For months, members of the panel investigating Florida’s high school massacre have called the sheriff’s deputy assigned to guard the campus “a coward” for hiding and not rushing inside in an attempt to stop the shooter.
Given an opportunity to confront his critics Thursday, now-retired Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson sent his attorney instead before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Attorney Joseph DiRuzzo III told the 14-member panel he had filed a lawsuit hours earlier attempting to block their subpoena. DiRuzzo dropped a copy on the lectern and then walked away.
Fred Guttenberg, whose child Jaime died along with 16 others, said to DiRuzzo as he passed: “He didn’t do his job. My daughter should be alive.”
Peterson, the longtime deputy assigned to Stoneman Douglas, has become the second-most vilified person surrounding the Feb. 14 shooting after suspect Nikolas Cruz.
Security video shows Peterson arrived outside the three-story building where the killings happened shortly after the shooting began, about the same time the gunman finished slaying 11 people on the first-floor. Peterson drew his handgun, but retreated to cover next to the neighboring building. The video shows Peterson never left that spot for 50 minutes, even after other deputies and police officers arrived on campus and went inside.
Panel members have said they believe Peterson’s inaction allowed Cruz to climb to the third floor, where five students, including Jamie Guttenberg, and one teacher were killed. They believe if Peterson, 55, had confronted Cruz, who authorities say was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, and engaged him in a shootout he could have killed him or given others more time to reach safety.
“Other than the person sitting in a jail cell right now for murdering my daughter, the only other person who comes close to pissing me off as much is Peterson because Peterson could have saved my daughter. My daughter was the second-to-last to be shot … a few more seconds and she would be alive,” Fred Guttenberg told The Associated Press after DiRuzzo left.
Peterson, a decorated 32-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, retired shortly after the shooting rather than accept a suspension while his actions were investigated. He is now receiving a $100,000 annual pension. There had been speculation Peterson might attend the meeting but invoke the Fifth Amendment, as a criminal investigation of law enforcement’s response continues.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the panel’s chairman, said Thursday he wanted to ask Peterson, “Why the hell did he go hide and run away and not do his job?”
Peterson told investigators shortly after the shooting and reporters last spring from the “Today” show and The Washington Post that he heard only two or three shots and didn’t know whether they were coming from inside the building.
That is contradicted by radio calls in which he correctly identifies the building as the shooter’s location. Bullets also came out a window almost directly above where he took cover. About 150 shots were fired and were heard by others a quarter-mile away.
Cruz, a 20-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, is charged with the slayings. He has pleaded not guilty, but his attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
The panel also Thursday:
— Learned Cruz tried to get a ride from the brother of one of the girls who was wounded in the shooting. About 35 minutes after fleeing the campus, Cruz entered a nearby McDonald’s and sat down next to a student he knew who’d fled the shooting. Pinellas County Sgt. John Suess said Cruz and the student did not know the boy’s sister was a victim. He said Cruz was “pushy” about getting a ride from the other student’s mother, but did not get one. Cruz was arrested about 30 minutes later as he walked through a neighborhood.
— Saw video and reports showing Broward deputies and Coral Springs police officers couldn’t communicate by radio throughout the initial response. There was also confusion about whether the gunman was still inside the school because the video system in the office was unknowingly on a 15-minute delay. The officers searching the building where the shootings happened were falsely told he was coming down from the third floor at their position on the second floor, when in fact he had fled the building. That delayed the response to reaching victims on the third floor, where six lay dead or dying and four wounded.
The panel has been meeting periodically since April. By Jan. 1, it is required to file a report with Florida Gov. Rick Scott about its findings on the shooting’s causes and recommendations for avoiding future school massacres.