Bobby Rodriguez fled to a bathroom to get away from a shooter killing Pulse clubgoers. She huddled by a dead body, knowing that person was lost. Now she needed to survive. Even as Omar Mateen, pushed further into the club by police, barricaded himself in the same bathroom as Rodriguez, she lay still by corpses for three straight hours. "I played dead," she testified in court Wednesday.
The story served as the opening anecdote for prosecutors trying Noor Salman, Mateen's widow, for aiding a terrorist and obstructing justice. Salman will be the only person to face criminal charges stemming from the June 2016 shooting at Pulse, an Orlando gay bar, where 49 individuals died and another 53 were injured. Rodriguez on Wednesday became the first clubgoer to testify in open court about the experience of surviving Pulse.
Another survivor, Nelson Rodriguez, crawled around the floor of Pulse while a stranger fired shots around the club, he thought one thing: "We're fixing to die," he said.
Today, he's a deputy with the Pinellas Sheriff's Department, but on June 11, 2016, the then-Florida highway patrolman went to Pulse as a patron with friend Christopher SanFeliz to celebrate his graduation from police academy and connected with other friends, including Shane Tomlinson. Rodriguez recalled that immediately after last call, he heard shots ring out and the friends got separated. He teared up as he described the chaos inside the club. "It was dark," he testified, "and I thought I was going to die that night. I just thank the heavenly father."
He crawled out to the main entrance of the club, but Mateen blocked that way out, so he moved toward the patio of the club, where people escaped over a fence. He immediately called 911 and gave his account of the shooting to police, then sought out officers to give a description of Mateen.
Then he got a call from a friend named Amanda, who'd been shot and was in a bathroom. She begged him to help her find a way out. Rodriguez recalled calling both his partner and Amanda's to inform them that he and Amanda were alive. And on the stand, he recalled hearing an explosion when law enforcement blew a hole in the wall and shot Mateen.
After that, he started calling hospitals and found out Amanda was being treated for multiple gunshot wounds. Another friend, Bryan, also was being treated, but he could not find out about SanFeliz or Tomlinson. The next day he learned both had died.
The emotional first day of testimony also included the airing of 911 calls and bodycam video from police officers entering Pulse and rescuing the wounded from the club. Salman family spokesman Susan Clary said the video made her horrified at Mateen's actions. "We believe Noor is innocent," she maintained, but said at the moment her thoughts are with the survivors and families of the lost.
Much of Wednesday afternoon focused on terrorism, with William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, discussing why those who commit crimes while swearing allegiance to ISIS get classified as terrorists even if they never have any direct content with the organization.
Defense attorneys for Salman stressed that Salman herself showed no signs of radicalization and in fact had criticized terrorists on Facebook before the attack. Attorney Charles Swift suggested Mateen acted more as a lone wolf and kept his wife in the dark about his plans to commit a terrorist attack.
The defense team also announced an interesting approach to dealing with emotional stories from Pulse survivors. None will face cross-examination. "We don't want to prolong their agony," said defense attorney Fritz Scheller.
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