drew him to that field,” she said.

Her brother had been seeing counselors on and off for years to help him deal with his problems. But he frequently complained that the doctors simply prescribed him drugs rather than talking to him, Jessica Cudar said. He would take the antidepressants for a while, then stop.

“I don’t think he was getting the treatment he needed,” Jessica Cudar said.

Their father, Michael Cudar, said he thinks his son simply snapped.

“Something in him,” he said, “just went haywire.”

Pattern of violence

Police reports show violence wasn’t out of character for Justin Cudar.

In 2000, for instance, a 21-year-old student at St. Petersburg College had just walked out of class when Cudar, a classmate, approached from behind and punched him in the jaw, police said.

Stunned, the student fell down, then asked: “What’s that for?”

Cudar didn’t answer, just walked away.

The student reported the incident to campus security, saying the punch had knocked out a tooth filling. He didn’t know Cudar’s name, and had no idea why Cudar assaulted him. But he didn’t want to press charges, he told St. Petersburg police.

Last fall, a U.S. Coast Guard officer reported Cudar to authorities, saying he had tried to run him over near 21st Avenue S in St. Petersburg.

Shane Gallaugher was riding his bicycle when Cudar, driving a Dodge Neon, cut him off, police said. The men exchanged words and then Cudar drove directly toward him, Gallaugher said.

He jumped out of the way, and later decided not to press charges because of an upcoming transfer out of state, police said.

The next time Cudar’s name appeared on a St. Petersburg police report was in January, when a 25-year-old elementary school teacher said Cudar wouldn’t stop calling her home.

The woman told police that she hadn’t seen Cudar since high school, and that he had called her eight times, asking her out for dinner. She had a boyfriend, who warned Cudar against calling, but he wouldn’t stop, the woman told police.

Also, the gun Cudar purchased a few weeks ago was not his first. Police said he had at least one other gun, but they did not know whether he still owned the gun or had traded it for a newer model.

“Deeply sorry’

Given the circumstances, Cudar’s family said they are planning a private burial service.

They say the tragedy is especially heart-wrenching because in addition to their own loss, they feel sympathy and remorse for the families of the victims.  “We are so deeply sorry for this tragic event,” said Jessica Cudar.

“We don’t think this is who Justin was, but we also want the families to know that we’re very sorry.”

Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report.
[Last modified November 20, 2004, 01:07:06]