Accused Florida cop returns home to Murphy
Miami – The Florida deputy who knew a gunman was loose at a Parkland high school, but refused to go inside to confront the assailant, was arrested June 4 on 11 criminal charges related to his inaction during the massacre that killed 17 people.
Scot Ralph Peterson was on duty as the resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the day of the February 2018 shooting, but never entered the building while bullets were flying. He was charged with child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury – allegations that carry a maximum prison sentence of nearly 100 years.
Peterson, 56, left Florida in 2018 and is now a resident of Murphy, N.C.
Peterson was seen on surveillance video rushing with two staff members toward the building where the shooting happened. When they arrived, he pulled his weapon and went forward but then retreated and took up a position outside, where he stood with his gun drawn.
The charges follow a 14-month investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which conducted interviews with 184 witnesses, reviewed hours of surveillance videos and compiled 212 investigative reports, the agency said.
Peterson “did absolutely nothing to mitigate” the shooting, FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a statement. “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives.”
Peterson was released on bail Thursday after Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer set bond at $39,500, down from the initial amount of $102,000. Peterson said nothing before getting into a car that drove him away.
Scherer also eliminated a previous requirement that Peterson wear a GPS monitor. His bond is secured by $330,000 in real estate and he will be allowed to return to his home.
While out on bail, Peterson cannot possess a firearm or take any job involving children, Scherer said. Peterson, dressed in beige jail clothes, did not speak during the hearing.
Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed, said she was surprised to hear of Peterson’s arrest. She recalled sending a text to her daughter when she heard there was shooting.
“I told her to hide, that help was on the way. Well, Peterson was that help, but he froze, and he failed us all that day,” Alhadeff said. “He was supposedly the good guy with the gun who was supposed to go in and meet the threat, and he let us all down.”
Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina Montalto, also 14, died in the attack, said families wanted justice to be done.
“We are happy to see some accountability for this tragedy,” said Montalto, president of the Stand With Parkland victim families’ group.
Peterson’s attorney, Joseph DiRuzzo III, said in a statement that Peterson is merely a scapegoat. He called the charges “a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution.”
“We will vigorously defend against these spurious charges that lack basis in fact and law,” he said, arguing that Peterson was not a caregiver, which he said the law defines as a parent, adult household member or other person responsible for a child’s welfare.
“The definition of ‘other person responsible for a child’s welfare’ expressly excludes law enforcement officers acting in an official capacity.”
Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican who was Florida governor at the time of the shooting, initiated the law enforcement probe. He said in a statement Tuesday that he was glad the investigation was finished.
“Now it’s time for justice to be served,” Scott said.
After the shooting, Peterson took retirement rather than accept a suspension.
He has been formally fired, according to Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony. Another deputy, former Sgt. Brian Miller, was also fired, although he faces no criminal charges.
“It’s never too late for accountability and justice,” Tony said.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice, said the key to the case will be the culpable negligence charge, which essentially means an “utter disregard for the safety of others.”
The perjury charge stems from a statement Peterson gave under oath to investigators contending that he did not hear any shots fired after taking up his position outside the school. Investigators determined through video, witnesses and other evidence that was not true.
The arrest is the latest fallout from investigations into the shooting.
Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended then-Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for “neglect of duty and incompetence” over the department’s actions that day. Israel, who is appealing that decision to the state Senate, said he intends to run again next year.
The case also spawned a state commission that issued a 458-page report detailing many errors before and during the shooting, including Broward deputies who stayed outside the school building and policies that led to that, such as Israel’s decision to change guidelines to say deputies “may” confront an active shooter rather than “shall” do so.
The commission also recommended voluntary arming of teachers, which state lawmakers approved this year.
The chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, said in an interview that the charges against Peterson were “absolutely warranted.”
Peterson “is a coward, a failure and a criminal,” Gualtieri said. “There is no doubt in my mind that because he didn’t act, people were killed.”
Nikolas Cruz, 20, faces the death penalty if convicted of the first-degree murder charges filed in the attack. His lawyers have said Cruz would plead guilty in return for a life sentence, but prosecutors have refused that offer.
Cruz is expected to go on trial in early 2020.