Fla. firefighter involved in fatal road-rage incident

A cellphone video shows the man diving through the firefighter's window before attacking him

By Erika Pesantes and Lisa J. Huriash
The Sun Sentinel

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — A firefighter coming off shift crossed paths with a deaf man as both drove from Margate into Coral Springs during rush hour. The encounter turned deadly for Paul Peterman, 37, at the intersection of West Atlantic Boulevard and Riverside Drive.

Police offered scant new details Friday, but did say Joshua Tullis, 37, of Coral Springs, drove away from the scene and contacted police hours later. Witnesses said Peterman was found unconscious on the roadway Thursday morning at about 8:15 a.m.; he later died at Broward Health North.

Tullis, a Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue firefighter/paramedic, was driving home from work when Peterman cut him off and continued driving erratically, according to Tullis' attorney, Eric Schwartzreich.

Moments before the attack, Peterman stopped his vehicle on a swale and Tullis pulled over to get a closer look, in fear that he would follow him home, Schwartzreich said. That's when the attack happened, he said.

Cellphone video taken by Tullis shows about two minutes of the pair's encounter, including the moment when Peterman dove through Tullis' passenger side window and began attacking Tullis, the attorney said.

"My client was scared and to get away from his attacker, he drove off and tried to get away from him," Schwartzreich said. "The look on this guy's face is menacing. He dives full-body into my client's car unprovoked."

The video has been turned over to police, the attorney said. Tullis has been cooperative with authorities and is not currently facing any charges, according to Sgt. Carla Kmiotek.

Police have not commented on how the road-rage incident unfolded or how Peterman died, but did indicate there were head injuries.

"He had visible head trauma, however [the cause of death is] unclear until the medical examiner completes their investigation or autopsy," Kmiotek said.

Although Tullis' account paints Peterman, who is deaf, as an aggressor who became unhinged, friends and colleagues say Peterman was friendly, passionate about his job as a stagehand and eager for independence. He wanted to buy his own home and propose to his girlfriend, they said.

"He was a blessing to me," said Jorge Valdez, the owner of Paradigm, a design, lighting and video company in Tamarac, where Peterman worked. "He gave me perspective on life. It makes you humble. I learned that I'm an idiot compared to that man. I can hear. I took it for granted."

Peterman was considered a jack of all trades and helped carry cables and lighting to arenas for shows and concerts. He worked out kinks during productions and packed gear when shows wrapped up. Although he couldn't hear the music at concerts, he could feel the beat and bobbed his head along.

Valdez and Peterman became friends, and although he didn't have to, Peterman often came to work seven days a week, sometimes just to hang out.

Valdez said he first met Peterman as a local stagehand, and hired him about two years ago at the urging of one of his employees. "He won't complain," the employee said.

Colleagues said Peterman could read lips and although the staff could mostly understand him, he left no room for error, sometimes scribbling notes or texting to get his point across. And although he didn't speak, he tried.

"I could see it, I could feel it that he wanted to talk to me," Valdez said. "We're in mourning. I can't explain how much it hurts."

Said colleague Mike Milo: "I feel like I lost a brother."

Friends suspect his disability might have led to disagreements. Valdez had seen outside vendors try to speak to him and often yell in frustration and want to hit him.

Paradigm employees would tell them: "Relax, calm down, you're yelling and he literally cannot hear you."

Peterman lived with his parents on a quiet Margate street where neighbors said he was friendly and often seen walking his dog. "A very nice family," said neighbor Craig Stevens.

Relatives at Peterman's home in Margate could not be reached for comment.

At the Center for Hearing and Communication in Fort Lauderdale, Peterman had been involved with the deaf community there and worked as an aide at summer camp for deaf children about 10 years ago.

"He came to serve as a mentor," said David Williams, the agency's program manager. "Paul had come to us with high recommendations."

Gredder Rios-Lorenzo, a friend of Peterman's and a counselor at the center, met him through the deaf community her husband is part of. She said Peterman was confident, lively and loved his job.

"He was always a friendly, fun person, good spirits, always in an amazing mood," she said.

Despite his disability, he could often communicate with those who didn't know sign language by using his facial expressions, she said. When they would go out for dinner, Peterman ordered on his own and was not shy about it.

"His deafness was not a limitation for him in any way," she said.

Although Peterman was praised for his ability to communicate as best he could, challenges involving the public, who might not know how to interact with the hearing impaired, abound, experts say.

"The deaf are very expressive because American Sign Language is their primary language," said the center's Regional Executive Director Margaret Peggy Brown. "They would be very expressive with their hand gestures and facial features. People that don't understand the culture see that as disruptive or aggressive.

"People make a lot of assumptions about the deaf community," she said. "The best thing we can all do is educate individuals."

Copyright 2016 the Sun Sentinel

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