Parkland Families Relive Shooting Once More with Live Reenactment

Photo for The Washington Post by Josh Ritchie
Tony Montalto stands in front of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Thursday. His daughter, Gina, was killed at the school in 2018.

PARKLAND, Fla. – He had steeled himself for this moment. But when gunshots rang out inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School once more, Tom Hoyer couldn’t help but jump.

For five years, he and his wife, Gena, have relived the day they lost their youngest child, a 15-year-old who loved basketball and chicken nuggets and always saved the last bit of ice cream for his mom. They sat through the months-long trial of the mass shooter who killed Luke. Then the one against the school resource officer who remained outside the building, concealed behind a wall, as 17 students and faculty members were shot to death inside.

Neither ended with the kind of justice the couple had hoped for, and now they were revisiting Feb. 14, 2018, again – this time in a way destined to feel more real than ever. On Friday, someone toting an assault-style rifle walked the gunman’s path through the freshman building, firing live ammunition in hallways and classrooms left virtually untouched since the shooting. Tom Hoyer stood outside, saying prayers to himself as the shots reverberated.

“All those shots meant something,” he said. “They all meant somebody.”

The Hoyers, along with several other families of victims, pushed for the highly unusual event as part of a lawsuit against then-Deputy Scot Peterson, hoping to prove that he should have known where the gunfire was coming from and intervened. Tom Hoyer wanted to be there, to be closer to what happened and to hear what the officer might have heard. His wife, though, stayed home. For all she has endured, hearing gunshots inside that building is too painful – too much.

“That is one thing that I cannot do,” she said. “I’ve done just about everything I can to try to make change and get the correct information. But that I can’t do.”

More than five years after one of America’s deadliest school shootings, the reenactment raises difficult questions about how many times a community must relive a tragedy in the pursuit of justice. Most relatives of students slain in a mass shooting never face the assailant in court because the attacker is killed. Parkland survivors, parents and siblings, in contrast, have now repeatedly looked those charged in the eyes and delivered excruciating testimony about that day.

Some are still willing to relive it in yet more agonizing detail, hoping to experience a sense of accountability they feel the trials have failed to bring.

Tony Montalto, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina was killed in the shooting, lives near the school and regularly passes it. Driving by on a recent day, he remembered his daughter, as a little girl, calling it “my High School Musical” – a reference to the Disney movie. He knew he and his family would probably hear the shots fired inside it on Friday.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” he said a day before the gunfire. But, he added: “You’ve got to remember, though, every day I wake up without my daughter. I’m put through that every day. Nothing, nothing is worse than that.”

Attorneys for the families had initially planned to use blanks. But they decided that live rounds, fired into a bullet trap, would create a more accurate depiction of what unfolded on Valentine’s Day of 2018. In what the lawyers said would be a “near-perfect simulation,” they used a gun similar to the one used the Parkland gunman carried and turned the fire alarms on and off in the same way that they blared the day of the shooting.

For a shooting to be re-created in such a way is “not common at all,” said Jennifer Zedalis, director of trial practice at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, adding that “it’s certainly not common for a judge to authorize live ammunition.”

Ahead of the reenactment, city officials announced road closures and warned that the gunfire may be heard as far as a mile away from the school. The Broward County school district closed the campus, along with that of a neighboring middle school, and shared mental health resources, saying in a note to residents that “district and school leadership understand how difficult this event may be.”

A city announcement about the “acoustical simulation” drew a rash of upset comments on Facebook, with commenters worrying about re-traumatization from reliving the day of the shooting. One wrote of having difficulty “just passing by.” Others admonished those who were objecting to be grateful they had not lost children.

Across the Parkland community, news of the reenactment has sparked a range of feelings, said Christine Hunschofsky, who was mayor at the time of the shooting and now serves as a state representative. She supports the families’ search for answers. But she planned to leave the city before the shots rang out.

“I want that closure for the families,” Hunschofsky said. “I also understand, though, that for a lot of members of the community, it will trigger them.”

For the families who lost someone in the shooting, closure has been hard to find. Last year, a jury spared shooter Nikolas Cruz the death penalty, recommending the 24-year-old instead serve life in prison. The decision, which came after three months of testimony, was a blow for families who believed the man many refer to only as “the killer” or “the murderer” deserved the harshest possible sentence.

“That, to this day, will wake me up,” Gena Hoyer said of the decision.

In June, a second jury acquitted Peterson of child-neglect and culpable negligence charges for failing to confront the shooter. Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was among the victims, said he had wanted the trial to set a nationwide precedent: When gunfire breaks out, law enforcement runs toward it.

“That’s what you train to do, that’s what you sign up to do, and that’s what parents and civilians think that you’re going to do,” he said. “You know, my daughter thought someone was coming to rescue her, and this guy hid behind a wall for 40 minutes while she got shot nine times.”

Peterson has long maintained that because of the echo of gunfire, he could not pinpoint the location of the shooting. His attorney, Michael Piper, said in an email to The Washington Post that “the testimony of multiple witnesses who perceived shots coming from all over the school campus supports the jury’s determination.”

Zedalis, the law professor, predicted that the emotional impact of what is created Friday will be overwhelming and inescapable – and that Peterson’s attorneys could raise valid objections to it being shown in court.

“I would still be quite nervous as defense counsel thinking about the jurors hearing all of these shots and thinking, every time I hear one of these shots, a kid is being injured or murdered,” she said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Josh Ritchie
Max Schachter speaks to members of the media outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Thursday.

The families feel confident that the reenactment, which was set to include a stand-in for Peterson in his position outside, will show the jury got it wrong. Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was killed, said he wanted it to prove “that there was no possible way that he didn’t hear all those shots. And that he should have gone toward the shots, gone toward the gunfire, and he could have saved lives.”

A day before the reenactment, he said the prospect of hearing an assault-style rifle being fired inside the building filled him with fear.

But, he added: “My anger, my grief – that pushes me forward every day.”

Tom Hoyer woke up early Friday and, with the apprehension of what laid ahead, couldn’t get back to sleep. He made his way to campus as the reenactment was being set up and took position near where Peterson stood outside the building on the day of the shooting. There was no echo, he said. He could physically feel the first shots.

“After today, I’m sticking with my opinion,” he said. “I think he was a coward.”

Some of the technicians were shaken up after being part of the reenactment, he said. It made them think, they told him, of their own children.

The reenactment marked one of the final chapters for the three-story building where the gunman went on his deadly rampage. The time capsule of crushed glass, bullet holes and abandoned book bags was kept intact as part of the evidence presented to jurors at trial and looms over the campus. It has been another constant reminder of loss and is set to be demolished – a step that some in the community have long awaited.

But first, a group of victims’ families took members of Congress on a tour through the building. Individually, and through the advocacy group Stand With Parkland, those who lost loved ones have successfully pushed school safety legislation in Florida and beyond. It’s through that work have that they’ve found some accountability.

They believe the sights in the building – the abandoned essays and Valentine’s Day cards, the dried blood on floors and desks – could persuade lawmakers to do more to keep schools safe. While walking through, the families pointed out all the failures that contributed to the bloodshed. Schachter told reporters that members of Congress walked up to him repeatedly during the tour to say, “If we only had done this; if we only had done this.”

Afterward, the six Democrats and three Republicans who described being struck by how quickly the shooting unfolded and how many things went wrong. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) told reporters that “to see the blood of children on the floor in the school” was an experience that will “transform our lives.”

“When these events happen, you watch it on TV, you see it from a thousand feet away,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, (D-Fla.), a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who helped organize Friday’s tour with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). “You don’t see what happens when a school is turned into a war zone.”

Many of the families have made the same painful journey through the building in recent months, enduring it out of a need to understand more about what happened, or to see where their children spent their last moments, or to try to feel closer to them.

Tom and Gena Hoyer were among those who chose to go inside. After years of imagining Luke’s final steps, they retraced them. They walked though the door he walked through, then down the hallway, then took a moment alone to touch the floor where he laid five years ago.

It was another way, they said, of trying to support their son.

“As a mom, I brought him into this world,” Gena Hoyer said. “And I needed to stand where he left it.”