Prosecutors said Wednesday that the Pulse shooter did not plan to target the Orlando gay bar and likely had no knowledge of the club before the June 12, 2016, shooting that left himself and 49 others dead. “The Pulse was not Mr. [Omar] Mateen’s target,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney in a federal court in Orlando. “He didn’t know about it.”
While still labeling the 49 others killed in the club as innocent people who died in a tragedy, she said the true target for Mateen was Disney Springs. The theory came as part of the closing arguments for the U.S. government in a case against Mateen’s widow, Noor Salman, who faces life in prison on charges of aiding and abetting a terrorist and of obstructing justice. Sweeney posited in court Wednesday that Mateen intended to hide his Sig Sauer MCX assault-style rifle in a baby carriage with a doll inside of it while he walked around the Orlando-area family-friendly club district, but left the scene to find another club after seeing a strong security presence.
While prosecutors said before the trial they did not plan to say Mateen targeted the LGBT community in the attack on a gay club, Wednesday was the first time the government asserted that Mateen had no knowledge of Pulse at all before the morning of the shooting. Defense, who maintained throughout the trial that Mateen did not intend to hit Pulse, called Sweeney’s assertions in closing a change of story. “This is a new theory the government had to come up with,” said Salman attorney Linda Moreno in the defense’s closing argument. That’s because evidence at the trial undermined the working notion Salman knew about the Pulse attack in advance.
In one aspect, the new assertion stands in contradiction to the prosecution’s central piece of evidence, the changing signed statements made by Salman to the FBI in the hours after the shooting. The statements include revelations that Mateen left his home June 11 with a gun and a backpack full of ammo, that she knew he had a rifle case in his vehicle, and that, despite an earlier suggestion, she knew he likely was not out late with a childhood friend.
Defense attorneys for Salman, though, have also pointed out parts of those statements that ultimately were disproven by forensic evidence, notably that she’d previously driven around the site of Pulse a week before the attack. The statements also include the assertion Salman knew the Pulse club was Mateen’s target. The last part of her statements, written down by FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez and initialed by Salman, notes, “I knew when he left the house he was going to Orlando to attack the Pulse night club.”
Sweeney in her closing argument said Salman likely believed Pulse to be a club at Disney Springs, which has numerous nightlife establishments. Security video places Mateen at the House of Blues in Disney Springs before he traveled to Pulse. He left the club there and put directions to EVE Orlando, a mainstream club, into his phone before ultimately arriving at Pulse. Mateen started shooting inside the club around 2:02 a.m., around the time of last call.
The theory that Mateen actually targeted the Disney area, Sweeney said, explains other unusual events in and around the Salman statements, as when FBI agents told Salman she may have to speak to authorities in Orlando and she asked, “Are they going to take me to Disney?” Evidence also shows that a week before the attack, Salman and Mateen made a late-night trip by car to CityPlace in South Florida. The couple, along with their son, made a trip to Disney a week before the shooting,
In their own closing arguments, defense attorneys said prosecutors failed to deliver on promises of proving Salman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They reiterated a picture of Salman as a simple woman largely in the dark about her husband’s nefarious plans.
Prosecutor Sweeney in closing reiterated a suggestion that Salman concocted and dispatched a cover story to tell Mateen’s family about his absence on the first weekend of Ramadan. Their evidence was a text message sent less than an hour after Mateen left home on June 11 saying, ”If ur mom calls say nimo invited you out and noor wants to stay home.”
But defense attorneys, who called Mateen’s childhood friend Nemo to the stand to say he regularly served as Mateen’s alibi while he cheated on his wife, said that proves Mateen told Salman one last lie. And why, Salman attorney Charles Swift asked in closing, would Salman need a cover story anyway? Moreover, Swift asked why Mateen needed Salman to aid or abet him in the attack at all. “Why would he tell her? I can’t think of an earthly reason for it,” Swift said. Had Salman been in on the attack, Swift said, she would have dropped off the couple’s child with family and gone out with him to shoot up a club.
But even if jurors don't believe that theory, Swift stressed the burden of proof remains on the prosecution. And ultimately, he said, she was just a woman duped by a monster. “We can be mad at her,” Swift said. “Was she easy to distract? Absolutely.” But that, he asserted, does not make her guilty of a crime.
Moreno alleged that many of the specifics in Salman’s statement to the FBI, especially those the government no longer stands behind, show agents “planted” those words through their questioning and in the statements themselves.” But Sweeney said there is no evidence agents coerced Salman into saying anything and that she was treated well while in the hands of the FBI.
Sweeney, in her rebuttal of the defense, said that many of the theories the defense has put out about Salman’s innocence rely on false presumptions. That Salman could not plan for an attack because she was simple and has a low IQ, for example, should mean nothing to jurors, she said. “Helping your husband in a mass murder is not something you have to be a genius to say no to,” Sweeney said, while referring to Salman as cold, callous, and caring for no one else except perhaps her son.