Broward County

‘The cavalry is here, I can let go’: Inside the long wait for help at Parkland massacre

Chris Hixon wasn’t just still alive when police finally entered the freshman building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He was still standing.

Just inside the building’s west door, Hixon was leaning against a wall and holding a radio in his right hand, said Coral Springs cop Bryan Wilkins, one of the first four law enforcement officers to see the carnage of Florida’s worst school shooting.

Eleven minutes earlier, Hixon, the school’s athletic director, had heard gunshots and dashed into the building to stop a heavily armed killer. He had been shot. Now, he was dying.

“When he saw us, he f---ing just ... he hit the ground,” Wilkins said in an interview with Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents that was released Wednesday. “Almost like the cavalry is here, I can f---ing let go.”

Investigators are probing how effectively law enforcement responded to the Feb. 14 Parkland massacre. The Miami Herald and Sun Sentinel sued to obtain the statements they took from cops.

Wilkins and other first responders got Hixon, 49, into a golf cart and then to where paramedics were staging. He died before reaching the hospital.

While Hixon waited for rescue at Stoneman Douglas, Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies waited outside. Some crouched behind their cars with guns drawn. Coral Springs Police Department officers, who arrived after BSO, blew by them. They had to. From the parking lot, one Coral Springs officer said he could see the body of football coach Aaron Feis outside the freshman building. And there were bullet holes in the third-floor windows, where former student Nikolas Cruz had tried and failed to shoot out the hurricane-resistant glass.

BSO could see all that, too, Coral Springs officers said.

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Athletic director Chris Hixon was killed in the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February. He bled to death as Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies waited nearby. Courtesy Photo

As Wilkins approached the freshman building, he said that a deputy taking cover behind a tree told him the shooter was on the third floor.

The deputy had his rifle trained on the third floor, said Wilkins, who admitted his own eyes “got ... big” when he saw how many bullet holes were in the glass.

Then the BSO deputy “said something very stupid, okay, that’s not reflected in my report,” Wilkins said. “Which is ‘we all can’t stand behind this tree, we’re gonna get shot.’ ”

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, set up after the Parkland tragedy to improve school safety, identified that deputy as being “consistent in appearance” with Art Perry, a veteran BSO deputy. (Perry could not be reached Wednesday evening.)

By the time Wilkins and the first group of officers went into the freshman building at 2:33 p.m., Cruz had fled. He would be arrested later that afternoon off-campus. But the officers didn’t know that.

“I believed that the shooter was still in the building. I knew that there were injured people in the building. And there was really no discussion. It was ‘Let’s go,’ and we went,” said Coral Springs Lt. Nicholas Mazzei. He was part of the initial entry team, which included two BSO deputies who caught up and helped evacuate the wounded.

“We just started breaking ass to get in there,” Wilkins said.

After the Stoneman Douglas commission released findings critical of BSO, the agency announced it was placing two deputies, not including Perry, on restricted duty. The captain who initially took charge of BSO’s response also resigned.

The FDLE interviews are being released in batches by Broward prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Cruz.

In total, eight BSO deputies were on campus in time to hear gunfire. Most arrived toward the end of the six-minute shooting. Still, none rushed for the freshman building where Cruz had opened fire, killing 17 students and staff and wounding 17 more. Their conduct has unleashed a torrent of public criticism directed at Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, including a call from Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis for his removal from office.

Israel has placed the blame for what went wrong largely on school resource officer Scot Peterson, who resigned after the shooting. Peterson, an armed deputy, was on campus when the massacre began but told other deputies to stay away from the area of the freshman building.

The sheriff has also pointed out that BSO’s radio system — managed by Broward County, not his agency — failed. In addition, he says Coral Springs had better information about where on campus the shooting was talking place because 911 calls made from terrified students inside the freshman building were going to a Coral Springs call center, not to BSO. Coral Springs dispatchers relayed that information to their officers.

Because of that confluence of factors, Israel says he has no reason to believe that his deputies — other than Peterson — knew a man with a gun was killing people at Stoneman Douglas.

“I’m not aware at this point that any BSO deputy other than Peterson was aware of an active shooter,” Israel told the Miami Herald this month, echoing previous statements he has made.

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Broward Sheriff Scott Israel South Florida Sun Sentinel

Although Peterson sent a “shots fired” call over a BSO radio soon into the shooting — and deputies continued to hear shots fired — Israel said that doesn’t necessarily equate to an active shooter.

“Shots fired and active shooter are not the same thing,” Israel said in an interview this month. “All shots fired means is that gun shots were heard. ... An active shooter is a person methodically taking the lives of people. Just because deputies heard shots fired, that does not mean deputies would equate that with an active shooter.”

But BSO deputies quickly seemed to become aware there was a shooting going on at the Parkland school, according to interviews deputies and other first responders gave to state investigators.

Jeff Heinrich, an off-duty Coral Springs cop who volunteered at the school, was watering the baseball field when the shooting started.

He immediately dropped his hose and started running in the direction of the gunshots. On the way, he found a student fleeing the freshman building. The boy’s leg had been shot nearly to pieces. Grabbing the student, he ran north.

There, Heinrich told investigators, he saw a BSO deputy standing outside his vehicle on the other side of the school’s fence.

“He was standing there. It looked like he was on his radio. I was yelling at him ‘Active Shooter. Active Shooter,’ “ Heinrich said. “And he was just standing outside his car. I don’t know what he was doing.”

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A law enforcement officer directs traffic outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. John McCall Sun Sentinel

Rick Anton, BSO’s bomb squad commander, also quickly discerned a shooting was taking place. His phone buzzed with a text message calling the SWAT team to Stoneman Douglas.

“When the SWAT page first came in and when I turned on the radio and heard a potential gunshot victim,” it became clear there was an active shooter, Anton said. He rushed to the school.

And Craig Cardinale, a Sunrise police officer, said that as he entered the school grounds he saw three or four BSO deputies standing together at a gate.

“Don’t go in. The shooter’s right in that building right there,” Cardinale said he was told by one of the deputies. “Be careful.”

Cardinale had no choice. His son was a Stoneman Douglas student. His son was inside the building.

“F--- you,” Cardinale responded. “I’m going in.”

Then, as Cardinale ran into the freshman building, he said another deputy told him: “Don’t go. The guy’s got a rifle.”

Cardinale went through the doorway. He told investigators that he helped a girl who suffered four gunshot wounds get onto a golf cart and guarded the door.

His son was unharmed.

Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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Caitlin Ostroff is a data reporter for McClatchy’s DC Bureau, based at the Miami Herald. She uses data analysis and coding to present and report information as part of the investigative team.
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