Scot Peterson had spent much of the past three months in hiding, but now somebody was walking onto his porch and toward the front door. A motion detector activated an alarm inside his duplex. Peterson, 55, ducked away from the windows and bent out of sight. His girlfriend, Lydia Rodriguez, walked to the entryway and began to pull down a corner of the white sheet that now covered most of their front door. “Oh please,” she said. “What now?”
It had been exactly 90 days since Peterson’s last shift as a school resource officer in Parkland, Fla., where he had been armed and on duty as 17 people were killed and 17 more were injured, and ever since then a procession had been making its way to his door to demand accountability for another American mass shooting. First came the Broward County Sheriff’s Office to repossess his police cruiser and his badge. Then came dozens of reporters and television trucks, jamming into the cul-de-sac of a retirement community to broadcast stories about the “Coward of Broward.” Then came a court officer serving Peterson with a lawsuit from a parent whose daughter had been fatally shot on the school’s third floor. “Scot Peterson is a coward,” it read. “Scot Peterson did nothing. Scot Peterson waited and listened to the din of screams of teachers and students, many of who were dead and dying. He let innocent people die.”
“I’m not here,” Peterson said now to Rodriguez as she looked out beyond the sheet and sunlight streamed into their living room.
“It’s okay,” she said, waving at two octogenarians holding a bag of cookies on the porch. “It’s the neighbors. Jim and Kelly.”
Peterson invited them inside and offered them seats in the living room. Christian music played over the speakers and Fox News Channel was muted on television. “Thank God for you two,” Peterson told them. They were two of the only people who had come over after the shooting just to ask if he was okay. As the crowds grew outside his house, they had let him sneak out his back door and through their yard whenever he left to see his lawyer, visit a psychologist, or go for a drive when he couldn’t sleep.
“How are you managing?” Kelly asked.
“I have some okay moments,” he said.
“We’ve been worried,” Jim said. “We’ve been watching the news.”
“Oh yeah? What are they saying?” Peterson asked, even though he had already heard what they were saying and couldn’t stop himself from hearing it, even now. “A disgrace,” the sheriff had said during a news conference. “An awful human being,” one survivor said on national television. “A blight on law enforcement,” said a police union. “A coward,” said President Trump. “When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage.”
Their words ran in a loop through his head, because all this time Peterson had been wondering, too: What more could he possibly have done? Why had he failed to save so many lives in the exact scenario he had spent so much of his career training for — to find and kill an active shooter? He had worked as a sheriff’s deputy for 32 years, as a school resource officer for 28, and at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for nearly a decade. He was the lone deputy stationed at the school, sworn to serve and protect a community of students who called him “Dep,” honored him with awards, and invited him to proms and football games.
He had been admired and maybe even beloved up until a former student named Nikolas Cruz allegedly arrived at school with an AR-15. And ever since, Peterson had been living inside those next seven minutes. He had briefly considered changing his name or moving out of state, but even if he could somehow outrun infamy and embarrassment, he had decided there was no escape from the questions and doubts that consumed him.
“It’s haunting,” Peterson said now. “I’ve cut that day up a thousand ways with a million different what-if scenarios, but the bottom line is I was there to protect, and I lost 17.”
“Come on, now,” Jim said. “It’s not all on you.”
“But that’s the perception,” Peterson said. “You’re a hero or a coward, and that’s it.”
“People are looking for someone to point to and blame,” Jim said. “They’re just trying to make sense of it.”
“I know,” Peterson said. “So am I.”
It was in some ways the simplest kind of crime to solve: committed by one perpetrator who had surrendered and then confessed within an hour. And yet, months later half a dozen inquiries remained underway, each an attempt to derive sense and order from seven chaotic minutes. The FBI was reviewing its threat response. A governor’s commission was examining school security failures. The sheriff’s office was looking into radio malfunctions. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating the sheriff’s office.
Peterson had been doing his own investigating, too, studying dozens of pages of documents inside his duplex. He had rewatched surveillance footage and read witness statements, searching for a way to reconcile the deputy he believed he was with the coward who was maligned each day in the national news.
“How can they keep saying I did nothing?” he asked Rodriguez one morning, looking again through the documents on his kitchen table. “I’m getting on the radio to call in the shooting. I’m locking down the school. I’m clearing kids out of the courtyard. They have the video and the call logs. The evidence is sitting right there.”
“It’s easy to second-guess when you’re in some conference room, spending months thinking about what you would have done,” Rodriguez said.
“There wasn’t even time to think,” Peterson said. “It just happened, and I started reacting.”
He remembered being in his office on the afternoon of Feb. 14 when the first call came in to his school radio, as he was waiting to meet with a parent about a student’s fake driver’s license. On most days, that was his job: to police the small stuff — to chase down stolen cellphones, confiscate marijuana, lecture students for vaping in class, and break up the occasional hallway fight. Twice he had caught students with knives, but not once in the past decade had he encountered a gun. Stoneman Douglas was a high-achieving suburban school, with Audis in the student parking lot and packed PTA meetings each month. The school employed eight security guards to help monitor 13 buildings spread across 45 acres, but Peterson was the only person who carried a gun.
“If I have to arrest you, then something has gone wrong,” Peterson often told students, because his role was less to be an enforcer of the law than a friendly reminder of it. He had worked before as a corrections guard and as a road officer arriving at the scenes of fatal car crashes and homicides, but it was his work as a school resource officer that had made him one of the most decorated deputies in Parkland.
“Possible firecracker,” came the call in to his school radio at 2:21 p.m., from one of the school’s eight full-time security guards. “Firecracker over by the 1200 building.”
Peterson had dealt with fireworks on campus before, and if there were ever a likely time for one, it was now, during the last class period on Valentine’s Day. “Probably a few kids acting like idiots,” Peterson remembered thinking, and he stood from his desk and walked out to investigate. His office was a few hundred yards from the 1200 building, and he was heading in that direction with a security guard when a fire alarm went off. Smoke from the firecracker had probably triggered the alarm, Peterson remembered thinking.
He began running toward the 1200 building until one of the unarmed security guards swung by in a golf cart and offered him a ride. Peterson climbed onto the back and jumped off the cart about 20 yards from the 1200 building. The security guard drove away, and Peterson took a few steps toward the building before he heard two loud bangs. They didn’t sound like firecrackers. Maybe gunshots, he thought.
He remembered being unsure whether the blasts were coming from outside or inside the building, or if someone was firing shots in the adjacent parking lot or sniping from the roof. He didn’t know, and no one was there to tell him, and he remembered reacting in those first seconds by doing what he believed he had been trained to do: taking cover in a tactical position so he could clear the area. He leaned his back against the wall of an adjacent building. He took out his gun and scanned the surrounding palm trees, the courtyard, the windows, the parking lot and the roof. He waved at students who were walking through the courtyard and told them to clear the area. He reached for his school radio and gave a “Code Red” to lock down the school. He picked up his police radio for the first time just after 2:23 p.m.
“Please advise, we have possible, uh, could be firecrackers. I think we got shots fired. Possible shots fired, 1200 building,” he said, according to a recording of the radio traffic.
He remembered standing for the next several seconds with his back against the wall, scanning the area around the building for a possible shooter. Trees. Roof. Windows. Courtyard. Trees, roof, windows, courtyard. He could see much of campus from his position, but he couldn’t find a shooter. He remembered staying in place because he didn’t want to expose himself when he didn’t know where the shots were coming from. He remembered feeling certain the gunshots were coming from somewhere near or inside the 1200 building, but where?
“Make sure we get some units over here,” he said into the radio, still at 2:23 p.m. “I need to shut down Stoneman Douglas, the intersection.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Eli Saslow