As the Trial of Omar Mateen’s Wife Begins, New Evidence Undermines Beliefs About the Pulse Massacre, Including Motive

The view that Mateen deliberately targeted the LGBT community is almost certainly false. Yet it may play a large role in sending a potentially innocent woman to prison.

FILE - In this June 12, 2016 file photo, law enforcement officials work at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., following a mass shooting. Police negotiators talking to gunman Omar Mateen at first weren't sure if the person they had on the phone was actually in the Pulse nightclub, according to audio recordings released Monday, Oct. 31, after a judge ruled they should be made public. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
Photo: Chris O'Meara/AP

Newly released evidence today calls into serious doubt many of the most widespread beliefs about the 2016 shooting by Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people, along with Mateen himself. Because the attack occurred on the club’s “Latin night,” the overwhelming majority of the victims were Latinos, primarily Puerto Ricans.

In particular, Mateen went to Pulse only after having scouted other venues that night that were wholly unrelated to the LGBT community, only to find that they were too defended by armed guards and police, and ultimately chose Pulse only after a generic Google search for “Orlando nightclubs” — not “gay clubs” — produced Pulse as the first search result.

Several journalists closely covering the Mateen investigation have, for some time now, noted the complete absence of any evidence suggesting that Mateen knew that Pulse was a gay club or that targeting the LGBT community was part of his motive. These doubts have been strongly fortified by the new facts, previously under seal, that were revealed by today’s court filing.

Beyond changing how the public understands the motives for this attack, this new perspective is likely to play a major role in the criminal trial of Mateen’s wife, Noor Salman, that is now underway in an Orlando federal courtroom, with jury selection expected to last another 10 days. Salman is accused of having aided her husband’s June 12, 2016, attack on the Orlando LGBT nightclub. She is also accused of obstructing justice by lying to the FBI.

Undated photo or selfie of Omar Mateen, identified as the gunman in mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016. The shooting death toll rose to 50 with a further 53 wounded. Photo Balkis Press/Sipa USA

Omar Mateen.

Balkis Press / Sipa USA
When the presiding judge denied the request of Salman’s lawyers that the trial be moved out of Orlando, he ensured that she would be tried by a jury chosen from a city that is still deeply traumatized and understandably enraged by that horrific massacre. With Mateen dead, the city — led by its LGBT community — is united in its eagerness that someone pay a price.

The prosecution of Mateen’s wife is highly unusual and troubling, riddled with evidentiary holes, and seemingly designed to feed, and exploit, community outrage that demands someone be punished for this massacre. The decision to prosecute Salman is particularly odd given the Department of Justice’s refusal to prosecute Marilou Danley, the girlfriend of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, despite far greater evidence suggesting her foreknowledge of his plans. Additionally, the DOJ refused to prosecute Katherine Russell, the white, ex-Christian wife of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, also in the face of evidence of possible complicity that was far stronger than exists for Salman.

But independent of the problematic nature of Salman’s prosecution, numerous myths continue to persist about Mateen’s actions, particularly regarding his motives in why he attacked Pulse. As so often happens in the wake of mass shootings and terror attacks, media narratives emerge early on, when little is known, and never become dislodged from the public’s mind, even as the formal investigation reveals that there is little evidence to support those initial, still-common media claims — or, as is the case here, overwhelming evidence that strongly negates those beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, Mateen’s alleged motive in choosing Pulse — that he wanted to target and kill LGBTs due to some toxic mix of self-hatred over his own sexual orientation and his fealty to Islam — has been treated as unquestionably true in countless media accounts, statements from public officials, and ultimately in the public mind. But ample evidence now affirmatively casts serious doubt about whether there is any truth to this widely accepted belief about Mateen’s motives in attacking Pulse. While some of this conflicting evidence has been reported in the same media outlets that originally disseminated the narrative that Mateen sought to target the LGBT community, it has been downplayed to the point where few in the public are even aware that the original theories about Mateen’s motives have been undermined.

McKenna Post holds a rainbow flag as her mother, Randa Black, hugs her during a vigil at Lake Eola honoring the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., Monday, June 12, 2017. A gunman opened fire at the nightclub one year ago in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, killing 49 people. (Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

McKenna Post holds a rainbow flag as her mother, Randa Black, hugs her during a vigil at Lake Eola honoring the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla., Monday, June 12, 2017.

Photo: Loren Elliott/Tampa Bay Times via AP

By repeatedly emphasizing this anti-gay motive, U.S. media reports had the effect, if not the intent, of obscuring what appears to have been Mateen’s overriding, arguably exclusive motive: a desire for retribution and deterrence toward U.S. violence in Muslim countries. This highly dubious “anti-gay” storyline has also created a virtually unanimous climate in Orlando’s community that is demanding the punishment of anyone remotely connected to Mateen, a climate prosecutors have seized on to bring highly unusual, and very questionable, felony charges against Mateen’s wife that could send her to prison for decades despite scant evidence of her guilt.

Much of the evidence regarding Mateen’s motives has remained under seal and thus unavailable for public review. But this afternoon, Salman’s lawyers filed a motion to preclude the admissibility of certain evidence and, in doing so, provided a meaningful glimpse into many of the facts that are clearly at odds with the long-standing, prevailing view that Mateen’s motive, at least in part, was to attack a gay club and murder LGBT people. That includes searches on Mateen’s phones during the week of the attack, in which he was attempting to choose his target by searching generically for soft targets in the form of popular tourist locations or simply “nightclubs, Orlando” — not “gay nightclubs” or “LGBT clubs.”

Back in June of last year, the Orlando Sentinel referenced some of this vital evidence when it noted that Mateen was asking associates what would make people more upset: “an attack on downtown Disney or a club?” The paper added: “Mateen didn’t say ‘gay club,’ according to court records.”

The motion filed by Salman’s lawyers makes clear that in the days leading up to the Pulse attack, and indeed on the day of the attack itself, Mateen scoped out and considered numerous venues — such as Disney properties and shopping malls — none of which had any connection to the LGBT community or gay life. Moreover, once Mateen decided to attack nightclub, his phone records reveal that he searched for “Orlando nightclubs” — not “LGBT clubs” or “gay bars.” The relevant facts from the motion just filed this afternoon makes clear how dubious the widespread beliefs are about Mateen’s motives:

But even before this evidence began to come to light, there was already abundant convincing evidence suggesting that anti-gay animus was not a significant part of Mateen’s motive in choosing Pulse and perhaps played no role at all. This evidence begins with Mateen’s own words.

As is true of most terrorists, Mateen was determined to ensure that the world knew the grievances and causes in whose name he was slaughtering innocent people. He accomplished this in multiple ways: a running stream of commentary during the shooting spree, multiple statements to law enforcement officials by telephone from inside Pulse, and Facebook postings he published shortly before the killings.

All of these statements contain numerous, now-standard grievances about U.S. foreign policy that are commonly cited by Muslims who attack Americans: specifically, the use by the U.S. and its allies of widespread violence against Muslim civilians in the Middle East, and the perceived need to bring violence back to U.S. soil as a means of punishing past violence and deterring future aggression.

Many of Mateen’s statements are filled with the sorts of denunciations of U.S. violence in the region that are typically downplayed, if not outright ignored, when U.S. media examine why radical Muslims attack Americans. Mateen’s statements about his shooting spree contain pledges of loyalty to the Islamic State and praise for various radical groups. And some posts and statements professed that he was martyring himself on behalf of Islam. But they exclusively emphasized one cause: the ongoing killing of Muslim civilians by the U.S.

Critically, what is missing from all of Mateen’s comments — from his online decrees, his talks with police negotiators during the attack, and statements made to his victims and survivors at the club — is glaring and revealing: At no point during the hours of his attack on Pulse did Mateen even mention, let alone rail against, LGBT people. Even as he massacred 49 people inside a gay club, surrounded by gay people, there were no reports from survivors that he had uttered a single anti-gay epithet or homophobic remark, or in any way referenced LGBT people. None of his statements explaining his motives and cause for the attack make any reference to targeting the gay community or any judgments about homosexuality.

The same is true of his extensive conversations with law enforcement officials and his Facebook postings regarding the shooting spree: They were filled with pledges of loyalty to ISIS and other extremist groups in the region, along with denunciations of U.S. aggression in the region, but not a single word about LGBT people. “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes,” Mateen wrote on Facebook. “Now taste the Islamic state vengeance.”

Indeed, while inside Pulse, his extensive discussions with police negotiators, who continually asked him what he wanted, focused exclusively on demands that the U.S., along with Russia, cease airstrikes and the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. “Because you have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people,” he said during his first call to 911. “What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. … You need to stop the U.S. airstrikes. They need to stop the U.S. airstrikes, OK? . … This went down, a lot of innocent women and children are getting killed in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, OK? … The airstrikes need to stop and stop collaborating with Russia. OK?”

Mateen’s complete lack of any mention or reference to LGBT people during his hourslong shooting spree is not, of course, definitive proof that this was not part of his motive in attacking Pulse. But it’s certainly relevant, probative, and worthy of serious questioning. Given Mateen’s commitment in multiple venues to aggressively expressing his motives and causes, it is difficult to understand why — in the midst of an attack on a gay club — he would be utterly silent about his views on homosexuality and LGBT people, even as he opined on a wide array of other political issues to justify his attack. It is, at least, equally difficult to understand why Mateen’s systematic murder of dozens of gay people was never accompanied by any casual anti-gay slur or homophobic sentiment of any kind.

Adding to these questions is that FBI investigators insist that Mateen, in the days and weeks leading to the attack, had scoped out numerous other potential venues — from Disney Parks to shopping malls. None had any connection to gay culture or LGBT people. Pulse seems to have been the only locale Mateen ever considered that had any connection to gay life.

All of this has left investigators, and especially Salman’s lawyers, strongly suspecting that Mateen chose Pulse not because he wanted to target LGBT people, but because he sought a soft target full of people.  And he just so happened — perhaps without even knowing he was doing it — to choose a club that catered to the gay community.

Mateen never lived in Orlando; at the time of the attack, he lived in Fort Pierce, more than 100 miles from Orlando, a two-hour drive. There is no evidence he even knew that Pulse was a gay club. As for how he found Pulse, one patron present that night offered a plausible theory when she told reporters that she and her friends were strangers to the Orlando club scene and “picked Pulse because it came up first when they did a Google search for clubs in Orlando, with a five-star rating.” Mateen’s phone searches for the targets he considered attacking are part of what has remained sealed, but today’s filing strongly suggests that Mateen similarly chose Pulse in much the same way.

As the FBI investigation proceeded, some corrective reports in the U.S. media began to emerge, but they were often downplayed and given nowhere near the prominence with which the early, erroneous reports were hyped. Roughly one month after the shooting, the Washington Post, citing unnamed “U.S. law enforcement officials,” reported that “the FBI has found no evidence so far that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded more than 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, chose the popular establishment because of its gay clientele.” The Post added, quoting a law enforcement official, that “while there can be no denying the significant impact on the gay community, the investigation hasn’t revealed that he targeted Pulse because it was a gay club.”

And now, almost 18 months later, as the trial of Mateen’s wife is beginning, that evidentiary absence remains unhanged. As the Orlando Sentinel put it in June of last year, “there’s still no evidence that the Pulse killer intended to target gay people.”

And yet the popular belief persists — often finding its way into official pronouncements, LGBT group materials, and media discussions — that the Pulse shooting represented a deliberate, concerted attack — a “hate crime” — on the LGBT community due to homophobia. At least in part for this reason, the LGBT community, particularly in Orlando, has appeared to be virtually united in their intense desire to see Mateen’s wife prosecuted.

It should go without saying that none of these questions about Mateen’s motive remotely mitigates the evil of the attack. But it is crucial to understand the truth of what happened, and not to allow a politically valuable narrative — one that some have attempted to use to drive a wedge between Muslim and LGBT communities, and one that seems to be driving a desire to see Mateen’s wife punished — to continue to prevail if it is, in fact, false.

The belief that Mateen purposely set out to kill gay people emerged very early on in the media’s reporting on the attack. The Guardian, in the days following the attack, quoted one survivor: “My sense is that this man was a fundamentalist, and he just chose, for whatever reason, to go after the LGBT community – and to go on Latin night, so it was a two-fer.” Such sentiments were commonplace throughout media reports.

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial, in front of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack via AP)

Mourners visit a makeshift memorial, in front of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, Saturday, June 25, 2016, in Orlando, Fla.

Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
And back then, and still to a large extent now, one working theory was that Mateen himself was either gay or struggling with homosexuality. Likely due to his Muslim beliefs, he harbored self-hatred and disgust for his own sexual orientation that finally exploded with violence toward other gay people.

Within days of the attack, the media deluged the public with all sorts of claims strongly suggesting that Mateen was gay. Reports emerged that he had used gay dating apps such as Grindr to find sex partners. Several Pulse patrons insisted they had seen him at the club previously. His first wife, whom he had abused, speculated that he may be gay, telling Time: “He would take a long time in front of the mirror, he would often take pictures of himself, and he made little movements with his body that definitely made me question things. It definitely popped up in my head whether he was totally straight.”

That closeted gay men develop self-hatred which often finds expression in severe animosity and even violence toward gay people is well-established in the social sciences. It has become popularized in the discourse surrounding homophobia. As a result, this image of Mateen as self-hating gay man quickly resonated as a way of explaining an incomprehensible act of evil. That he was Muslim added to the seeming plausibility: It has become an increasingly common tactic among some Western anti-Islam commentators to insist that Muslim culture and gay rights are incompatible — all that despite polling data showing that American Muslims are more accepting of gay people and gay civil rights than several other large religious groups.

ISIS, whose name Mateen invoked on several occasions during the shooting, added fuel to the fire that Mateen’s motive was to kill gay people when they issued a statement claiming responsibility and noting that “the victims were all in ‘a nightclub for homosexuals.'” Another ISIS statement declared he was one of its soldiers who had managed “to enter a crusader gathering at a nightclub for homosexuals.” Yet investigators could find no connection between Mateen and ISIS other than his pledge to the group during the shooting, and ISIS has notoriously claimed responsibility for attackers who, though “inspired” by their message, did nothing to coordinate or even notify the group in advance of the attack.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., second from right, speaks with first responders as she visits a memorial outside of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Friday, July 22, 2016, which was the site of a June 12th shooting that kill 49 people. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Photo: Andrew Harnick/AP
Bolstering this belief that Mateen deliberately targeted LGBTs were the well-intentioned statements of leading U.S. officials designed to comfort the gay community. “The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live,” President Barack Obama said in the days following the attack. Chad Griffin, the head of the largest LGBT advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, said, “The maniac who did this was somehow conditioned to believe that LGBT people deserve to be massacred, that they are ‘less than’ in this society.”

Then-candidate Hillary Clinton said during her visit to Orlando that, while an act of terror, the Pulse massacre “was also an act of hate,” adding that “the gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub during Pride Month.” She vowed: “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.” Speaking in Orlando, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that it is “a cruel irony that a community defined almost exclusively by whom they love [LGBT people] is so often a target of hate.”

That Mateen attacked Pulse as an act of anti-gay hatred was implicit in the discourse in the days following the traumatic attack. And that remains just as true today.

But over time, as investigators scrutinized every aspect of Mateen’s in-person and digital life and tracked down every last lead, all of these claims about Mateen’s sexual orientation collapsed. FBI investigators ultimately concluded that there was no truth whatsoever to the theory that Mateen was gay — closeted or otherwise. To the contrary, they uncovered ample evidence that he was cheating on his wife with numerous women.

As the New York Times described on June 18, “Mateen used a dating website to seek a relationship with a woman in Fort Pierce. He churned through usernames — “makeitlovelylol” among them — and lied about his age, according to the woman, who requested anonymity but who provided photos that she had saved from his dating profile.” Indeed, “at one point, she said, Mr. Mateen’s pursuit veered toward stalking. He began messaging her to say he was nearby. He knew the color of her car and the general location of her place of employment.”

While there is extensive evidence of Mateen’s womanizing — including his use of a friend to hide his infidelities from his wife — there is no evidence regarded by the FBI as credible that Mateen was gay. Indeed, Mateen had never visited any of the gay bars near his home, as Time reported in mid-June: “Nobody recalled ever seeing him at TattleTails, a gay bar just a few miles from his apartment. In three gay bars in West Palm Beach, an hour from Mateen’s home, none of the bartenders or customers told TIME they remembered ever seeing him.”

Forensic investigations into Mateen’s computers and accounts revealed no online activity that would suggest any gay interests. The Los Angeles Times, on June 23, reported that “the FBI has found no evidence so far to support claims by those who say Mateen had gay lovers or communicated on gay dating apps, several law enforcement officials said. … In seeking to verify the reports, federal agents have culled Mateen’s electronic devices, including a laptop computer and cellphone, as well as electronic communications of those who made the claims. … So far, they have found no photographs, no text messages, no smartphone apps, no gay pornography and no cell-tower location data to suggest that Mateen — who was twice married to women and had a young son — conducted a secret gay life, the officials said.”

As the investigation proceeded, the original belief that Mateen was gay appeared less and less plausible, as the New York Times noted: “F.B.I. investigators, who have conducted more than 500 interviews in the case, are continuing to contact men who claim to have had sexual relations with Mr. Mateen or think they saw him at gay bars. But so far, they have not found any independent corroboration — through his web searches, emails or other electronic data — to establish that he was, in fact, gay, officials said.”

Indeed, the only evidence found linking Mateen to any gay people itself negated the theory that Mateen was filled with homophobia. As The Guardian explained on June 14: “His former classmate Samuel King, who also worked at the same shopping mall as Mateen after high school, said Mateen had known that he and many of his friends were gay but never expressed any disapproval. “He had to know it, but I never got any sense of homophobia or aggression from him,” he told the Washington Post.”

Despite this mountain of evidence that strongly negates the original media-disseminated themes about Mateen’s life and his likely motive in targeting Pulse, the early myths remain lodged in the public mind and even in contemporary news reports. In part that’s because much of the evidence has remained under seal, in part because subsequent media debunking received a tiny fraction of the attention of the early, aggressively hyped inflammatory theories, and in part because there has been no political advantage to challenging the politically moving and useful narrative that the attack on Pulse was a hate crime against gay people.

As Salman’s trial is about to begin, it is thus commonplace to find these cleary debunked theories asserted as fact in the largest media outlets. Matthew Todd, writing in The Guardian just last month, explained that “self-loathing can turn deadly. Omar Mateen, who committed America’s most deadly homophobic attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida in 2016, pledged his allegiance to Isis but was also alleged to have made sexual advances towards men. His ex-wife said she believed he was gay.”

The LGBT journal The Advocate, in an article last week on the imminent trial of Mateen’s wife claimed that “searches of Mateen’s personal computer also indicate that he had visited the website for Pulse, and witnesses say he visited the club on numerous occasions.”

Driven by this belief that the attack on Pulse was intended to target LGBT people, demanding severe punishment for Mateen’s wife has become a cause among many gay activists. Standing outside the Orlando courtroom where jury selection this week began was longtime activist Bob Kunst, who traveled from his Miami home to march with a sign demanding Salman’s execution: “’FRY’ HER TILL SHE HAS NO ‘PULSE,’” his sign said.

Bob Kunst protests against the widow of the Pulse nightclub shooter Noor Salman, who faces charges of aiding her husband in killing 49 people in 2016, outside the federal court house in Orlando, Florida, U.S. March 1, 2018.  REUTERS/Joey Roulette - RC1B1493D500

Bob Kunst protests against the widow of the Pulse nightclub shooter Noor Salman, who faces charges of aiding her husband in killing 49 people in 2016, outside the federal court house in Orlando, Fla., on March 1, 2018.

Photo: Joey Roulette/Reuters

Mob justice is rarely just. When it is driven by fundamentally false beliefs, it becomes even more reckless, more dangerous. The trial of Noor Salman should ultimately be judged on the evidence, such as it is, as to whether she actually participated in helping her husband commit this atrocity.

But the way in which this attack has been depicted as a deliberate attempt by a Muslim radical to target LGBT people — a theory now almost certainly false — has played a major role in the climate that has led the DOJ to decide, in an abandonment of prior practices, to indict and prosecute her. Understanding what Mateen did and did not do is an imperative journalistically, for its own sake. But given the role these beliefs are playing in the attempt to send a possibly innocent woman to prison for decades, ensuring accuracy becomes even more vital.

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