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Bad info from school cop hindered rescue at Stoneman Douglas, tapes reveal

Inaccurate information from school police officer Scot Peterson kept police waiting outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as students lay dead or wounded inside, according to radio tapes released Wednesday.

One of the first officers on the scene radioed dispatchers about confusion over the whereabouts of gunman Nikolas Cruz.

Peterson, the school’s resource officer, told him that Cruz was last seen in a parking lot outside the building.

“I’m with Douglas’ SRO, getting info,” Coral Springs Officer Tim Burton radioed at 2:29 p.m. He said he was waiting outside the school with rifle in hand — not knowing that Cruz had left the building about a minute earlier after killing 17 staff and students and wounding 17 others.

The police tapes, released by Coral Springs police, provide more evidence that Peterson mishandled the crisis in its earliest stages, one of several lapses in the law enforcement response.

Former Coral Springs Police Chief Tony Pustizzi, who retired from the department this month, said Wednesday that his agency lost a few valuable minutes because of the misinformation.

“By not telling the (officers that) shots were fired from the building, he made it sound like the shooter was out of the school,” Pustizzi said of Peterson. “Did he not know? He can hear the shots being fired.”

Peterson has been vilified publicly since Sheriff Scott Israel confirmed that the deputy waited outside rather than go in and confront Cruz.

Peterson has since resigned and retired.

An attorney representing Peterson said his client believed the gunshots were coming from outside buildings on campus. But Peterson’s own radio transmissions suggest he had focused on the 1200 building, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Two minutes after Cruz entered the building, Peterson is seen on surveillance video near the southeast corner of the building, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Peterson told dispatchers, “Be advised we have possible, could be firecrackers. I think we have shots fired, possible shots fired, 1200 building,” according to sheriff’s records.

Peterson’s attorney, Joseph DiRuzzo, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Pustizzi said Peterson told Burton the shooter could be outside, warning, “Watch out behind you, you could be in a bad position.”

That left Burton uncertain about where he should be, especially because the shooting had already stopped, Pustizzi said. The campus was eerily quiet, with students hunkered down, he said.

“He just didn’t know where to go,” Pustizzi said.

Police had trouble tracking Cruz partly because officers looking at security footage didn’t realize — or didn’t tell their colleagues — that the video they were watching was delayed 20 minutes and not live. While they believed they were watching Cruz in the building, he had actually slipped away as students fled.

“BSO just advised, they do have him on video running out of the west side of the building,” an officer tells a dispatcher. “That’s not now, that’s previously. I’ll get a time frame.”

One officer says, “They have him on video, and it appears that he’s running with the group of students that were clearing from Douglas.”

Meanwhile, officers began to move the wounded out of the school building.

“We’ve got a victim down in the hallway. Clear to go get him?” the officer tells the dispatcher, asking permission to proceed. “He has gunshot wounds on the third floor.”

The first two agencies on the scene — Coral Springs and the Sheriff’s Office — have separate systems for 911 calls and police radios. The county’s police radio system, used by the Sheriff’s Office, crashed at times during the response.

The radio problems left some law enforcement officers unable to communicate and hear from dispatchers on the county system. They included Broward Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jan Jordan, who commands the Parkland district for the agency. She was sometimes not able to hear what was coming over the radios.

It also forced officers at times to ditch their radios, use hand signals and stay in groups to relay information to each other, according to the radio transmissions.

“We’re kind of running two separate operations,” an officer says on the radio.

The transmissions also captured the dramatic moment when Coconut Creek Police Officer Michael Leonard arrested Cruz, 2 1/2 miles from the school.

“Coconut Creek India 4, I have the suspect Nikolas Cruz,” Leonard said in an even tone.

Then he yelled forcefully at Cruz: “Stand by right there, do not move.”

© 2018 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.