During the frenzied search for the gunman who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it was quick thinking and intimate knowledge of the area that led officer Michael Leonard down a lonely Parkland street straight to Nikolas Cruz.

The 17-year veteran of the Coconut Creek Police Department chose to leave the chaos at the staging area at Stoneman Douglas on Feb. 14 to comb nearby neighborhoods. He had only a limited description of the suspect to go on.

“He was on foot, so I knew he couldn’t be far,” Leonard, 46, said in an exclusive interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I wasn’t useful there. There was no senior personnel there to direct me or tell me what to do. I decided to head out on my own, alone.”

The area was in total panic. “I drove through grass. I drove over medians and curbs. That was really the only way to get around,” Leonard said. “Coral Ridge Drive was just absolute gridlock. It was on lockdown.”

Because Leonard grew up in Coconut Creek and worked for the Coral Springs Police Department, he said he knows all the side streets. He cruised nearby neighborhoods looking for the killer until he spotted a young man walking along a sidewalk on Wyndham Lakes Drive, a residential street a few miles from the school. The man fit the description of the killer: maroon polo shirt, black jeans and a ball cap.

“For some reason, I was just led to that area. I don’t know why,” Leonard said. “It was just me and him on that quiet road. We were all alone, just me and him.”

Leonard took the killer by surprise about an hour and 20 minutes after he committed the nation’s deadliest school massacre since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

After a decade on road patrol, Leonard is now an administrative officer who assists the chief of police. He also spent three years on the Coral Springs police force from 1997 to 2000.

Leonard said he wasn’t prepared for the killer, who also injured 17 people in the shooting, to be nearly as young as his victims.

“I was shocked by the age of the kid,” he said. “He looked like a student. He was just a skinny little guy.”

Leonard startled Cruz when he came up behind him with his gun drawn. He shouted at Cruz to get down. Cruz did not resist.

“It probably was overwhelming to him,” Leonard said. “I just flooded him with commands. I told him to turn around, and he looked me right in the eye, looking down the barrel of my gun.”

Leonard said the former Stoneman Douglas student gave him a blank stare. “He looked calm, eerily calm,” Leonard said. “I don’t know how you could look that calm after doing something like that.”

Leonard declined to share the exchange he had with Cruz, saying he didn’t want to jeopardize the investigation or prosecution.

“I didn’t even know the total number of fatalities,” Leonard said. “I knew there had been some.”

Eager to report his capture of Cruz, Leonard had a tough time getting his call to go through amid the jammed radio traffic.

He finally got through after about three minutes. “I have the suspect, Nikolas Cruz,” Leonard reported, according to a 45-second recording of the call. “Black jean pants, burgundy shirt with a black ball cap.”

Focused on the suspect, Leonard said he was oblivious to anything else going on around him, including a bystander who recorded the takedown on video.

“I was just locked on him,” Leonard said. “Nothing around me mattered. I guess I experienced tunnel vision.”

Leonard’s actions on that day stand in stark relief to multiple law-enforcement fumbles, from the FBI’s failure to act on alarming tips about Cruz to the school deputy’s inaction during the shootout.

The Coconut Creek police chief and mayor called Leonard a hero.

“I’m trying to figure out if I can accept that title,” Leonard said. “I’m not really a spotlight kind of guy. But I’m proud that I stopped him. Somebody had to stop him.”

Leonard’s mother now keeps his picture in her purse so she can share it when she brags about her son.

“He’s a modest person,” Coconut Creek Mayor Becky Tooley said of the officer she’s known for 17 years. “He’s not a bragger. He’s a family man, a religious man, an excellent cop.”

When President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited Broward Sheriff’s Office headquarters two days after the bloody rampage, they thanked Leonard for a job well done.

“The first lady told me what I did was so heroic and that her and the president had been talking about me on the way over in the car,” Leonard said. “That was kind of exciting to hear. It was heartfelt and so sincere.”

But it’s the devastated families and their overwhelming grief that Leonard can’t get out of his head.

“I’m just constantly thinking of the families, the hurt, the devastation,” he said. “I don’t know when and if they’ll ever recover from this. That’s been so heavy on my heart.”

Leonard is a family man. He’s been married for 20 years and has a son, 18, and daughter, 13. He can’t comprehend the void the mourning families are trying to cope with.

“That really touches me, and that’s my biggest concern right now as I try to process this and deal with it,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Leonard said the experience has tightened the bonds within his family.

“I’m getting more hugs from [my son] and my daughter than I ever have,” Leonard said. “We just don’t take life for granted as much as we maybe used to. Anything can happen at any time. We’re making sure we give each other our hugs and kisses before we go.”

Leonard said attending community events and watching Stoneman Douglas students work for change is helping him to heal. He hopes it’s helping the victims’ families, too.

“Things can be better and we can learn from this and hopefully make efforts that will change things, he said. “That’s what I hope for, that we can somehow come up with an answer to not allow this to ever happen again.”