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Omar Mateen’s immigrant family lived the American dream — or so it seemed

Seddique Mateen, the father of the Pulse nightclub shooter, says, "I don't forgive him"

Seddique Mateen, the father of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, speaks with the media from his home on Mon., June 13, 2016 about Sunday's massacre.
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Seddique Mateen, the father of Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, speaks with the media from his home on Mon., June 13, 2016 about Sunday's massacre.

Until the shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead, the Mateen family seemingly flourished in its adopted hometown of Port St. Lucie, the picture of immigrant success.

But behind the facade of a well-appointed home and expensive cars, small shards of delusion and violence fit together into a troubling family portrait: a father who claimed online to lead a government-in-exile of his native Afghanistan. A mother arrested for domestic battery. And a son with a penchant for fighting and bullying, which culminated in a hideous eruption of bloodshed on the dance-floor of Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Throughout his life, parents, teachers and authority figures saw clear warning signs in Omar Mateen’s destructive, antisocial behavior. He was even dismissed from a law enforcement training program after joking about bringing a gun to class, newly released state records show.

But no one acted firmly enough to steer him off the deadly path that ended in Orlando. And no one enabled him more than his father, Seddique Mateen, who argued with administrators about the constant trouble Omar found himself in at school — including talk of sex and violence when the boy was just a third-grader — and even in the days after the shooting called him a well-behaved son.

Following the massacre at Pulse, Seddique Mateen displayed a knack for odd and grossly inappropriate pronouncements. The morning after police brought the last body out of the popular gay nightclub, the elder Mateen posted a video online insisting that “God will punish those involved in homosexuality.”

Mateen held court with the global media for several days, discussing why his son murdered 49 people (the sight of two men kissing in Miami’s Bayfront Park may have enraged Omar, he speculated), as well as his own history of making bizarre videos, sometimes featuring pro-Taliban statements.

Occasionally, even as he condemned the massacre, Mateen seemed to preen in front of reporters’ cameras, joking that he should run a comb through his hair and asking if his photo would grace the cover of one publication.

Finally, on Thursday, a hand-scrawled note taped to the door of the family's two-story home in Port St. Lucie said the Mateens had no further comment. Phone calls were not returned.

 
A sign posted on the Mateen family home in Port St. Lucie on Thursday indicated there would be no more press briefings. Wilfredo Lee/ AP Photo

Unlike his son, Seddique Mateen has never been investigated by the FBI, although he has been questioned extensively since the shooting. (The FBI investigated the son in 2013 and 2014, ultimately concluding there was not enough evidence to treat him as a threat.) As of Friday morning, the father had not hired a lawyer.

Protective, not close

Interviews and publicly available information paint a picture of a highly religious and political man who was protective of — but not close with — his more Americanized and secular son.

In contrast to his father’s professional success as an insurance salesman, Omar held a string of low-paying jobs and failed in his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer.

In April 2007, Omar was booted from an Indian River Community College training program to become a Florida Department of Corrections officer. His supervisors caught him sleeping in class and on the gun range at least twice, according to state records released late Friday.

Once, he disappeared from campus without telling instructors. In a written statement included in the file, Omar explained that he had come down with a 103-degree fever. “I was scared and I must have dozed off in the classroom,” he wrote. “My mother called me to come home and rest.”

Then came a more ominous episode: On April 14, 2007, Omar asked whether another recruit would tell on him for showing up to class with a gun. The recruit said he was laughing as he asked the question. But it was no laughing matter, decided Powell Skipper, warden of Martin Correctional Institution, where Omar would have worked had he passed his probationary period.

“In light of recent tragic events at Virginia Tech [the United States’ deadliest shooting rampage until Orlando] officer Mateen’s inquiry about bringing a weapon to class is at best extremely disturbing,” Skipper wrote in a letter recommending Mateen’s dismissal. The letter was dated two days after the recruit reported Omar’s comments.

(During an earlier interview with a Miami Herald reporter in the driveway of his Sebring home, Skipper had said he could not recall why Mateen was mustered out of the program.)

Residents in Fort Pierce talk about Omar Mateen living among them and how they do not want his infamous legacy, the killing of 49 people in an Orlando night club, to define their city.

Another recruit told the Wall Street Journal that Omar threatened to kill them all after a piece of pork touched his hamburger at a class barbecue. (Muslims are forbidden from eating pork, according to the Koran.)

Several colleagues at later jobs in security complained of his racism, misogyny, homophobia and threats of violence.

Omar’s father was a study in opposites, at least professionally. After coming to the United States around 1980, Seddique Mateen worked odd jobs in New York to support his wife and children before finding “his calling as an insurance agent,” according to a lawsuit he filed against an insurance company in 1998.

In his new career as a traveling salesman, he was “required to drive an automobile great distances, travel up and down stairs, bend, stoop, sit for extended periods of times [sic], and visit individuals at their homes and businesses.”

Eventually, he was injured in a car accident and filed for disability. He said at the time his salary stood at $100,000 per year.

Little has emerged so far about the 59-year-old’s earlier life in Afghanistan.

The imam, or religious leader, at the Mateens’ Fort Pierce mosque said the family spoke Dari, a Farsi variant that is one of Afghanistan’s two official languages and its lingua franca. But Seddique Mateen’s political views suggest he identifies as an ethnic Pashtun, a people of southeastern Afghanistan who form the backbone of Taliban support. (Educated Pashtuns usually speak Dari, in addition to Pashto, the other official language.)

In a U.S. immigration document filed in 1989, Mateen listed his birthplace as Afghanistan and his residence as Westbury, N.Y. He and his wife, Shahla, later moved to Florida, where police once intervened over a domestic dispute in 2002. Shahla said he had threatened to kill her, although she was the one ultimately arrested for battery.

Neighborhood feud

Vinnie Krestalude, a young neighbor of the family between 1998 and 2000, said he was frightened by the mustachioed patriarch next door.

Any time we would see [Seddique] after that, it was just total hatred.

Vinnie Krestalude, neighbor

The families clashed repeatedly after Seddique accused Krestalude’s younger brother of throwing rocks at his house.

After the Mateens moved away, “we would see [Seddique] on the road at a red light and he would go off ... start shooting us the bird, screaming and yelling,” Krestalude recalled.

Police were called to one run-in between Krestalude, Mateen and a third man at the Treasure Coast Mall in 2004, records show. No arrests were made.

“Any time we would see him after that, it was just total hatred,” he said.

Seddique Mateen’s political views have also come under scrutiny.

He presents himself as an important figure in his native Afghanistan. He once hosted a California-based television broadcast for Afghan expats in the United States and Europe, railing against U.S. policy, its ally Pakistan and non-Pashtuns.

He posted an interview he conducted with Ashraf Ghani — now the president of Afghanistan — online, boasted of his ties to the U.S. Congress and claimed to be the leader of an Afghan government-in-exile. Several photos show him wearing military-style fatigues.

“Our brothers in Waziristan, our warrior brothers in [the] Taliban movement and national Afghan Taliban are rising up,” he said in one video, the Washington Post reported. He also ran a Florida-based nonprofit, the Durand Jirga, named after the Durand Line, a British-imposed border that split ethnic Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1893. Calls for the destruction of the border still animate Pashtun nationalist feeling. A jirga is a traditional Afghan tribal council.

On a now-deleted Facebook page, he named cabinet ministers for his make-believe government, which he dubbed the “Islamic Revolutionary Transitional Government of Afghanistan.” He incorporated it in Florida under a slightly different name.

In addition to his political grandiosity, Seddique Mateen is a successful insurance broker registered in Florida and New York with four children (three daughters and Omar). Corporate records suggest he also dabbled in other businesses, including real estate, a beauty salon and art dealing.

He was spotted driving a BMW last week and a red Mercedes was parked in front of his home. The Mateen family owns at least five properties along the Treasure Coast, records show. Two of his daughters work at a local hospital. One got married in October.

The family’s spacious main home in Port St. Lucie, where he spoke with reporters from his living room sofa, is decorated with vases of flowers, photos from a trip to Istanbul and Mother’s Day cards.

But the relationship between Seddique Mateen and his wife has turned violent in the past.

Shahla Mateen was arrested on battery charges in December 2002, records show.

The fight began about midnight, at their then-home on Northwest Waterlily Place in Jensen Beach, southeast of Port St. Lucie. According to police records, Seddique Mateen reported that he was brushing his teeth when his wife started cursing at him and then pulled his hair and pinched his arm, leaving a prominent red mark noted by officers. The report did not say what the couple, married 20 years at the time, had been fighting over. But his wife, who ran from the house, later told police that her husband threatened to kill her.

The charges were eventually dropped.

Shahla Mateen has not spoken to reporters. The police report lists her profession as teacher but also says she was unemployed.

(Allegations of domestic violence pop up in Omar’s adult life as well. His ex-wife, Sitora Yusifiy, told media outlets that he beat and abused her before their brief marriage fell apart in 2009.)

In other 911 calls, Shahla Mateen called police to complain that her husband had attacked her but then said everything was fine and she would call back. She never did. The police didn’t visit the home but made a note in their log about a language barrier. She also reported that both her husband and son were fighting with her, according to another emergency call.

The Mateens may have once been the victim of harassment. In 2002, they said someone had thrown eggs at their house, possibly because of their ethnicity, according to police records.

One former neighbor recalled Shahla as a “lovely” woman who invited him to join a family meal of home-cooked Afghan rice and vegetables. But a co-worker at a Fort Pierce Walgreens claimed Shahla was a poor employee at the cosmetics counter and the front register.

“I didn’t like her,” said Becky Diefendorf. “She was lazy.”

Diefendorf said Shahla was fired three years ago.

She said the family bought, sold and rented homes as a side business.

Given their homes and cars, the Mateens appear to be relatively well off. A 1988 insurance policy included as part of a lawsuit shows Seddique had a net worth of $570,000 — which was broken down into $400,000 in real estate, $100,000 in business interests and $70,000 in cash, savings and stocks. In another document, the father pegs his annual income as an insurance salesman as roughly $100,000 in the 1990s.

Although Seddique made his living selling insurance, he also set up several other companies, including Happy Beauty Salon, Fine Image Art Gallery and Wonderworks Production. It’s not clear whether they did any actual business.

Trouble at home, trouble at school

The father paid frequent visits to his son’s schools, according to records and interviews.

Omar struggled through elementary school, earning mostly Cs, Ds and Fs. School records show teachers were concerned about his behavior, and on several occasions his father was called to discuss his son’s poor academic record. As far back as third grade, a teacher requested a parental conference, telling the Mateens that Omar was “verbally abusive,’’ used obscenities and often talked about sex and violence. He put his hands in his mouth and on other children, according to his school history.

In May 1999, while a student at Southport Middle School, Omar’s behavior was so troubling to teachers that his mother and father were given an “intervention syllabus” and told that Omar was in danger of failing seventh grade. The report noted that “Omar spoke only to his father in Farsi, and never addressed anyone else.’’

That same year, an unnamed teacher wrote a letter to Omar’s father, beseeching him to “impart to him reminders that a positive attitude toward his teachers, his schoolwork and his conduct will only serve to improve his ability to perform excellent academic work.’’

One former classmate recalled that Omar was teased because his father dropped him off in a limo. The classmate, who asked to be identified only as Christina, said she thought Seddique owned or worked for a limo company, although corporate records show no evidence of that.

Christina said Omar threatened to shoot classmates over the bullying but no one took him seriously.

Little changed in high school.

Omar was suspended a total of 48 days at two high schools he attended: Martin County High School, which expelled him in 2001, and Spectrum, an alternative high school in Stuart for students with behavior problems, according to school records. Two of the suspensions were for “fighting with injury.”

Omar became increasingly bizarre after Sept. 11, according to several people who knew him at the time. He claimed to be Osama Bin Laden’s nephew, an utterance that prompted the school to call in his father. Seddique Mateen slapped his son across the face in full view of other students, a classmate recalled.

In a Facebook post this past week, the former dean of students at Martin County High School said that Omar should not have been allowed to own guns because of his juvenile record.

One former Martin County schools employee who asked not to be named described Omar as a “bully” and said he once “stalked” a student so he could attack him and got into a violent fight that ended up with “a lot of Omar’s blood around the place.” He also said Omar once told him he could “see Jesus” in the employee’s head.

The employee said Omar’s father would come to school on a regular basis to argue with administrators after Omar had been disciplined. Seddique Mateen would try to blame other students and say Omar was the victim.

He was always respectful in voicing his concerns, but the employee said in retrospect the father’s continuous defense of his son’s inappropriate and violent behavior could have been “one of the reasons for [Omar’s] problems.”

Miami Herald writers Mary Ellen Klas, Jay Weaver and Eliza Dewey contributed to this report.

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

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