As a stunned city and nation mourned and authorities completed the grim task of identifying the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, President Barack Obama on Monday branded the killer a “homegrown extremist” — but one likely inspired by radical Islamic terrorists abroad.
FBI Director James Comey stressed that agents had so far not turned up evidence that Omar Mateen actually took orders from anyone. “So far we see no indication that this is a plot directed from outside the United States,” said Comey, who also defended the agency’s previous two investigations of the 29-year-old security guard from Fort Pierce.
On Monday, however, a law-enforcement source confirmed to the Miami Herald that investigators are scrutinizing the role Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, may have played after she told agents that he had discussed with her the Pulse nightclub as a possible target — as well as Disney World. She told agents soon after the shooting that the couple had discussed the plot during a recent trip to the theme park, the source said.
The revelations came amid continuing fallout from the horrific assault of a nightclub popular with the LGBT community and the tourist city’s booming Puerto Rican populace. The toll of 49 dead and 53 wounded made it the worst mass shooting in American history and spurred vigils across the nation as well as political debate over Islamic extremism, gun control and hate crimes against gays.
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Earlier in the day, authorities revealed that Mateen, holed up with hostages after unleashing his bullets, was “cool and calm” in calling police to express support for a hodgepodge of Islamic radicals. His father also held court in his Port St. Lucie home with reporters all Monday, insisting his son was no Islamic extremist because “he doesn’t even have a beard.”
Federal agents also disclosed that Mateen, whose mental health had been questioned by an ex-wife and former co-workers, but had no criminal history, purchased his weapons at the St. Lucie Shooting Center just days before the attack. The federally licensed gun shop and range is owned by a former New York police detective.
“An evil person came here and legally purchased two firearms from us,” owner Edward Henson told reporters. “If he hadn’t purchased them from us, I’m sure he would’ve gotten them from another local gun store.”
Asked if he would’ve sold Mateen the weapons knowing he’d been investigated for terrorism ties by the FBI back in 2013 and 2014, Henson said no.
“They dropped the ball,” he said.
The carnage Mateen wrought with those weapons also left deep emotional wounds. In Orlando, whole families collapsed in grief as authorities put names and faces to the victims, identifying 47 of the 49 people shot dead inside Pulse. They included everyone from Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24, who worked on a Telemundo kids show, to former college basketball player Kimberly Morris and Luis Vielma, 22, who worked at a Harry Potter ride at Universal Orlando. Their pain was felt across the country and world.
“I can’t stop crying,” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted, along with a photo of Vielma.
Another 53 people were wounded — 29 of whom remained in an Orlando hospital.
Those who did not survive died at the hands of Mateen, a New York-born U.S. citizen of Afghan descent who lived in Fort Pierce, about a two-hour drive from Orlando.
On Monday, state and federal officials released more details about the assault, which stretched into a three-hour standoff that authorities are still piecing together.
Mateen was reported to have barged into the popular downtown nightclub, wielding an AR-15 assault rifle and a Sig Saur pistol, at about 2 a.m. As Mateen opened fire inside the club, an off-duty officer working at the club confronted him, along with several others officers, Orlando police said Monday morning at a press conference.
The firefight forced Mateen into a bathroom as officers saved scores of club patrons who managed to escape the bullets. But Mateen took some four or five hostages into one bathroom, Orlando Police Chief John Mina said. He called police over the course of three hours but made no real demands, Mina said.
“I would say he was cool and calm when he was making those phone calls to us,” Mina said.
During the standoff, Mateen began calling police, conversations that included an “allegiance to the Islamic State,” the chief said. Mateen “made clear” his affinity for ISIS and “solidarity” with the Boston Marathon bombers and an American suicide bomber who killed himself in Syria in 2014, FBI Director Comey said. That support was somewhat baffling — that suicide bomber was affiliated with the al-Nusra front, an ISIS rival.
When Mateen began talking about bombs and explosives, “we believed a further loss of life was imminent,” Mina said.
Police explosives failed to breach the wall. An armored police vehicle known as a Bearcat was then deployed to punch a hole in the club’s wall. Clubgoers began streaming out — as did Mateen, who emerged and fired at SWAT officers. One officer was hit in his Kevlar helmet, but survived. Mateen was shot dead.
“SWAT officers acted very heroically and courageously in saving many, many lives,” Mina said.
Since the gunfire ended, federal agents have embarked on a sprawling probe into Mateen. His father, Saddique Mateen, has told reporters he had no idea his son was planning the attack, and suggested the younger Mateen might have been infuriated by seeing two gay men kiss during a recent trip to Miami.
In a video he posted to his Facebook page, he also hinted at his own views of gays. “God will punish those involved in homosexuality,” he said, according to the Washington Post.
According to multiple media reports, agents are investigating whether an April visit to Disney World in Orlando by Mateen was actually to scout for targets, and whether his trips to Saudi Arabia several years ago were more than just religious pilgrimages.
Mateen was no stranger to the FBI.
In May 2013, Mateen worked for the large security firm G4S, and was stationed at the St. Lucie courthouse when he made “inflammatory” statements to co-workers. He claimed his family had connections to the al-Qaida terror network.
“He said he hoped law enforcement would raid his apartment,” Comey said in televised remarks Monday.
Miami’s FBI field office investigated for 10 months, trying to get incriminating evidence by introducing Mateen to confidential informants, following Mateen and scrutinizing his personal life. Ultimately, they found nothing. Agents interviewed Mateen and he admitted to making the statements, but only because his co-workers were teasing him because of his Muslim faith.
Two months later, in 2014, Mateen’s name surfaced when a source told agents he might have known the American suicide bomber Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who killed himself in Syria in 2014. But the probe turned up no ties.
Comey defended the FBI’s work on Mateen’s earlier cases. “We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack,” he said.
The FBI director’s televised remarks came on a busy day in Washington, as the politics around gun control and fighting terrorism raged on Capitol Hill, cable TV news and social media.
Democratic senators announced proposed legislation to close loopholes that allow suspected terrorists from buying firearms. That’s an effort that has been repeatedly opposed by Republicans.
“When this fella went last week to buy an automatic gun, it would have [been] flagged,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, said in a conference call.
Meanwhile, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump minced no words, again calling for a ban on Muslims while accusing Obama and opponent Hillary Clinton of being weak on terrorism. “We are importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system, and through an intelligence community held back by our president,” he said in a speech Monday.
Miami Herald writers Kyra Gurney and Eliza Dewey contributed to this report.