Florida

What we still do not know about the Pulse shooting

A year following the Pulse night club tragedy, the property remains covered with messages, candles, artwork, photos and memorabilia honoring the victims and survivors.
A year following the Pulse night club tragedy, the property remains covered with messages, candles, artwork, photos and memorabilia honoring the victims and survivors. McClatchy

The deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history left an Orlando LGBTQ nightclub floor littered with bodies and bullets. One year later, the bodies are all accounted for, but the bullets still aren’t.

The numbers are staggering — 49 dead, 53 wounded, hundreds of physically unhurt but mentally scarred survivors — and so is the size of the crime scene.

It’s still unclear whether police hit any survivors or victims in that initial spray of bullets or in the all-out assault at the end.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina told reporters the day after the shooting he wasn’t aware of friendly fire deaths, but if they happened, “those killings are all on the suspect.”

Orlando police can’t say whose bullets were whose. That will be addressed in the investigation results the FBI has yet to release, but Mina said he’s fairly sure the report won’t show that his officers shot anyone — except Omar Mateen.

“Up until this point, there’s no indication of friendly fire,” he said in an interview with the Miami Herald.

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Bullet holes are clearly visible in the back wall behind Pulse nightclub, where Orlando Police Department SWAT members used explosives and a hail of bullets to break in and kill the shooter. Jessica Koscielniak McClatchy

There’s no clear date on when the report, which authorities hope will answer all lingering questions, will be released.

One victim’s mother is still waiting on answers.

Christine Leinonen’s son, Christopher Andrew Leinonen, died of his wounds on the floor of the club. He was shot nine times — one cluster to the back of his legs and the other to his chest.

The five shots in his torso were fatal, and Leinonen constantly thinks about how her son died. Was it instantly, with the chest shots first, or was he lying on the ground with his kneecaps blown out when the second spray of bullets killed him? And was every bullet from Mateen?

Leinonen was a Michigan Highway Patrol trooper for 10 years, where she worked as a fatal accident reconstructionist and evidence technician. The urge to investigate a crime scene, to know exactly what happened, hasn’t left her.

“I still don’t know, and I may never know, who killed him,” she said. “It haunts me.”

Newly released body camera footage from officers responding to the Pulse shooting shows gunfire from the shooter, Omar Mateen, at police who have him pinned to the club's back bathroom. Footage from Bell Isle Police Officer Brandon Cornwell’s body

Leinonen also wonders about the people who died of treatable wounds in the hours between when police first penned Mateen in the back bathroom and when they finally burst through the back wall with explosions and a hail of gunfire.

Orlando police said 13 people died in the bathrooms. It’s not clear if all of the deaths were from fatal gunshot wounds or if immediate medical attention would have saved some of those lives.

Survivor accounts and 911 calls from victims trapped in the club’s back bathrooms point to Mateen stalking the small hallway connecting the two bathrooms and firing through the door or at his hostages.

“In that two and a half hours, that shooter killed more people,” Leinonen said.

Orlando officials have repeatedly praised the law enforcement response to the shooting, despite critics like Leinonen who said police shouldn’t have waited three hours to break in and kill Mateen.

Pulse nightclub shooting victim, Angel Colon, 26, shares his story of how he survived the deadly night at the popular gay nightclub in Orlando. Colon has been treated by the doctors and nurses at Orlando Regional Medical Center along with 43 other

Mina asked the Department of Justice to review OPD’s policy and its response to the crisis. The report, which is simply an analysis and not an investigation, will be released in a month or so, he said.

Although the FBI report will likely put the question of friendly fire to rest, it’s unlikely that it will quell a persistent theory among armchair detectives and survivors alike — a second shooter.

A few vocal survivors have joined internet theorists in questioning all official reports that declare Mateen was the only shooter.

Some insist they saw a second man wielding a gun inside the club.

They point to the 911 calls and radio broadcasts from the chaotic first hours, when clubgoers called in conflicting information about the attack. First there was one shooter, then two. He was Hispanic. One was black and one was white.

“I think it’s two,” one woman told a 911 operator. “I don’t know, but I’m in the bathroom with a bunch of people and he’s shooting and everybody is bleeding.”

Newly released body camera footage from officers responding to the Pulse shooting shows police responding to reports of a second shooter at Orlando Regional Medical Center, which turned out to be a false alarm. Footage from Orlando Police Officer

Mateen even encouraged this thought, telling his hostages he had snipers outside the building.

At one point, someone called in a shooter at the nearby hospital where many victims were taken. Officers swept the hospital and detained a wounded man who met the description of a suspect at the time: a black man with a chinstrap beard and an American flag shirt. The wounded survivor was in no way implicated and the police declared the hospital safe moments later.

Mina said the high-caliber rifle and the small size of the club made it hard for anyone, even cops, to tell where the gunfire was coming from at first. Now, however, he’s watched hours of footage from inside the club and can confirm that Mateen was the only gunman.

“There’s been absolutely no indication of a second shooter,” he said. “There was one person shooting that night.”

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A year following the Pulse night club tragedy, the property remains covered with messages, candles, artwork, photos and memorabilia honoring the victims and survivors. Jessica Koscielniak McClatchy

The shooter is dead, but the case is far from closed.

Immediately after the massacre at Pulse, FBI agents picked up Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, from the couple’s Fort Pierce home and questioned her for 18 hours. She admitted to discussing the attack with Mateen while on a family trip to Disney World, sources told the Miami Herald at the time.

In her single news media interview, Salman, 30, told the New York Times she had no idea what her husband was planning and said Mateen beat her.

Seven months later, she was charged with obstructing a federal investigation, and aiding and abetting by providing material support to Mateen.

Prosecutors alleged she drove him to buy ammunition, went with him on trips to “case” potential targets and knew he watched violent jihadist videos with their 3-year-old son.

They said Salman knew exactly what her husband was going to do when he said “this is the day” and left home that night with a backpack full of ammunition.

She remains in a Florida jail without bond.

Alex Harris: 305-376-5005, @harrisalexc

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