Ques­tions re­main in Pulse night­club shoot­ing

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Local - By Beth Kassab, Michael Wil­liams amd Gal Tziper­man Lotan

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

2:08 a.m.

“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.

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