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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Terry Spencer

Victims' families walk though Parkland school massacre site, untouched for 5 years as evidence

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

For more than five years, the bloodstained halls and classrooms where 17 people died in the Parkland school shooting has remained locked away and mostly untouched — not even the victims' families were allowed inside.

That changed Wednesday, as heart-wrenching private tours began for relatives of the 14 students and three staff members who died. The 17 wounded and their loved ones will also be able to visit the 1200 building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, now that it is no longer needed as evidence in the trials of the convicted killer and the deputy who was just acquitted of failing to stop him.

The school district plans to demolish the three-story building, likely replacing it with a memorial.

Four families were led through the building Wednesday by prosecutors. Others are scheduled in the coming weeks. There might also be a reenactment of the Valentine’s Day shooting for a still-pending civil lawsuit against the deputy.

“I needed to see where my son was murdered," said Linda Beigel Schulman, whose 35-year-old son, geography teacher Scott Beigel, died while directing his students to safety.

"I needed to see where he tried to close the door that saved 31 of his students. I needed to be where my son was when he took his last breath,” she said, beginning to weep as she spoke to reporters across the street from the school. “I tried to say goodbye, but I can tell you, I can’t say goodbye. I can’t say goodbye. It has been five years and 151 days, it’s been 1,961 days and I still can’t say goodbye.”

Behind a chain-link fence, the building has remained a constant, looming reminder of the tragedy for the school’s 3,000 students, staff and anyone who drives past.

The building was preserved as evidence so that the jurors in last year’s penalty trial of shooter Nikolas Cruz could tour the building, which they did in August at the conclusion of the prosecution’s case. Cruz, a 24-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, received a life sentence after the jury couldn’t unanimously agree that he deserved the death penalty. The Associated Press was one of five media outlets allowed inside the building last year after the jurors left.

There are still bloodstains and broken glass on the floor, along with deflated Valentine’s Day balloons, wilted flowers and discarded gifts. Opened textbooks and laptop computers remain on students’ desks — at least the ones that weren’t toppled during the chaos. In one classroom, an unfinished chess game one of the slain students had been playing still sat, the pieces unmoved.

Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was fatally shot on the first floor, said stepping inside the building and walking its halls was one of the hardest things he has ever done, “superseded, of course, by seeing her cold body.”

“My first born. My only daughter. My beloved,” he told reporters.

Beigel Schulman took several items from her son’s classroom, including his sunglasses, a student’s exemplary paper he had mentioned to her on one of their last calls, his computer and his lesson plan. She also took photographs of his classroom.

“I took away memories of Scott's last day,” she said.

Prosecutors had hoped that the jury in the trial of former Deputy Scot Peterson could also tour the building, but the judge denied their request. Peterson, the school's on-campus deputy, was acquitted last week on charges he failed to confront Cruz during the six-minute attack.

Peterson has insisted that because of echoes, he could not pinpoint where the shots were coming from. He got to within 10 yards (9 meters) of a hallway door, but backed away without opening it or looking through its window. He took cover next to an adjoining building and made radio calls.

Montalto brought a tape measure with him Wednesday, saying the body of his daughter, one of the first killed, was 63 feet (18 meters) from the door — she could have been easily seen if Peterson had looked. Prosecutors and families have said that if Peterson had gone into the building, he could have shot Cruz or at least distracted him long enough that some victims could have taken cover or escaped.

Beigel Schulman said that if Peterson had delayed Cruz's arrival on the third floor by just 15 seconds, her son could have gotten to safety inside his classroom.

Peterson's defense attorney, Mark Eiglarsh, has called Peterson a “hero” who did everything he could given the echoes. He says that the families have been misled by former Sheriff Scott Israel and other officials who made Peterson a scapegoat to deflect from their own failures to prevent the shooting.

The school district wants to demolish the building soon, but five students' families want a reenactment as part of a civil lawsuit targeting Peterson, the sheriff’s office and others.

Attorney David Brill wants recordings made outside the 1200 building while someone inside fires blanks from an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle like the one Cruz used. If the judge approves the unusual request, the recordings would be played for the jury. The trial has not been scheduled.

“The evidence we already have in this regard — which includes evidence that the State failed to introduce in the prosecution of Peterson — is substantial and powerful. But we don’t want to leave anything to chance for Peterson to escape justice in our civil case like he escaped justice in the criminal case,” Brill said.

Peterson's civil attorney, Michael Piper, declined direct comment Wednesday.

“Our benchmarks of professionalism include respect for our community and respect for and deference to our trial judge in such matters. Extrajudicial comment on attorney Brill’s motion to restage Nicolas Cruz’s murderous rampage compromises those benchmarks," Piper said in a statement.

The sheriff's office declined comment.

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