Questions remain in Pulse nightclub shooting
Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala gave an answer this week to a question many had been asking for more than 2 1⁄2 years: None of the victims in the massacre at Pulse nightclub were killed or injured by bullets fired by police, she said.
But Wednesday’s announcement did not address other still-lingering questions, such as why the first officers to arrive waited six minutes to enter the nightclub and whether more quickly ending the roughly three-hour siege that followed could have saved lives. The public was also not shown ballistics evidence to back up the officials’ conclusions about the police gunfire.
Ayala’s review, which was based in part on an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, could be the final word by outside investigators on the Orlando Police Department’s response to the mass shooting that claimed 49 lives June 12, 2016. A report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation remains secret — despite the agency having made public its findings on more recent mass shootings much more quickly.
Christine Leinonen, a former law enforcement officer whose son, Christopher Drew Leinonen, died at Pulse, said this week that she’s not convinced by Ayala’s findings — nor is she satisfied that the actions of Orlando police have been properly scrutinized.
“If you do the math, if you take the 180 rounds that the cops fired, and the number of times the killer was hit, where did the rest of those bullets go? What are the odds that not one of them hit someone other than the killer?” she said. “I’m going to call B.S.”
Orange County Sheriff John Mina, who was Orlando’s police chief when the Pulse shooting happened, said his officers acted heroically.
He has not detailed policy changes that the department made or should make in the wake of the Pulse attack.
“We’re always adjusting training based on incidents that happen and best practices that are done around the country,” Mina said Wednesday.
A spokesman for new police Chief Orlando Rolon confirmed that the agency will conduct its own internal affairs investigation now that the FDLE review is complete. But it’s unclear whether that probe will look beyond the scope of the FDLE report, which focused on whether police were justified in using deadly force.
Ballistics not released
Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama, said this week’s reports about Pulse showed a stark contrast between how the shooting at the nightclub and the shooting a year ago at a high school in Parkland were investigated by state and local officials.
“After Parkland, officials were not shy about leveling criticism even at people who were well-intentioned,” he said.
The FDLE’s report on Pulse, which contained interviews with officers and witnesses from the scene as well as narrations of footage from body cameras and security cameras, is the type of report one might expect if there were questions about whether police were justified in shooting at a suspect. Ayala made clear that her agency’s review centered on just that — determining whether officers’ decisions to use deadly force that night were reasonable.
But no one ever questioned whether police were right to shoot Omar Mateen, who was armed and clearly a threat.
“No one has any qualms about that,” Lankford said. “What about the things there are still questions about? Has any analysis been done that can identify the victims and the bullets specifically used? There could be more level of detail if somebody was actually motivated to ask this question.”
Ayala’s chief assistant, Deborah Barra, said the FBI conducted a ballistics analysis, but officials would not release the federal agency’s report about the shooting.
Barra said she and the state attorney’s chief investigator, Eric Edwards, looked at video from surveillance cameras, officers’ body cameras and dash cameras; listened for gunshots in 911 calls; read through witness interviews; and looked through crime scene photos.
“There were so many pieces that were collected at that time that putting it all together to make sense of it, and making sure that all of it, combined, made sense and told the full story was what we focused on,” Barra said.
The FDLE report included transcripts of radio transmissions from the officers in the crucial first moments of the massacre.
In the first two minutes of the transmissions, Orlando police Lt. Scott Smith seemed to tell Detective Adam Gruler, who was working a security detail outside the club when the shooting started, to go inside the building. But no law enforcement officers entered for another four minutes, until after the rapid gunfire paused.
Gruler first radioed “shots fired” at 2:02 a.m. and remained outside the club, where he fired at the shooter from a distance of about 75 feet, or more than threequarters of the length of an NBA basketball court.
He radioed four more times from outside the building over the first two minutes. He called in a fifth time from outside the club at 2:04 a.m. and said, “OK, we got multiple down, I only got one officer here with me, I saw the subject inside continued to shoot.”
Less than a minute later, Smith replied, “Hey, stay off the radio, you already called
43, Gruler. People are coming to you, if he is still shooting and there are people in there, you need to go contact them.”
The reference to “called
43” is the police signal for rush — officer needs help.
No one entered Pulse until
“I’m angry that it took 2 1⁄2 years for them to give this information, and they’re still not giving you the most critical piece of information: What happened with Adam Gruler in the parking lot?” Leinonen said.
FBI report timing differs
After 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a statewide commission formed to investigate the case and issued recommendations, some critical of Broward County Deputy Scot Peterson for failing to enter the classroom building when the shooting was underway.
The commission also criticized the Broward County sheriff’s office for failing to have clear policies and training that spelled out how to respond in active shooter scenarios. But no state or local officials have criticized the Orlando Police Department or the first officer on the scene at Pulse. And no oversight commission was formed.
It is unknown when the FBI will release its report on Pulse, which Barra said was given to the state attorney’s office in May 2018.
In the case of other mass shootings reviewed by the FBI, the agency made its findings public much faster.
For example, it took the FBI 16 months to conclude the agency could not pinpoint a motive for the shooter at a Las Vegas concert on Oct. 1, 2017, where 59 died. The FBI issued that report last month.
It took the FBI just nine months to write a letter to the state commission investigating the Feb. 14, 2018, Parkland shooting, announcing it would reform the way it runs its tip line, which had botched the handling of tips about the shooter in that case.
In the case of Pulse, the public’s biggest glimpse into the FBI’s findings came indirectly, during the trial of Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, who was acquitted last year of aiding her husband and lying to agents. The trial focused on the role of terrorism in the massacre, which Mateen said he carried out in support of the Islamic State group.
U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat who represents Osceola County, where some victims’ families live, said he would like the public to have access to the forensics evidence as well as any report produced by the FBI.
He said he has been briefed by the FBI and has requested to see the final report.
“I am satisfied with their investigation but believe it’s time for them to release the forensics report,” Soto said in an e-mail. “It appears their investigation has concluded and this report is critical for public policy analysis.”
The FBI investigated Mateen twice prior to the shooting at Pulse: in 2013 after coworkers at the St. Lucie County Courthouse, where he worked as a guard, said he’d claimed to have ties to terrorist groups; and in 2014, after a man who attended the same mosque as him carried out a suicide bombing in Syria.
The watchdog group for the Department of Justice, the Office of the Inspector General, may be reviewing the FBI’s actions related to the Pulse shooter. Shortly after the massacre, the OIG initiated a still-ongoing study titled “Efforts to address homegrown violent extremists.”
A spokesman would not confirm which cases it would review.
In an interview Thursday, Barra said she sat down with victims’ families after the announcement to answer specific questions they had about what happened to their loved ones.
“We wanted to provide as much information as they wanted to hear, so it really depended on the individual and, you know, some people didn’t want to hear a lot. Some people wanted to hear everything that we had,” Barra said.
She said she is available to speak with victims’ families and survivors who still have questions. She is also planning to speak with families living in Puerto Rico, though there haven’t been any concrete plans made.
Any family members who want to talk can call the Orange-Osceola state attorney’s office at 407-836-2497.
“I genuinely don’t want people out there without that sense of closure, if answering those questions would bring them any type of closure,” Barra said. “Not saying that it would, but it is really important, I think, for them to have the opportunity to find out as much information as we can provide them.”
Staff writer Tess Sheets contributed.