FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The veteran Florida detective who led the investigation into the 2018 Parkland high school massacre wept on the witness stand Wednesday, saying the school's assigned deputy could have prevented the deaths of some of the 17 people murdered if he had charged into a building instead of taking cover.
Broward County Detective John Curcio, a homicide detective for 25 years and the prosecution's final witness, had been on the stand for two hours when a prosecutor asked him what Deputy Scot Peterson's objective should have been during Nikolas Cruz's six-minute attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, that left 14 students and three staff members dead.
“The goal is to stop him (Cruz) from killing people. That doesn't mean killing him, it means slowing him down. It means distracting him. It means doing anything so that kids can find safety,” Curcio said, his voice breaking.
Peterson, the school’s assigned deputy, stayed outside the three-story 1200 building where the shootings happened, taking cover nearby. Prosecutors say he is guilty of felony child neglect for failing to protect the juvenile students killed and seriously wounded after he arrived at the building, about two minutes into the massacre.
The bulk of Curcio's testimony involved his interview with Peterson two days after the shooting, well before the deputy's actions came into question.
Peterson insists that he didn't go into the building because the shots' echoes made it impossible for him to tell where they were coming from.
Under cross-examination, Curcio conceded that Peterson and other Broward deputies at the school were hampered poor communication systems. The sheriff's office antiquated radio system failed when numerous deputies tried to transmit simultaneously. A 911 system sent calls from students and teachers to the neighboring Coral Springs police department, which has a separate communications system. Information from those calls was never transmitted to Peterson or other deputies in Broward County.
Prosecutors Christopher Killoran, Kristen Gomes and Steven Klinger rested their case after Curcio finished testifying. Over two weeks, they presented security videos and testimony of police officers, teachers, security guards and students to argue that Peterson knew where the shots were coming from but chose not to confront the shooter. A training supervisor testified that Peterson did not follow protocols for confronting an active shooter.
Peterson, 60, is the first U.S. law enforcement officer ever charged for an alleged failure to act during a school shooting.
After approaching the building’s doors, he backed away and took cover next to a neighboring building, his handgun drawn. He stayed in place for 40 minutes, long after the shooting stopped.
What Peterson heard and saw during the shooting is the key issue in the trial. He is charged with child neglect and culpable negligence for failing to confront Cruz before the gunman reached the classroom building’s third floor, where six of the victims died. Peterson is not charged in connection with the deaths of 11 people killed on the first floor before he reached the building.
Peterson says he didn't confront the shooter because he couldn't locate him. On Wednesday, his attorney Mark Eiglarsh began presenting testimony from a witnesses who also said they were confused about where the shots were coming from.
Suzanne Camel, then a Stoneman Douglas math teacher, told the court she was in her classroom in an adjoining structure that faced the 1200 building. She said the shots were so loud she thought a student was throwing firecrackers against her door. She went outside but saw nothing. She shooed one panicking student into her classroom and then ducked behind a barrier as she tried to figure out where the bangs were coming from.
“It sounded like the building was collapsing — it was huge,” she said.
Other witnesses, including students and a deputy who arrived during the shooting, also testified they thought the shots were coming from the football field — more than 100 yards (90 meters) from the 1200 building.
If Peterson is convicted of felony child neglect, he could be sentenced to nearly 100 years in prison and lose his $104,000 annual pension. He had spent nearly three decades working at schools, including nine years at Stoneman Douglas. He retired shortly after the shooting and was then fired retroactively.
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.
Similarly to Peterson, Texas authorities are investigating officers in the town of Uvalde who didn’t confront the shooter who killed 19 elementary students and two teachers last year. None have been charged, however.
Cruz, 24, pleaded guilty and last year received a life sentence, avoiding a death sentence when his jury could not unanimously agree he deserved execution.