Broward County

‘It was so preventable it eats at me.’ Wife of slain Parkland staffer angry at BSO

Animation breaks down cops’ response to Parkland massacre

Animation produced by state investigators shows how Broward Sheriff's Office deputies waited on the edge of campus after Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Coral Springs Police Department officers rushed in.
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Animation produced by state investigators shows how Broward Sheriff's Office deputies waited on the edge of campus after Nikolas Cruz shot and killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Coral Springs Police Department officers rushed in.

When Chris Hixon ran into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s freshman building at 2:22 p.m. on Feb. 14, Nikolas Cruz aimed a high-powered, semiautomatic Smith & Wesson rifle down the hall and shot him.

Hixon crawled for cover. Cruz, a former student who had opened fire a minute earlier on helpless teenagers, approached the athletic director and shot him again point-blank in the chest.

For 10 minutes, Hixon lay there bleeding, even though eight Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies were at Stoneman Douglas in time to hear gunshots coming from the building. The 49-year-old U.S. Navy veteran clung to life, waiting for rescue. For his wife, Debbie Hixon, the pain of imagining those moments is almost unbearable.

“He sat there for [so long] before somebody came in the building,” she told the Miami Herald. “It was so preventable it eats at me.”

It’s not clear her husband would have survived if first responders had reached him sooner. But it’s possible.

He was alive when Coral Springs Police Department officers ran around BSO deputies taking cover and finally went into the freshman building at 2:32 p.m. Officers who found him said he was still moving and breathing but couldn’t communicate. It had taken them only two minutes since arriving on campus to figure out where the shooting had happened and get inside. (Cruz had already dropped his rifle and fled.)

Coral Springs Detective Gilbert Monzon and Officer Bryan Wilkins dragged Hixon back out the building’s west door. Then officers and BSO deputies who had caught up with their Coral Springs counterparts loaded him onto the back of a golf cart so he could be evacuated to an ambulance.

He died on the way to the hospital.

After all that time waiting for help, “I don’t even know how it’s even possible he was still alive,” Debbie Hixon said. “I would rather think that he didn’t suffer.”

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Athletic director Chris Hixon was killed in the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February. A U.S. Navy veteran, he bled out as Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies waited nearby, dying on the way to the hospital. Courtesy Photo

The details of Chris Hixon’s death were part of an exacting second-by-second breakdown presented this week at meetings of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission in Sunrise. The state commission is investigating school safety and law enforcement’s chaotic response to the massacre. Sixteen other people died, too. Among them were two staff members — assistant football coach Aaron Feis and geography teacher Scott Beigel — who, like Hixon, died trying to protect students. Seventeen people were wounded but survived.

Commission members made it clear they thought Coral Springs had performed better than BSO. Deputies began arriving at Stoneman Douglas two minutes after Hixon, a campus monitor, was shot. But they took time to put on vests, talk on the radio and take cover behind their cars. None came in for harsher criticism than former school resource officer Scot Peterson, who was at Stoneman Douglas when the shooting began. Peterson even approached the building where Hixon was shot, only to seemingly retreat when he heard gunfire. He radioed to other deputies that there were shots fired at the freshman building and that deputies should stay away from the area. No one approached.

“You need to be going in towards the gunshots,” said commission chairman Bob Gualtieri, the Pinellas County sheriff.

Gualtieri also faulted BSO Sgt. Brian Miller, who was the ranking officer on scene for several crucial minutes early in the shooting.

“He sat up on Holmberg Road for 10 minutes,” Gualtieri said. “He heard gunshots and he didn’t move. He never got on the radio. ... He didn’t act.”

Coral Springs officers were alerted to the shooting four minutes after BSO and so began arriving on campus later. But they rushed straight toward the freshman building. Still, by the time they made entry, Cruz had left. They missed him by nearly five minutes.

On Thursday, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel appeared before the commission. Israel said he had not examined details of his deputies’ conduct at the shooting, in deference to the commission’s investigation. That allowed him to avoid answering tough questions. But he promised to hold deputies accountable if they failed.

“If we find out that one or more deputies chose a path of inaction, they will be disciplined, and they will be disciplined swiftly,” Israel said.

BSO has previously said that radio breakdowns and a lack of information sharing with Coral Springs, as well as bad orders from Peterson, who later resigned, hindered the response. A BSO spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Deputies may have failed to act swiftly, but there were other factors at play, too. Cruz — a bizarre, violent teenager whose internet search history showed a fascination with homicide and rape — was able to legally buy rifles and shotguns. The rifle he used at Stoneman Douglas was so deadly it was capable of shooting 34 people in just three-and-a-half minutes. And security monitors didn’t stop Cruz from coming on campus.

One monitor, Andrew Medina, said minutes after the shooting that he recognized Cruz as a troubled former student and even realized he was carrying a rifle bag, according to body-camera footage obtained by commission investigators. But he didn’t stop Cruz.

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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Spectrum Bay News 9

Despite the chaos, many deputies and officers performed well, said commission investigator John Suess, a Pinellas Sheriff’s sergeant.

“There are a great number of officers and deputies who responded in an appropriate manner,” Suess said. “Officers broke down crying. It was obviously a very trying and traumatic experience for these officers and deputies as well.”

Suess and other investigators were thanked by commission member Max Schachter, whose son Alex was among those killed.

“The only thing these 17 families wanted was to find out the truth and have some accountability,” Schachter said. “I can’t even imagine the countless ... hours it took to put this [investigation] together.”

Cruz, meanwhile, was able to walk off campus undetected after leaving the freshman building. He even had time to go to Walmart and buy a drink before being arrested.

Hixon’s family had planned to host a surprise 50th birthday party for him. Instead, they held a funeral.

“He took students into his arms and into his house,” former colleague Frank Valliere said. “He put others in front of himself in everything he did.”

Miami Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas
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