By EMANUELLA GRINBERG
PARKLAND, Fla. (Court TV) — Another stage in the grieving process has come to a close for those affected by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Private visits for shooting survivors and the victims’ families began on July 5 in the building where the gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 more on Valentine’s Day 2018.
On Thursday, the Broward State Attorney’s Office said they had “completed (their) commitment to walk through the building with any of the 34 families who were named in the indictment” against shooter Nikolas Cruz.
The last members of a survivor’s family scheduled to visit the scene on July 20 “decided they no longer want to do so,” ending the crime scene visits.
For the past five years, the 1200 building has been preserved as a crime scene for jurors to potentially visit in trials related to the mass shooting. The building’s blood-stained, bullet-ridden hallways have been frozen in time and sealed off to the public until now.
Family members of shooting victims Gina Montalto, Nicholas Dworet, Scott Beigel and Aaron Feis were the first to pay their respects to what many consider hallowed ground.
“Entering the building where my daughter was shot was among the top five hardest things I’ve ever had to do,“ Tony Montalto, student Gina Montalto’s father, told WTVJ after visiting the scene. “It’s just another step in the process.“
Linda Beigel-Schulman, teacher Scott Beigel’s mother, told reporters that she was permitted to take her son’s laptop, sunglasses case and notes from recent assignments he graded from his classroom.
“I never got to say goodbye before they did an autopsy. I will never get past that, and I needed to be able to see where he was [in] his last moments of being alive,” Beigel-Schulman told WPLG.
“Tried to say goodbye, but I can tell you, I can’t say goodbye. I just can’t say goodbye,” she said, tearing up. “It’s been five years and 151 days — it’s been 1,969 days and I still can’t say goodbye.”
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office took the unusual step of preserving the crime scene pursuant to court orders in two cases related to the shooting. Prosecutors in gunman Nikolas Cruz’s case first asked to preserve the building so a jury could walk through it and understand Cruz’s movements. Cruz’s lawyers objected to the request, arguing the gruesome setting would prejudice jurors and that photos and videos were sufficient to depict the scene.
Judge Elizabeth Scherer allowed the jury view to go forward during Cruz’s penalty phase in August 2022, which culminated in a life sentence for the mass murderer. Court TV was one of five media outlets to walk through the building after the jury and observe evidence of a mass shooting frozen in time – shattered glass mixed with trails of blood, and crushed Valentine’s Day flowers.
The jury view came up again in former MSD school resource officer Scot Peterson’s trial this year for his actions during the shooting. This time around, the defense wanted jurors to view the building, but only from the outside so they could see it from Peterson’s perspective. Prosecutors wanted the jury to see both the inside and outside of the building. Judge Martin Fein ultimately decided that photos and video were sufficient to depict the scene and the jury didn’t need to visit the building.
The conclusion of Peterson’s trial – which ended in a not guilty verdict – released the building from the custody of the sheriff’s office. Now, it’s back in the hands of the Broward County School District, which is expected to demolish it at some point, something the community has long demanded.
Before that can happen, the scene was opened to the 34 listed victims in the shooter’s trial, which includes 17 survivors and family members of the 17 deceased. Representatives of the Broward State Attorney’s Office, Eagles’ Haven Wellness Center, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Broward County School District escorted visitors.
“At the request of the family members and survivors, those visits will be strictly private,” according to the prosecutors’ office. “This procedure for the 34 listed victims in the mass shooting prosecution was made at their request and with the cooperation and agreement of the Broward State Attorney’s Office, Broward Sheriff’s Office and Broward School District.”
Max Schachter, the father of victim Alex Schachter, was among those expected to visit.
“I want to sit in the chair in Alex’s English class where he was shot and took his last breath,” Schachter said on Twitter. “I know it will be 💔 but part of Alex is still in that building. It’s another chance for me to connect with him and tell him how much I love and miss him.”