Shots Fired, But From Where? Stoneman Douglas Deputy Hopes Jury Clears His Name and Legacy

Scot Peterson (R) speaks with defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS/File)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS) — Four minutes and 15 seconds.

That’s how much time elapsed between Deputy Scot Peterson’s arrival outside the 1200 building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the last shots fired by homicidal gunman Nikolas Cruz on Feb. 14, 2018.

Seven people were murdered in those four minutes and 15 seconds. Others were critically injured. While the shooting continued, Peterson, a 32-year veteran of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, took cover outside the nearby 700 building.

Prosecutors and the defense agree that one person is responsible for the 17 murders and attempted murders that took place that day — Nikolas Cruz, who is serving multiple life sentences.

But for what he did and failed to do in that time fame, Peterson is facing trial for six counts of aggravated child neglect with great bodily injury, with the students who were slain and injured on the third floor as the victims.

His professional reputation hangs in the balance, as do his legacy, his pension and his freedom — will he be remembered as “the coward of Broward” who took cover instead of taking action and saving lives? Or will he be counted among the many law-enforcement officers whose best were, tragically, no match for a determined mass murderer?

Jury selection in Peterson’s trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday. Peterson’s lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh, is convinced that once presented with the evidence, the jury will clear Peterson’s name.

In legal documents and official statements, prosecutors have laid out their case: Peterson arrived outside the east entrance of the 1200 building and heard shots coming from inside. Instead of racing into the building and confronting the shooter, he ran from the building and took cover nearby. He got on his radio and told his fellow officers the shots were coming from the 1200 building. Had he gone into the building after Aaron Feis was shot and killed, the lives lost on the third floor might have been spared — Peter Wang, Jaime Guttenberg, Meadow Pollack, Cara Loughran, Joaquin Oliver, Scott Biegel.

“If he had been doing his job, I think he could have saved everyone on that third floor,” Meadow Pollack’s father, Andrew, said in a 2018 interview.

For Peterson, legal problems began, publicly, eight days after the shooting that left a total of 17 people dead and 17 injured.

Then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel held a news conference faulting Peterson for his failure to enter the 1200 building. From that day forward, Peterson came to represent everything that went wrong that day from a law-enforcement perspective. Parents sued Nikolas Cruz, the Broward School District, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and, by name, Deputy Scot Peterson.

From those earliest days, Peterson has insisted he did nothing wrong.

Eiglarsh pointed to dozens of radio transmissions, surveillance recordings and interviews that appear to back Peterson’s version of events. If jurors believe him, he walks.

Peterson’s first indication that something was wrong at Stoneman Douglas came as Cruz made his way through the first floor, killing 11 people. Peterson told investigators he raced to the scene after learning there might have been firecrackers being fired. Video shows he got a ride in a cart from campus monitor Andrew Medina.

When he arrived outside the east entrance to the 1200 building, Cruz had already gone through the first floor.

Two seconds before 2:24 p.m., Cruz fired the shots that killed football coach Aaron Feis at the west entrance on the ground floor. The west entrance door was open. For someone standing on the other side of the building, the sound of the gunshots could have sounded like they were coming from anywhere. The parking lot north of the building? The 1300 building just to the west? Peterson has said in multiple interviews, including one with the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2021, that he had no idea. He took cover outside the 700 building, just south of 1200.

He also made a radio transmission.

“Be advised we have possible, could be firecrackers. I think we have shots fired, possible shots fired, 1200 building.”

He now says he was using the building as a reference point, not declaring that’s where the gunfire originated. He made three more references to the 1200 building. But he and others made statements that appeared to indicate the shots could be coming from elsewhere.

Deputy Michael Kratz thought the sounds were coming from the area of the football field, west of the 1300 building, which itself is west of the 1200 building.

For Peterson to know with certainty that the shots were coming from inside the 1200 building, he would have had to ignore what other deputies were saying in radio transmissions.

Peterson was not privy to the information that was coming over the 911 dispatch. Coral Springs Police were getting the 911 calls from inside the building, but in the four minutes and 15 seconds after he arrived at the scene, Peterson was unaware that the Broward Sheriff’s Office was not receiving the same information.

Whether Peterson should have known the origin point of the gunfire is one of the main questions the jury will have to sort out.

Another question is technical, Eiglarsh said, but crucial.

Prosecutors have charged Peterson with a crime that can be committed only by someone who is a “caretaker” to the children who were harmed. Eiglarsh has argued that law-enforcement officers are specifically excluded from the definition of “caretaker” under Florida law.

Broward Circuit Judge Martin Fein is leaving that question, as well, to the jury.

Attorneys and the judge are expecting jury selection to last about two weeks, with testimony beginning June 15. The judge issued a schedule anticipating the trial will continue into August.

Fein has not ruled on whether the jury will tour the exterior or the interior of the 1200 building.

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