Defense attorneys say there’s no way to know if Omar Mateen targeted the LGBT community when he attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and instigated one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history. Attorneys for the dead shooter’s wife have asked a judge to prohibit federal prosecutors from suggesting that motive for the massacre, and they say Mateen’s phone records show evidence to the contrary.
Defense attorney Charles Swift filed a motion in federal court Monday that suggests Mateen did not know what club he would target even a few hours before the attack. Swift represents Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, who stands accused of providing material support for a terrorist. Jury selection in her trial started in Orlando this week.
On June 12, 2016, Mateen opened fire and started killing people inside Pulse, a gay bar, before being killed by law enforcement after an hours-long standoff. Forty-nine others died in the attack, which remains one of the deadliest mass shootings in modern history. In phone calls with police, Mateen swore allegiance to the Islamic State, and a day after the attack, ISIS leaders on their official radio station praised the attack, saying, “Allah has enabled brother Omar Mateen, one of the soldiers of the Caliphate in America, to carry out a raid where he was able to infiltrate a Crusaders' gathering at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Allah enabled him to inflict heavy casualties amongst the filthy Crusaders.”
Swift’s motion says prosecutors should not be allowed to say Mateen targeted the gay community because he also visited Disney Springs near Walt Disney World the evening of the attack and loaded directions in his phone to EVE Orlando, a high-end lounge that does not specifically cater to LGBT attendees.
Salman’s legal team says data obtained from Mateen’s cell phone indicates he had no firm plans to go to Pulse. Mateen left his home around 5 p.m. June 11, and cell tower data and security footage show him at Disney Springs around 10 p.m. Mateen used his phone to make internet searches for “disney springs,” “disney world” and “downtown Orlando nightclubs” that evening. The last search, made at 12:22 a.m. June 12, pulled up results for EVE Orlando and Pulse. Forensic data shows Mateen visited EVE at 12:55 a.m. but drove away six minutes later. The records show he passed Pulse 10 to 15 minutes after that before again doing an internet search for clubs and then getting Google Maps directions to EVE. But he turned around at about 1:35 a.m. and headed back to Pulse. The first shots were reported at Pulse immediately after 2 a.m.
Much of this goes against witness accounts that Mateen was in the club earlier in the evening. And witnesses have told The Advocate that Mateen visited the club multiple times on his own.
The defense motion says phone records contradict information from Salman’s own statements to the FBI abut her prior knowledge of the attack, a central part of the federal case against her.
FBI agent Christopher Mayo has testified he became suspicious of Salman in an early interview partly because she insisted Mateen liked gay people, even before she had been informed Mateen attacked a gay nightclub. After continued questioning, Salman signed a written statement, produced by FBI Special Agent Richardo Enriquez, describing a trip the couple allegedly made to the Pulse site together. The statement reads, “When I went to Orlando with Omar last week we drove around the Pulse Night Club after we ate at the Arabic Restaurant. We drove around the Pulse Night Club for about 20 minutes with the windows of the car down.”
The statement quotes Mateen as saying, “How upset are people going to be when it gets attacked.” A note in the margins of the statement in Salman’s handwriting says, “I knew he was talking about himself doing the attack on the Pulse.” The statement also says Salman two days before the attack walked up on Mateen late at night looking at a website for Pulse, and he told her, “This is my target.”
Most damning, the statement also says “I knew when he left the house he was going to Orlando to Attack the Pulse Night Club.”
But phone records show no evidence Salman and Mateen visited Pulse together. The couple did visit Orlando June 8, when they went to Florida Mall, a Falafel King, and a local mosque, but defense attorneys say that even accounting for gaps in the cell phone data, there was no time to visit those locations and Pulse during that trip. The motion also says there’s no information from Mateen’s home computer verifying he visited the Pulse website.
Prosecutors say Salman knew beforehand that Mateen would attack Pulse and that she was present when he bought 200 rounds of ammunition for his revolver. Mateen added Salman and the couple’s son as beneficiaries for a bank account 11 days before the attack.