‘It felt like an eternity.’ Parkland student testifies in trial of ex-school resource officer who stayed outside during massacre

Jun 8, 2023, 5:00 AM | Updated: 8:58 am

Two staff members view the memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 23...

Two staff members view the memorial in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 23, 2018, as teachers and staff return for the first time since the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Mandatory Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

(CNN) — Prosecutors in the trial of the former school resource officer who stayed outside a Parkland, Florida, high school while 17 people were massacred called their first witness Wednesday: a former student who testified she and her classmates rendered aid to wounded students as they waited for help for 20 minutes after the shooter fired into her classroom.

“It was the longest 20 minutes of my entire life,” said Danielle Gilbert, who was a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of the shooting on February 14, 2018, when prosecutors say then-Deputy Scot Peterson was in a “position of cover” for at least 45 minutes as a former student carried out what remains the deadliest high school shooting in US history.

“It felt like an eternity, and the whole time we were all just waiting for the police to come,” Gilbert said, “just to have somebody knock on the door and take us out of that horror.”

The state has accused Peterson, then a deputy with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, of failing to follow his active shooter training by staying outside as the shooting unfolded. Among the slain were 14 students and three staff members; 17 others were wounded.

Peterson has pleaded not guilty to 11 counts, including seven of felony child neglect and three of culpable negligence, which prosecutor Steven Klinger said stem from each of the victims shot on the third floor of the school’s three-story 1200 building.

He also faces one count of perjury, in part for telling investigators he heard only two or three gunshots after arriving at the scene of the shooting, the affidavit says, while other witnesses said they’d heard more.

But the 60-year-old, who retired as criticism of his alleged failure mounted, has maintained he did nothing wrong. Peterson has said he didn’t enter the unfolding scene of carnage because he couldn’t tell where the gunshots were coming from.

Peterson’s attorney argued Wednesday his client could not discern the location of the shooter, based on the sound of the gunshots, and reacted as best he could with the information he had, while Klinger told jurors the state has witnesses that will say they heard gunfire from the 1200 building, the scene of the shooting.

The case highlights the expectations for officers responding to active shooters as the country faces a seemingly endless scourge of gun violence, with schools such as those in Parkland; Uvalde, Texas; and Newtown, Connecticut, etched in public memory as the scenes of some of the most devastating massacres.

Gilbert testified she was in an AP psychology class on the 1200 building’s first floor on what was an otherwise uneventful Valentine’s Day when she, her classmates and teacher heard the “unmistakable” sounds of gunshots in the hallway.

Immediately, she said, they dropped to the floor and moved to the corner of the room by the door, hoping they would be out of the line of fire. But after about a minute, the shooter fired into the classroom, wounding four inside. One – 16-year-old Carmen Schentrup – was killed, Gilbert said.

The sound of the gunfire slowly diminished, she said, as the shooter moved up onto the building’s first and second floors. The students inside her classroom began rendering aid to the injured, using their jackets and blankets as tourniquets to stop the bleeding.

“Everything was in the moment, instinctual stuff,” Gilbert said. “It just came to us in the moment. We just knew what we needed to do.”

She was asked about Peterson’s actions that day and whether she ever saw him help any students. “I did not,” she answered.

On cross-examination, Gilbert reiterated she was on the first floor of the building. Peterson was not charged for the injuries and deaths that occurred in her class. She also acknowledged the sound of gunfire was less pronounced as the shooter moved upstairs.

Her testimony was punctuated by footage recorded from inside classrooms in the 1200 building, which was not shown to the public. But the sounds of gunfire could be heard as the fire alarms blared in the background. Students could be heard crying out for help.

Three other people testified Wednesday, and the proceeding was halted for the day with Coral Springs police Sgt. Jeffrey Heinrich on the stand. Testimony is set to resume Thursday at 10 a.m. ET.

Heinrich, who on the day of the shooting was doing volunteer yard work on the school’s baseball field where his son played, spoke about how law enforcement officers responded and how he used his active shooter training.

He said he mistook the first gunshots for fireworks. When he realized it was bullets being fired, he ran to find the shooter, he said.

“Our training for single purpose response is to go towards the sound of gunfire. When that stops, then you can stop,” he said. “But when that gunfire is going off, you … have to know that every time that trigger is being pulled that … someone’s life could be lost.”

He wasn’t exactly sure where the gunfire was coming from, he testified. He kept trying to locate it, and found a wounded victim who said he had been on the third floor in the 1200 building.

Investigation was ‘biased,’ defense claims

Gilbert was called to the stand after the prosecution and defense concluded opening statements, which focused on whether the ex-school resource officer reacted appropriately.

Klinger gave the jury an exhaustive timeline of the shooting, in which he said, “Seventeen beautiful people were lost.”

But when Peterson arrived on the scene, with gunfire erupting inside the school’s 1200 building, he took a position, Klinger said, in an alcove between the nearby 700 and 800 buildings.

“The defendant will never leave that alcove while the shooter is in the building,” Klinger said, adding Peterson wouldn’t move for about 48 minutes.

The defense has 22 witnesses who will testify they, too, were confused about the location of the gunfire, defense attorney Mark Eiglarsh said in his own opening statement. On the scene, Eiglarsh said, there was a “pronounced echo and reverberation” that left the witnesses wondering, “Where is that coming from?”

But other witnesses, including another staff member who was with Peterson when he arrived, understood what the former deputy claims he did not, Klinger told the jury: That the gunshots were coming from inside the 1200 building.

Another witness Wednesday, Ivy Schamis, who no longer teaches at the school, said two students in her first-floor classroom in the 1200 building were killed and four were wounded. The gunfire was “deafening,” she said. When the gunman directed fire at a classroom across the hall, the noise wasn’t as loud she said. Asked whether she saw Peterson that day, she said no.

Eiglarsh emphasized that the shooting unfolded over just six minutes and 36 seconds, and that Peterson was on the scene for the last four minutes and 15 seconds. When the first victims were killed on the first floor, he said, Peterson wasn’t even on the scene.

One person is responsible for the carnage that day, Eiglarsh said, showing the jury a picture of the gunman. He claimed his client was a scapegoat who was charged in this case after a “biased and failed investigation,” pointing to what he said was exculpatory evidence that was omitted from the report that led to charges against Peterson.

Before the shooting, Peterson was a dedicated and decorated officer who had served for more than three decades, Eiglarsh said, having received awards for deputy of the year and school resource officer of the year.

“What we have here is a man with a decorated history of serving the community for 32 years, and in literally four minutes and 15 seconds, they’re claiming he became a criminal,” Eiglarsh said.

Jury selection began last Wednesday, yielding a panel of six jurors and four alternates tasked with weighing the state’s unusual case, which experts have described to CNN as the first of its kind and a legal stretch.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office charged Peterson under a Florida statute that usually applies to caretakers, arguing the then-deputy, in his capacity as a school resource officer, was a caregiver responsible for the protection of the high school’s students and staff.

‘His actions cost lives,’ victim’s father says

Peterson was at the school administration building when the shooter opened fire on the first floor of the 1200 building, according to a probable cause affidavit. Peterson got to the building’s east entrance about two minutes later, per a timeline in the affidavit.

Peterson moved about 75 feet away and “positioned himself behind the wall of the stairwell on the northeast corner of the 700 Building” – a third campus structure – the affidavit says, calling it a “position of cover” he held for the duration of the shooting.

In a blow to both the state and the defense, the judge last week ruled jurors will not make a trip to the scene of the shooting, as the jury in the shooter’s trial did, CNN affiliate WPLG reported. Eiglarsh wanted the jury to see the exterior of the 1200 building, which has been preserved pending the trials of the shooter and Peterson, while prosecutors had wanted jurors to see the building’s interior, too.

Peterson’s attorney contends, in part, that his client’s confusion about the location of the shooter was reasonable and shared by others at the scene, including members of law enforcement, teachers and students, Eiglarsh told CNN. The lawyer also claims Peterson’s actions at the scene illustrate he was not negligent, he said.

Additionally, Eiglarsh disagrees with the decision to charge his client under the caretaker statute, he told CNN, calling the choice “preposterous.”

“He’s not a legal caregiver,” Eiglarsh said, acknowledging he understands the argument. “But he’s not a teacher, he’s not a parent, he’s not a kidnapper who’s responsible for the well-being of a child. He’s not hired by the school system.”

In the past, Peterson and his attorneys have argued the caretaker statute does not apply to him, emphasizing one person is responsible for the deaths and injuries that day: the gunman, then-19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder and was sentenced last year to life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury declined to unanimously recommend the death penalty.

That outcome angered and disappointed many victims’ families, including some who see Peterson’s trial as another opportunity for justice.

“We should not portray or allow the defense team or the deputy who failed to act properly to portray himself as a victim,” Tony Montalto, the father of 14-year-old victim Gina Montalto told CNN before jury selection. “He was charged with keeping the students and staff safe, and he failed to do so.”

“Regardless of the outcome in the trial,” he said, “I hope he’s haunted every day by the fact that his actions cost lives.”

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‘It felt like an eternity.’ Parkland student testifies in trial of ex-school resource officer who stayed outside during massacre