FORT LAUDERDALE — In his first interview since he was criminally charged in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the deputy who took cover while a gunman shot students and staff is doubling down on his defense: In the chaos of the scene, he said, he did not know whether the shooting was coming to or from the 1200 building at the school.
The distinction is key to Scot Peterson’s explanation for why he did not run into the building to stop the killer. His defense will focus on his assertions that he couldn’t confront the gunman because he didn’t know where he was, or whether he was firing at the building or from within it.
It is a defense that will surely face challenges, as Peterson repeatedly referenced the 1200 building in his radio transmissions the day a shooter stalked its halls, killing 17 and wounding 17 more.
Peterson, 58, is charged with 10 counts of child neglect with bodily harm for staying outside the building instead of finding and stopping Nikolas Cruz. Other than Cruz, who this week signaled his intention to plead guilty to all charges, Peterson is the only person facing criminal charges in the shooting.
Peterson and his attorney now are pointing to sworn testimony from someone whose support he was not expecting — former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel.
It was Israel, sheriff at the time, who helped shape the narrative of Peterson as a coward who failed in his duty. In a sworn statement Aug. 4, Israel agreed with Peterson’s view that it was reasonable for him to not know where the shots were coming from.
“I don’t think at any point he should have known precisely, unless he sees the killer, where the killer is firing from,” Israel said in excerpts of his deposition, released by Peterson’s attorney.
In that deposition, Israel also said Peterson’s actions were consistent with the belief there was a sniper in the area targeting the building.
Did that justify Peterson’s decision not to run toward the danger to save lives? No, Israel told the South Florida Sun Sentinel this week. In that interview, Israel said Peterson exercised poor judgment and should have figured out where the shooter was as the events unfolded.
“I believe as then-sheriff, that former Deputy Peterson should absolutely have gone into the 1200 building,” he said. “It wasn’t a training issue or a policy issue. It was an issue of courage. I’ve never wavered from that position.”
Peterson’s defense released excerpts from Israel’s sworn deposition, hoping to highlight the difference between hindsight and what Peterson knew as the shooting was taking place.
Peterson said Israel’s concession is pivotal because it supports his mindset at the time of the shooting.
“I did the best I could with the information I had,” Peterson said, “hearing what I heard and assessing what I heard, not micromanaging every move after the fact. It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback.”
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Defense lawyer Mark Eiglarsh did not release the full four-hour video of Israel’s deposition because, he said, some of the questions were irrelevant or private in nature. He confirmed that Israel said he still thought Peterson should have gone into the building.
Depositions are not routinely released to the public, and the defense in a criminal case is not obliged to share documents with the news media. At the Sun Sentinel’s request, the Broward state attorney’s office released a transcript of the deposition late Friday afternoon, and the full transcript confirmed both the excerpts and Israel’s further explanation.
Even with Israel’s equivocal support, Peterson will still have to overcome statements he and other witnesses made at the time of the shooting to convince a jury he did not know where the shooter was. Andrew Medina, a campus monitor who saw Cruz walking to the 1200 building and recognized him as “crazy boy,” drove Peterson to that location in a golf cart. In sworn interviews, Medina says he and Peterson didn’t discuss why they were headed to the 1200 building because Medina did not think it was necessary. He also said they heard gunshots as they pulled up to the building.
During and after the shooting, Peterson made several statements over the police radio that concentrated on that location. In one transmission, he specifically told other law enforcement the shooting was “over by inside the 1200 building.”
Even those words, “over by inside,” showed his uncertainty, Peterson said. He also told deputies at one point to stay away from the 1200 and 1300 buildings, another indicator he wasn’t sure, he says.
“I was looking up and looking around,” Peterson said. “It didn’t even dawn on me that it was coming from inside the 1200 building. I thought it was outside.”
Running inside the building while a sniper was outside also could be seen as taking cover, he said.
In a transmission minutes later, a deputy reported a wounded student by the football field, and Peterson is later heard asking that deputy, “Perry, does he know where the shooter is?”
Peterson pointed to that transmission as further proof didn’t know at the time.
One of the possible scenarios that Peterson cited was the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, which was committed by a sniper. It’s a comparison he began making publicly four months after the Parkland shooting but a year before he knew he was being criminally charged.
Authorities have not accepted his explanations. The statewide commission that investigated the response to the shooting found his explanations to be inconsistent with the facts and witness testimony, but Peterson hasn’t budged.
“I had no knowledge there were students injured or shot inside the building,” he said in this week’s telephone interview. “No Broward Sheriff’s deputy had real time information that the shooting was inside.”
Information that came from 911 calls went first to a Coral Springs dispatcher, which slowed communication to the sheriff’s office, which covers Parkland, he noted.
The Broward state attorney’s office issued a statement declining to comment on Peterson’s interview: “It would not be appropriate for our prosecutors to comment on this pending case beyond what is included in court filings and what they have said in court hearings.”
Israel said while he believes Peterson failed in his duty, he did not believe Peterson should be criminally charged. He agreed with the argument Peterson’s lawyer made in court in August, which was that a school resource officer should not qualify as a “caretaker” under the law Peterson is accused of breaking. A Broward judge rejected that argument, and Israel said his legal opinion is irrelevant.
“I’m not an attorney,” he said. “We’ll let a jury decide.”
- By Rafael Olmeda, South Florida Sun Sentinel