The Story Behind Pulse's Unclaimed Victim

Pulse's Unclaimed Victim

The news had to hit hard. For those families who waited all day after news of the Pulse shooting first broke, the confirmation process moved at a painfully slow pace. Many parents had to wait more than 24 hours to find out for certain why their child would not pick up the phone and verify they were OK. The loved ones of the 49 killed that night learned heartbreaking news that suddenly shifted their emotion from worry to sorrow and redirected their energy toward funeral plans.  

But one father greeted news a different way, not by weeping for his son but in anger toward a child he refused to accept. Why? Because the child was gay. The father wouldn’t even take the body from the morgue.

That one father who responded to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history by rejecting his gay son’s remains struck a chord far too familiar to many LGBT people. For journalist Maria Padilla, who broke the story on her website, Orlando Latino, it showed not only the tragic consequences of an attack so squarely striking the gay community but also the particular social stigma poisoning families in socially conservative Puerto Rico, where the young man was from. “It was one of those things brought to light by what happened in Pulse,” Padilla says, “one of the things many people in the Orlando community didn’t know was happening at all.”

People found out quickly. Suddenly, Padilla’s story won attention from national and international media outlets, including The Advocate. 

Padilla elected not to reveal the name of the victim or his father in her story, and she still will not do so because of concern about revictimizing anyone in the family. The Advocate did confirm the account through other sources, many of whom could not identify the victim because of medical confidentiality.

Nearly a year after the shooting, the tale continues to compel, and it’s only one story from the tragedy spotlighting how homophobia only worsened a tragedy already tearing families apart.

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Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan can get overwhelmed discussing the family issues surrounding Pulse, particularly since the issue of sexual orientation so dominated the narrative of the tragedy. Sheehan isn’t squeamish discussing sexuality; in 2000 she became the first openly gay elected official in central Florida. But while details of her identity have been plastered in headlines for decades, the sexual orientation of numerous victims had been a private matter until their deaths. After the crime occurred in her district, she found herself on the phone with several confused parents who had the same question: “What was our son doing in that club with that man?”

It’s to be expected with a tragedy at a gay club where most victims were in their 20s. That the shooting took place on Latin night meant the majority of the dead hailed from Orlando’s substantial Puerto Rican community. The fact that millennials come out at a younger age than previous generations means less in Hispanic cultures. “In Latin America it’s not as accepted,” Sheehan says. Speaking with local Latino business leaders, Sheehan has learned many remain fearful about a child growing up to be gay. “There’s still a lot of machismo,” she says. “A different level of pressure comes with that.”

Even so, it surprised her to learn a father had refused remains. She researched and found that before the shooting this father had indeed been unaware that his son was gay. That news tore at the family when they already had to reckon with the son’s unexpected death.

After being contacted by the medical examiner’s office, Sheehan started researching what the city could do to claim the victim as a ward of the state. Orlando had already promised that any Pulse victim would be provided a burial plot, if necessary, at city-owned Greenwood Cemetery. If no family member would accept the remains, the person would be buried there, alongside four other victims.

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In the week after the Pulse shooting, the Orange County Medical Examiner’s Office had to deal with one of the deadliest crime scenes in U.S. history but still manage to get the remains of all victims of the attack into the hands of next of kin within four days. Joshua Stephany, who was promoted to chief medical examiner two days after the attack, says the greatest delays related to the criminal investigation, not reluctance on the part of family to accept the bodies. Even after national media descended upon Orlando, most of the victims who died inside the club lay on the ground at the crime scene while the FBI did its initial work.

The majority of the bodies were transferred to family by the close of business June 14. On June 15, the remains of Amanda Alvear and of Javier Jorge-Reyes were claimed by family, and Akyra Murray, the youngest victim of the attack, was picked up June 16.

Technically, the last “victim” remains released were those of shooter Omar Mateen, who was killed by police in the attack. That wasn’t because of any dispute with family but because the FBI wanted a complete autopsy of the killer. His remains would be released June 19. During the time his body remained at the same facility as the victims,’ it was kept in a separate area out of respect for the families.

What happened once families received remains, though, showed various definitions of “acceptance.”

The family of Shane Tomlinson, a singer who performed at clubs throughout the Orlando area, initially had trouble finding a church to host the Pulse victim’s funeral. “They wouldn’t give him a service because he was gay,” mother Corliss Tomlinson told CNN’s Don Lemon.

There have been other issues as well, often with divorced parents fighting about what should take place with remains. Christopher Hansen has been working with artist Michael Pilato on a mural honoring the victims in Orlando, and said in the course of research the team learned of a father who took a son’s remains back to Puerto Rico and promised he’d be buried in a family plot, then elected instead to move him to a nearby pauper’s field.

Sheehan has worked with that victim’s mother, who lives in Orlando, to look into having the remains moved back to the U.S. to be interred at Greenwood Cemetery. She can’t say for certain the cause of friction over the victim’s remains, but she knows that about 10 of the victims of the attack had divorced parents who could not agree on how to handle remains. “There’s a lot of drama that goes on, especially when you have warring parents,” Sheehan says. “We have some parents who accepted their kids were gay, and some who didn’t.” The variety in stories can extend from Brenda Marquez McCool, who was in the club with her gay son and died protecting him, to the father who wouldn’t take remains after his son had died.

“There’s at least four situations where one parent accepted their child and one didn’t,” Sheehan says. “This only happens in the LGBTQ community. It’s horrible.”

At least in the instance of the victim not claimed by his father, his sister ultimately stepped in and accepted the body.

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Padilla says she has tried to reach out to that victim’s family on occasion over the year, hoping to learn more about where the family stands today. Loved ones thus far have remained reluctant to speak too much about the tragedy. 

While the story of the unclaimed victim showed the world a troubling reality, it never truly shocked the reporter. And the tale seemed an important one to tell, but it still took Padilla aback how many wanted to read about it. “I was not aware of how much that story was going to resonate with people,” she recalls. “I was unprepared for the rush of phone calls, emails, and all the reaction I got.”

To her, the tale seemed symptomatic of a broader lack of acceptance of homosexuality within the Latin world. She notes that the lone Hispanic member of the Orlando City Commission, Tony Ortiz, in 2014 voted against the city supporting a lawsuit fighting the state’s same-sex marriage ban. “One of the things I did [after Pulse] was to talk to churches after the vigils,” she says. “What I found out is not much has changed.” Many church leaders in Orlando even today decry homosexuality as a sin.

That in the year after the Pulse massacre, the shooting would become widely associated with LGBT people ahead of Latinos only exacerbated emotions in many quarters of Orlando. Some of that stems from thoughts of erasure; stories may mention it was Latin night at Pulse when the shooting occurred, but almost all refer to Pulse as a gay club, while very few news accounts note that more than half the victims were Puerto Rican. “The LGBTQ community was really quick in embracing what happened,” Padilla says, “and really came out strongly because they were so outraged by it. But that may have overshadowed everything else.”

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