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News: Top Stories

‘I needed to watch my back’: The warning that led officer to seek cover in Parkland shooting

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 4/17/2018 By Lisa J. Huriash, Sun Sentinel
Students are released from a lockdown outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Florida high school shooting

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Coral Springs Police Officer Tim Burton rushed to get to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High when he heard over his radio there was a gunman there.

But when he got there, he found the school resource officer, Broward Deputy Scot Peterson, seeking cover behind a concrete column, he said. Peterson told Burton “I needed to watch my back,” Burton said in a report. So Burton took cover in a parking lot.

Burton’s firsthand account is among the reports released by Coral Springs police on Monday. Burton’s report stands out because he was both the first on-duty officer from the department to arrive. He also had an exchange with Peterson, who was criticized by the sheriff for his response.

Coral Springs has been releasing reports piecemeal over the past two months, amid the ongoing criminal investigation into the Feb. 14 shooting. The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people and wounded 17 others at the school.

Burton said he held back during a brief wait until surveillance video indicated Cruz had left the building. Burton wrote in his report that Peterson told him he hadn’t heard any gunfire for a few minutes and didn’t know where the shooter was.

Burton considered the possibility Cruz was hiding and preparing a potential ambush. So he held back in the parking lot, hiding behind a tree trunk and an SUV, until other officers from his department plowed inside.

a man wearing a military uniform: Coral Springs Police Officer Tim Burton, a school resource officer at Eagle Ridge Elementary School, talks on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 at the Coral Springs Police Department about his experiences responding to the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. © Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS Coral Springs Police Officer Tim Burton, a school resource officer at Eagle Ridge Elementary School, talks on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 at the Coral Springs Police Department about his experiences responding to the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Then Burton said he helped rescue the victims, including a girl who was shot in the hip. Because the girl couldn’t walk, he carried her to Pine Island Road and handed her to a deputy. He ran back and helped an officer carry a second girl who had been shot in the knee.

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 by 20 minutes. While police initially thought they were watching Cruz in the building, he had actually slipped away as students fled.

More deputies were in the parking lot that day, too, according to the records. Coral Springs Police Officer Gilbert Monzon wrote in a report that he saw two sheriff’s deputies in the parking lot. He asked them where the shooter was, but they replied they didn’t know.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office on Friday released records that showed other deputies arrived in time to hear gunshots. But they did not immediately enter the building where the shooting took place because they said they were unsure where the gunfire was coming from, the deputies’ reports said.

Monzon entered the building with other Coral Springs officers and found one victim on his back. A second victim, who had been standing against a wall, fell to the floor in shock, Monzon wrote.

He helped get the wounded person to safety, then went back in “to continue the search for the gunman.”

The hallway was “way quiet and full of thick smoke coming from gunfire.” The officers entering from another part of the school quickly made plans on how to avoid a crossfire. As they searched for the shooter, Monzon saw several dead students in the hallway.

He said the officers kept students in their classrooms because they didn’t know where the shooter was.

Retired Police Chief Tony Pustizzi, who ran the agency at the time of the school massacre, said the reports released Monday were “pretty consistent with what we thought.”

He said the bad information provided by Peterson led Burton to also stay outside for a few minutes. “It is imperative that the first officer on scene provides the most detailed information available,” Pustizzi said.

In February, Peterson resigned and then retired, after he was suspended without pay. He was the first deputy to tell sheriff’s dispatchers about the gunfire at the school. He initiated the code red that locked down the entire campus, and said through his lawyer that he didn’t know where the shots were coming from.

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do an investigation of law enforcement’s response, which is still ongoing.

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