Pulse survivors still dealing with disappointment after the acquittal of the shooter’s wife now deal with a new pain — this one delivered by the progressive media normally known for defending the LGBT community. Following a stunning decision by prosecutors to state that shooter Omar Mateen never planned to target the gay Orlando club, a new narrative emerged that the shooting wasn’t a hate crime at all.
It’s fresh insult for many still angry at the acquittal of Mateen’s widow Noor Salman on a charge of aiding and abetting a terrorist. Maybe that charge never could have stuck, especially considering a decision by FBI agents not to record the interview and the perception one agent coerced a confession shortly after the wife learned her husband died in a shootout with police.
Still, it stung for those who survived the brutal June 12, 2016 shooting and those who lost loved ones in the crime that no one would ever pay any penance for the execution of 49 innocent people. But whether a conviction could ever have occurred, prosecutors delivered a fresh slight to Central Florida’s LGBT community when they, during closing arguments, acquiesced to a theory Mateen never intended to target Pulse when he first started his drive to Orlando hours before the shooting. “The Pulse was not Mr. Mateen’s target,” said Assistant US Attorney Sara Sweeney. “He didn’t know about it.”
With those words, Sweeney seemingly conceded to history that President Barack Obama had been wrong when he labeled the attack “an act of terror and an act of hate.” Worse, it seemed to open a floodgate of media accounts dismissing the notion homophobia played any role in the attack. Progressive outlets like HuffPost, The New Yorker, Vox and The Intercept adopted as fact that Pulse had been a target of chance, a place Mateen happened to end up when he got lost on the way to another club. The assertion alarms many close to the tragedy.
“I would be curious to hear how they came to that conclusion,” said survivor-turned activist Brandon Wolf. “Pulse was very well known across the Orlando area as a popular LGBTQ hangout. And though there has been a persistent attempt to dilute the hate-crime nature of the attack, that line of thinking doesn’t hold water.”
Based exclusively only on evidence presented in trial, it might be possible to accept the assertion, but to do that means ignoring countless witness accounts and findings Mateen visited Pulse many times, perhaps over a period of years. It not only means suggesting American news media jumped to the wrong conclusion that a shooting at a gay club intended to target gay people, but that gloating agents of the Islamic State also read too much into the shooter’s final destination. Worse, by doing so, a barrage of fresh stories recasting the crime re-victimizes the still-healing community of Orlando. “It’s an attack on the entire community,” laments Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan. “It seems like a straight-washing of the whole thing. And it’s nonsense.”
Clear From The Start
That so much quickly leapt to the notion Mateen targeted the LGBT community doesn’t represent a knee-jerk reaction so much as a quick connection of facts. Would someone believe a terrorist who bombed a daycare center did not intend to hurt children? Or that a school shooter had no intention to kill students or faculty members. Yet, there were some who from the start who reached for another conclusion, namely anti-LGBT leaders on the right. Republican senators including Arkansas’s Tom Cotton and Utah’s Orrin Hatch sent prayers to Orlando’s victims of terrorism, but refused to acknowledge the vast majority of victims had been LGBT. In many cases, federal officials spun the attack exclusively as a terrorist attack, not a hate crime.
Notably, one Republican leader differing on the matter was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose constituents perished in the attack. While no great friend the LGBT community, he quickly acknowledged Mateen’s sworn allegiance to the Islamic State only further proved the shooter knew who would feel the brunt of this violence. “I don’t need investigators to tell me the gay community was targeted in this attack,” he told The Advocate hours after the June 12, 2016 shooting. “We know what ISIS has done to people they accuse of being homosexual. They throw them off of buildings.”
Demographics weren’t the only tell. In the days after the massacre, more details emerged about the motives of Mateen. The killer’s father famously told NBC News his son became enraged at the sight of two men kissing. “We were in downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid, and he got very angry," Seddique Mir Mateen said hours after the attack. "They were kissing each other and touching each other, and he said: 'Look at that. In front of my son, they are doing that.' And then we were in the men's bathroom, and men were kissing each other."
ISIS propagandists apparently found significance in Mateen’s target as well. Amag Agency, a state media run by ISIS, quickly reported on the day of the shooting: “The attack that targeted a nightclub for homosexuals in Orlando, Florida and that left more than 100 dead and wounded was carried out by an Islamic State fighter.” An issue of the ISIS online recruitment magazine boasted Mateen “single-handedly slaughtered 49 sodomites—by Allah’s permission” before touting the ease with which the U.S.-born shooter acquired firearms here.
And regulars in the Pulse community quickly provided more accounts. While an FBI investigation could never prove using cell phone data that Mateen ever visited Pulse before, plenty of witness testimony suggested he had. Lisa Lane, a regular performer at Pulse, said while she’d never known Mateen by name before, she recognized him immediately when news media broadcast his picture on air after the attack. "He was one of my fans,” she told The Advocate. “Always when he saw me he would talk to me."
Speculation grew after the shooting that Mateen may have been closeted and leading a secret life. Orlando man Cord Cedeno told MSNBC said he’d communicated with Mateen on Grindr, and Kevin West shared a similar story to the Los Angeles Times. An investigation by The Advocate found three men in the Fort Pierce area where Mateen lived who said they’d seen his face on dating apps Grindr or Jack’d. Some Pulse patrons reported Mateen visited the club with regularity for as much as three years, whether in an elaborate casing or on his own time. Additionally, Mateen’s ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy told numerous media outlets her ex-husband had been abusive — and secretly gay; Mateen’s father responded to The Advocate Yusufit merely sought attention.
And then there’s the notorious Univision interview with “Miguel,” an Orlando gay man who spoke with the outlet only on the agreement he could wear a disguise. Miguel said he’d engaged in a sexual relationship with Mateen, who also slept with other Latin men in the Orlando gay community. The self-professed former lover alleged Mateen became angry when he learned one man he’d slept with had been HIV-positive. TMZ soon reported it had surveillance footage of Mateen and Miguel at The Ambassador Hotel. The attack notably occurred during Latin Night at Pulse. Miguel went to the FBI with his story, as did other gay men who claimed to interact with Mateen. But the lead investigating agency deemed all of the stories “not credible.”
Yet, the FBI did make note while investigating Salman of something odd she said to FBI Special Agent Christopher Mayo in her first interaction with the agency. Before she knew the shooting happened at a gay nightclub, Salman in the very early hours of June 12, 2016 told Mayo her husband “likes homosexuals,” that he felt a kinship because they faced discrimination similar to Muslims in America. When prosecutors in March opened the trial against Salman, this remark would be central to opening arguments by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mandalfo. Defense attorney Charles Swift would question if Mayor misquoted her, but only to suggest Salman said “gay people,” not the cold, distant “homosexual.” Never did they assert that particular conversation had been coerced.
The Disappearing Gay Connection
As attorneys prepared for testimony to begin in the Salman case, defense attorneys filed a motion asking a judge to forbid any argument Mateen targeted the gay community in the attack. Sweeney said in court her team had no plans to do so. Mateen had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State during the shooting, and the federal government in turn would bring a terrorism case.
And make no mistake, the evidence was there to do so. Mateen in conversations with a police negotiator spoke about recent airstrikes by the U.S. in Syria and Iraq. He mentioned recently killed ISIS leader Abu Waheeb. When FBI forensic investigators later looked at Mateen’s computer, they found pictures of jihadi beheadings and a call by ISIS for supporters to commit terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during Ramadan; the Pulse attack happened on the first weekend of the holiday.
But prosecutors initially did not shy away from evidence Mateen knew he would end up at Pulse when he left home on June 11. There had been the unsolicited remark about “homosexuals.” And Mateen, according to a controversial statement signed but not written by Salman, had asked his wife if he “looked Spanish” before heading out alone that night. But all of those interactions with FBI agents, none of which were captured on tape, came under heavy scrutiny during the trial. The infamous statement, written by FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez, included facts that were provably false, like an assertion Salman cased Pulse with Mateen. The foreman of the jury in the Salman case released a statement noting significant inconsistencies in that written document as he explained in part the reasons jurors acquitted Salman on all counts.
Swift argued in court the FBI early on put words in Salman’s mouth, but as the statement fell apart, he said it became clear Mateen did not intend to target Pulse and the FBI abandoned all gay angles in its investigation while its case collapsed. While perhaps insensitive to LGBT people in Orlando, the argument proved effective in clearing his client’s name.
The trial did reveal new information about Mateen’s movements shortly before he arrived at Pulse. Late on June 11, he stopped at the House of Blues at Disney Springs, where surveillance video shows him buying a T-shirt at the store. Prosecutors posited in trial that Mateen likely intended to conduct his attack at Disney, and that the reason he had a baby carriage and doll in the car was so he could use them to hide his Sig Sauer MCX rifle. By the end of trial, both sides promoted the notion Mateen left Disney Springs because of a heavy police presence, then searched for directions to “Orlando nightclubs.” He drove by mainstream club Eve Orlando but saw more heavy security downtown.
Eventually he arrived at Pulse. He went inside at 1:41 a.m. on June 12. A security guard submitted written testimony that Mateen asked where all the women were at, then sat at the bar inside Pulse for more than 10 minutes before returning to his vehicle. He returned at 2:02 a.m., right after last call, armed and ready to begin his killing spree.
As prosecutors advanced a new theory in closing about how prepared Mateen was to attack Pulse, the case against Salman began to crack. But when Sweeney declared Mateen never had an idea Pulse catered to gay clients, it launched a wave of media stories recasting the entire Pulse tragedy. At The Intercept, out investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, a frequent critic of the FBI, and Murtaza Hussain wrote an article alleging: “the evidence is overwhelming that Mateen had no idea that Pulse was a gay club and that animosity toward LGBT people was not part of his motive in carrying out this heinous crime.”
Melissa Jeltsen at HuffPost, after writing a sympathetic article labeling Salman a scapegoat, wrote a piece titled “Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong” and stated there was no evidence Mateen had been closeted or ever used Grindr. Defense attorneys called to stand women with whom Mateen had affairs, something deemed as evidence he could not also have been cheating with men. Fritz Scheller later told The Advocate they had investigated if he had any gay or trans lovers but never turned anything up.
A piece in The New Yorker quotes Swift’s assertion without challenge that Mateen didn’t know his target until moments before the shooting. And Vox’s Jane Coaston on Thursday published an article declaring “there’s now conclusive evidence that the shooter wasn’t intending to target LGBTQ people at all.”
All of the pieces rely entirely on evidence presented at trial and ignore additional media accounts before the case played out. Of course, neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys felt moved to include any evidence indicating whether Mateen had any prior knowledge of the club. Cell phone records track movement in the 11 days before the attack. Experts testified in trial that the first time they could place Mateen inside the club with his phone came on June 12, 2016. And while there was plenty of evidence he’d visited Disney Springs with Salman and the couple’s child just a week before, one important context never came out at trial about that family trip. Jurors never heard that the trip happened only a few days after the peak of Gay Days.
The annual Gay Days event for decades has attracted LGBT individuals and family during a week, normally in late May or early June. During that period, open displays of affection between same-sex couples become commonplace and prevalent, and the event gets plenty of local media attention. Gay Days ended the evening of June 5, and receipts show the Mateen family shopped at Disney Springs on June 8. Considering Seddique Mateen’s suggestion that the sight of two men kissing in Miami enraged his son to the point of committing a mass terrorist attack, it seems relevant whether Mateen knew what had happened at Disney Springs a matter of days before the Pulse attack.
“The was no mention of Gay Days at the trial,” Sheehan says. Another shock to the commissioner? Orlando law enforcement told the city commissioner that witnesses had come forward placing Mateen before at Southern Nights, a gay bar located three miles away from Pulse and two miles away from Eve Orlando. But ultimately, the FBI became the lead investigation agency for the terrorism case, and the focus turned from gay bars to the fact Mateen drove by Eve before heading to Pulse.
Chris Hansen, a survivor of the Pulse attack, says he was struck by surveillance video of the shooting, made public for the first time during the Salman trial, that suggested Mateen had some familiarity with the club. He had no problem paying a $10 cover charge to go in, and even as he came back with his gun, he walked by staff at the front door to go into the main room of the club. “Why didn’t he pull the trigger when he first entered?” Hansen wonders. The only explanation, Hansen says, is he wanted to make sure to shoot particular people inside the club.
Hansen doesn’t think much of the fact Mateen’s digital history doesn’t point to Pulse. The shooter had been a professional security guard and tried multiple times to get into police academy. Furthermore, as the world learned for the first time in trial, Mateen’s father worked for years as an FBI informant, and the FBI once considered making Mateen an asset. “Don’t think he wasn’t smart enough to know how Google tracks people,” Hansen says. “Do you think he’d be stupid enough to show his trail?”
Indeed, Mateen when he left Fort Pierce the night before the shooting turned off his phone during his trip to Orlando, missing phone calls from his mother and text messages from his wife. Defense attorneys and prosecutors both suggested in trial that Mateen, who’d been investigated by the FBI for terrorist sympathies before, had good reason to believe the FBI might be tracking his cell phone signal. Why then, Hansen asks, would he turn the phone back on at Disney Springs to Google directions to Eve Orlando after he’d so carefully obscured the rest of his motions? And why would he end up at a different club miles from the one he searched for online?
Of course, you don’t have to doubt Mateen considered an attack at Disney Springs to believe Pulse was still a target; neither place had to be his first or only choice before the drive to Orlando. The recent Vox article breathlessly reports “new” evidence Mateen pledged allegiance to an ISIS leader “proves that initial narratives about mass shooters’ motivations are often wrong,” even though that news was widely reported the day of the shooting. Of course, the ISIS propaganda, which was presented as evidence in the Salman case to show Mateen committed terrorism, shows homophobia can still play a role in political attacks on the United States as well.
Regardless, even if you discount whether Mateen ever visited the club, and you ignore stories from “Miguel” and the numerous men who saw Mateen’s mug on gay dating apps, and you concede Mateen’s first choice of target had been a Disney Springs club instead of Pulse, that doesn’t mean Mateen did not consciously target the gay community.
Christine Leinonen, a former police officer whose son Drew died at Pulse, accepts that Mateen initially wanted to hit Disney, not Pulse. But she notes Mateen knew who was dancing inside of Pulse before he ever pulled the trigger the first time. “He asked the employee where all of the girls were,” she says. “By that he knew it was gay.” So even if he didn’t leave home with the intent of shooting patrons at Pulse, he knew what he was doing by the time the first bullets started to fly. Maybe he wasn’t targeting the LGBT community, Leinonen says, “but I’m sure his belief was that he was given bonus points for killing gays.”
And notably, nothing forced Mateen to commit a terrorist act at all that night. The assault rifle used in the attack had been purchased that month but apparently lived in a green case in his vehicle. And he drove away from Disney Springs and past Eve Orlando. While he’d purchased lots of ammunition in the days before the attack, bullets don’t exactly go bad if unused on an intended day. And the ISIS call for violence that prosecutors put forward as evidence of his terrorist goals called only for attacks during Ramadan, a holiday that would last another three weeks after the Pulse massacre.
But the only locale where Mateen lingered that night would be Pulse. That’s where he scoped out the individuals he would kill, the place where he would leave before retrieving two firearms from his vehicle. It’s the place where he would die and take 49 others with him. If Mateen had ended the night in handcuffs, perhaps he would share his reasoning for conducting this massacre here instead of any other locales he visited and passed that night. But no one knows for sure what ran through his head that night. All the world knows for sure is what he decided to do, and that was to shoot up a gay nightclub in Orlando.