FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida sheriff’s deputy who says he couldn’t pinpoint the shooter during the Parkland high school massacre would have seen bodies if he opened a building’s door instead of backing away, a police officer testified Tuesday at the deputy’s trial.
Sunrise Police Lt. Craig Cardinale said when he arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School from his nearby home, he immediately ran to the three-story 1200 building because that’s where his son was attending class, ignoring the direction of Broward County deputies who told him it was too dangerous.
He said he and other officers went to the door that Deputy Scot Peterson had gotten within 10 yards (9 meters) of minutes earlier and could see and smell gunpowder smoke. They didn’t know that 14 students and three staff members were already dead or dying and that shooter Nikolas Cruz had fled.
“I immediately opened the door,” Cardinale testified for the prosecution. “About 25 feet in front of me there were a couple bodies on the floor in clear sight.”
Prosecutors allege that Peterson, the school’s assigned deputy, knew the shooter was inside the 1200 building but chose not to confront him during the six-minute attack on Feb. 14, 2018. Peterson insists that because of the gunshots’ echoes, he did not know the shooter’s location and took cover next to an adjoining building while he tried to pinpoint the sounds and summon help. Peterson stayed there for 40 minutes, long after the shots ended and other officers had stormed inside.
Peterson, 60, could face almost 100 years in prison and lose his $104,000 annual pension if convicted of felony child neglect, the most serious charges he faces. He is the first law enforcement agent in U.S. history ever tried for an alleged failure to act during a school shooting. He retired shortly after the shooting before being retroactively fired.
Earlier Tuesday, Kelvin Greenleaf, an unarmed school security supervisor, testified that he, Peterson and another unarmed guard had sped to the 1200 building in golf cart from the main office, arriving less than two minutes after the shots started.
Greenleaf said that when he and Peterson got off the cart about 10 yards from the 1200 building, it was clear to him the shots from Cruz’s AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle were coming from inside because they were loud.
Peterson drew his handgun, telling Greenleaf to back away. He said Peterson then took cover with him next to an adjoining building.
“He just had a blank look on his face. It was so much going on and I could imagine the stress, the pressure he was on,” said Greenleaf, who has since retired.
Cardinale said that when he spotted Peterson after it became clear the shooting was over, the deputy was pacing, his head down and muttering, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this.” When Cardinale asked Peterson who he was, he replied he was the school’s security deputy. Cardinale said he replied with an obscenity and told Peterson he should have been inside the building.
“It’s a stressful time for everybody in that situation. It’s a bad day to be a police officer, but you go and do your job,” Cardinale said.
Peterson sat with his arms crossed, shaking his head, during Cardinale’s testimony, sometimes passing notes to his attorney, Mark Eiglarsh.
Under cross-examination by Eiglarsh, Greenleaf testified that in seven years working with Peterson he never showed cowardice, immediately breaking up student fights, and never failed to perform his duties.
“He did a great job. Anytime I needed him for searches, fights, stolen cellphones — he was always there,” Greenleaf said.
Another security guard, Elliot Bonner, under cross-examination agreed that he frequently had problems with echoes in that area of the school when students set off firecrackers or blasted air horns. The echoes made it difficult to locate those students, he said.
Peterson is charged in connection with failing to confront Cruz before he reached the third floor, where six of the victims died. He is not charged in connection with the 11 people fatally shot on the first floor before he reached the building.
Prosecutors intend to conclude their two-week presentation Wednesday. They have called to the witness stand students, teachers and law enforcement officers who have testified about the horror they experienced and how they knew where Cruz was. They also called a training supervisor who said Peterson failed to follow the protocols for confronting an active shooter.
Eiglarsh has said he intends to call about two dozen witnesses who will testify they were also uncertain of where the shots were coming from. Because of scheduling conflicts, a few of them have already testified, including a deputy who arrived at the school during the shooting. He thought the shots were coming from the football field, more than 100 yards (90 meters) from the 1200 building.
For Peterson to be convicted of child neglect, prosecutors must first show he was legally a caregiver to the juvenile students, defined by Florida law as “a parent, adult household member or other person responsible for a child’s welfare.”
If jurors find Peterson was a caregiver, they must determine whether he made a “reasonable effort” to protect the children or failed to provide necessary care.
Cruz, a 24-year-old former student, pleaded guilty and last year received a life sentence, avoiding a death sentence when his jury could not unanimously agree he deserved execution.