Today marks three years since Christine Leinonen’s only son died inside Pulse. Drew Leinonen was among 49 murdered after a shooter claiming allegiance to the Islamic State entered the Orlando gay bar.
On the anniversary of the deadly attack, Orlando will host various tributes. But pending litigation and personal animus prevents the community from fully coming together as one. And for Leinonen, the pain remains crushing, and her frustration at police and ownership of Pulse still haunts.
She lashed out this week on social media about the security failures leading to the shooting. That including attacking the onePULSE Foundation, the nonprofit founded by Pulse owner Barbara Poma that plans to turn the club site into a museum.
“Why did this happen?!?,” Leinonen wrote on Facebook. “Because there wasn't any armed police officer at the front door keeping the club a gun free zone!! The killer walked into an unarmed club, sat for almost another 20 minutes and walked out to his van, grabbed his guns and strolled right back into an unarmed club!”
Leinonen said what set her off days before the anniversary was a glowing profile of Poma published this weekend in the Orlando Sentinel. To the grieving mother, the Pulse owner doesn’t seem to be a hero.
“Poma has been a villian to most of the victims of Pulse. And her interview furthers my hatred for her,” Leinonen said.
“I've never talked to her before. She's been a hard baller to most of the victims.”
Leinonen attended a press conference on Monday where three Congressional representatives announced plans to seek a “National Memorial” designation for Pulse. There, she interrupted the event, yelling “you should’ve had security.”
Pulse had unarmed security inside the club, and hired on off-duty police officer to guard the door. But that officer, Adam Gruler, was not at the door when shooter Omar Mateen entered holding a Sig Sauer MCX in plain view. Police gunned down Mateen after an hours-long standoff, and the club has ben turned into a memorial since.
Poma did not comment specifically for this story, but addressed a gaggle of reporters Monday regarding Leinonen’s interjection.
“Christine is a grieving mom,” Poma told reporters. “Everybody does it differently and this is a rough week for every mother, every survivor, every first responder. Everyone handles it in their own way.”
Leinonen also has gone after the onePULSE Foundation.
She reached out to state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who helped secure $500,000 in state funding for the foundation this year, saying Florida officials must demand an audit. She said that foundation and others have sought to exploit the tragedy rather than help victims.
“That's the really unfortunate part of tragedies,” Leinonen said. “There are many greedy people who want to profit from the blood and the death and injuries of other people.”
Smith, for his part, said any project getting public funding should be audited.
“Based on the amount of taxpayer money the onePULSE Foundation has received from state and county funds, they should be required to go through an independent audit," he responded to Leinonen on social media. "That would expose any misspending or it would give the public confidence in the financial stewardship of the organization."
Leaders of the onePULSE Foundation told The Advocate they have already started the process of having a third-party audit done.
“The leadership and staff of the onePULSE Foundation take their mission and work very seriously, and any statement that the foundation has not been transparent with our finances and the work involved in fulfilling our mission is misguided,” said Earl Crittenden, onePULSE Foundation board chairman, stating that they hired an outside firm in January. “This audit was sought out by the foundation because it is in line with national best practices for nonprofit foundations."
The Foundation said its IRS financials are publicly available for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years.
“If a member of the public, a family member, survivor, or public official has questions about our finances, they are welcome to contact us,” Crittenden said. “To date no member of the public has contacted our leadership about this issue.”
But Leinonen remains frustrated, saying the foundation and Poma have tried to intimidate critics.
“She [Poma] doesn't care about the victims that are only victims because she did not have an armed cop at the door,” Leinonen said.
At this point, she’s frustrated at anyone connected to the Pulse community still working with the onePULSE Foundation. She and friends of her son after the tragedy founded The Dru Project, which in his name awards scholarships to LGBTQ students and grants to establish Gay-Straight Alliances. Drew Leinonen launched his high school’s GSA is 2002.
This week, she demanded Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf resign from the board. Wolf was at Pulse that night with Drew and Drew’s partner Juan Guerrero. Both were among the 49 killed.
Wolf since surviving the shooting has become a prominent voice for gun control and LGBTQ rights. But Leinonen, who worked with Wolf to found the Dru Project, said she’s frustrated he benefitted from her son’s death and now aligns himself with Poma.
“For Brandon to align himself with her so that he can have added fame and money is a disloyalty to my son when the only reason my son was at Pulse was because he was loyal to Brandon,” she said.
Wolf declined to address Leinonen’s remarks.
“For me, this week (as with every week) is about doing everything I can to remember the incredible life of Drew. After Pulse, I set out to honor him with action and that’s what I’ll be focused on doing,” he said.
“The key to this week is love. The wound will forever be raw. And the entire community is in pain. So we’ll wrap ourselves tightly in the unity and love that helped us heal in 2016.”
That’s still extremely difficult for Leinonen. She’s also fought for gun control and LGBTQ advancement as well. But she said fighting for accountability among nonprofits claiming to support the community in the wake of Pulse remains a top priority as well.