When every second counted, as students were screaming and dying in their classrooms, school security officer Scot Peterson hid rather than respond. His inaction resulted in his arrest Tuesday on charges of neglecting his duty.
Peterson stood alone in the Broward County Main Jail’s prisoner assembly room for his first court appearance Wednesday morning. He is charged with seven counts of child neglect with great bodily harm, three counts of culpable negligence and exposure to harm, and one count of perjury, records showed.
Broward Judge Jackie Powell set bonds totaling $102,000 with conditions that included surrendering his passport. His attorneys noted his passport was at his North Carolina home and argued Peterson should not be required to remain in jail while someone flies there to retrieve it. Powell denied the request.
The extraordinary case of a cop charged with failure to act could land Peterson in prison for up to 97 years — though some experts warn that the charges will be difficult to prove.
Peterson was the closest person to the gunman during the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and likely the only one who could have intervened when a 19-year-old former student gunned down 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.
While there was little time for anyone to save 11 people murdered on the ground level, authorities believe Peterson could have saved people on the third floor — if only he had tried.
Ten of the 11 criminal charges the 56-year-old faces stem from killings and injuries that happened on the third floor. The remaining charge accuses him of perjury during a sworn statement to investigators.
For taking cover rather than confronting the killer, Peterson has been branded a coward, nationally heckled and vilified.
“He should rot, that’s how I feel,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was on the third floor when she died. “My daughter was one of the last to be shot. My daughter absolutely could have been saved by him and she wasn’t.”
Jaime Guttenberg was shot in the spinal cord as she fled for her life.
“Had she had one more second she would have been saved,” Guttenberg said. “I hope they make his life as miserable as possible.”
Also on the third floor was geography teacher and cross-country coach Scott Beigel.
“If Scot Peterson had done his job my son would be alive today,” said Linda Schulman, Beigel’s mother. “One hundred percent had he done something, the active shooter would not have made it to the third floor, had he done his job, instead of standing outside like a coward.”
Peterson was arrested after an administrative discipline hearing at the sheriff’s office headquarters on Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
He was booked into the Broward Main Jail on seven felonies and four misdemeanors, including child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury. He also was fired by Sheriff Gregory Tony.
Peterson’s criminal defense attorney was aghast at his client’s arrest on “spurious charges that lack basis in fact and law” and called for them to be dismissed immediately.
“The state’s actions appear to be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution against Mr. Peterson,” said attorney Joseph DiRuzzo of Fort Lauderdale. “Today, the individuals who have made this charging decision have taken the easy way out and blamed Mr. Peterson … when there has only ever been one person to blame – Nikolas Cruz.”
Sentiments from the other parents whose children were murdered echoed one another in praising the decision to arrest and lamenting that it was about time.
“My heart is just beating because we’re over a year here and this is just now happening,” said Gena Hoyer, mother of 14-year-old Luke, who died in the shooting. “This is long overdue.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow, 18, was killed, also on the third floor. “Accountability is all I wanted, and now it looks like it’s happening.”
“He needs to go to jail and he needs to serve a lifetime in prison for not going in that day and taking down the threat that led to the death of our loved ones,” said Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter, Alyssa, 14, also died that day. “It was his duty to go into that building and to engage the threat, and he froze and he did nothing.”
The investigation showed Peterson refused to investigate where the gunshots were coming from, retreated during the gunfire as victims were being shot, did not move from his hiding place for 48 minutes and directed other law enforcement who arrived on the scene to remain 500 feet away from the building, FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Cary said in an emailed statement.
“There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.
A state commission investigating the school shooting was highly critical of Peterson in its report earlier this year.
Bob Gualtieri, chairman of that commission, said Tuesday at a meeting in Sunrise, that Peterson’s refusal to testify before the commission last year even though he had been subpoenaed “speaks volumes.”
“I’d say it goes to his consciousness of guilt,” Gualtieri said.
Peterson sold his home in Boynton Beach in January and bought a place on Seldom Seen Lane in Murphy, N.C., records show. His bond has been set at $102,000.
Also fired by the sheriff Tuesday for neglect of duty was Sgt. Brian Miller. He has not been charged.
He was the first supervisor on the scene, arriving in time to hear three or four shots.
Rather than rush in or take command, Miller was “an absolute, total failure,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said at a commission meeting last year.
Miller dilly-dallied while putting on his bulletproof vest and then hid behind his car without going on his radio for 10 minutes, according to the commission’s report.
“We cannot fulfill our commitment to always protect the security and safety of our Broward County community without doing a thorough assessment of what went wrong that day,” Tony said. “I am committed to address deficiencies and improving the Broward Sheriff’s Office.”
The investigation included 184 witness interviews, reviewed countless hours of video surveillance and resulted in 212 investigative reports and more than 800 hours of investigation, Cary said.
Sen. Rick Scott hailed his own directive calling for FDLE to “investigate the failures in Broward County last year.”
“Had this individual done his job, lives would have been saved,” Scott said. “Actions (or inaction) have consequences. We need more accountability, and that includes at the FBI, which has yet to show me a single example of how they’ve improved their processes following the failures in the lead-up to the Parkland shooting.”
Staff writers Wayne K. Roustan, Megan O’Matz, Rafael Olmeda and Lisa J. Huriash contributed to this report.