Pulse shooting: Police cleared of wrongdoing in response to massacre, state attorney says

Written by on February 13, 2019

Fourteen law enforcement officers fired shots during the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub, but none struck anyone other than the gunman, the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office said Wednesday.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala, whose office reviews every time an officer fires a weapon on duty, said her office found the response to the June 12, 2016, massacre that claimed 49 lives justified.

“While there is no way to take away the pain and the devastation that has been imparted upon our community, it is my hope that sharing the results of this investigation will help survivors and their loved ones to find closure and answer any questions they may have,” Ayala said. “They do deserve to have answers.”

Deborah Barra, Ayala’s chief assistant state attorney, detailed five encounters during which officers fired shots and said that evidence showed that none of those bullets killed or wounded anyone but gunman Omar Mateen.

Officers’ actions were “reasonable and justifiable,” she said.
Ayala and Barra stressed that the review had only two objectives: to identify the officers who fired and determine if they were justified. The probe did not cover other issues, such as whether any victims could have been saved had they been rescued sooner.

Christine Leinonen, who lost her son, Christopher Drew Leinonen, and his boyfriend, Juan Ramón Guerrero, said she still had unanswered questions.

“They didn’t tell us which cops fired which bullets into which locations,” Leinonen said. “Why is it that they couldn’t have said this two and a half years ago? They had all the bullets; they had all the guns.”

Leinonen also questioned the timing of the announcement — one day before Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland marks one year since 17 people were killed there.

“Only yesterday did I find out about this press conference,” Leinonen said Wednesday. “I’ve been begging them for this information for 2 ½ years, and how dare they release it now, just before the Parkland anniversary, when people are focused on Parkland? People are always trying to give you a lot of facts when they’re trying to cover something up.”

More than 400 rounds were fired during the mass shooting, more than half of those by Mateen, prosecutors said. The rest, according to an FDLE report, was fired by 14 law enforcement officers: 11 Orlando police officers and three Orange County deputies.

In a detailed presentation, Barra explained her findings for each of five instances in which officers fired shots, starting with Officer Adam Gruler — who was working security at the club when Mateen’s rampage began — and ending with the gunman dead on the ground.

There was one instance in which two officers fired toward someone who turned out to be a survivor of the shooting trying to escape, Barra said: a man who was seen crouching and didn’t respond to commands. One officer fired once, hitting a mirror. The other hit either a door or the wall.

The man soon got out of the club alive, Barra said.

There were two bathrooms in that hallway, one on the southern edge of the hallway and the other north of it. A narrow hallway separated them. For the next three hours, Mateen was in the north bathroom with some survivors, as well as people who were injured or dead. There were more survivors in the southern bathroom.

Most of the police gunfire came at the end of a roughly three-hour standoff with Mateen. As police broke a hole in the wall between two of the bathrooms and pulled people from the southern bathroom out, Mateen went up to a stall in the northern bathroom and fired between three and five shots, Barra said — all at people who had already died, according to a medical examiner’s review.

Officers heard Mateen’s gunshots and threw flash-bang grenades into the bathroom. Mateen came into the A. hall between the club’s bathrooms and began firing, prompting 13 officers to fire 172 rounds at him, Barra said.

They hit Mateen seven times. Mateen fired at least two shots: one that hit Officer Michael Napolitano’s helmet, leaving him with minor injuries; and another that hit the calf of a survivor who escaped the south bathroom and was running away from the club.

None of the other shots hit civilians, Barra said.

By then, the survivors in the south bathroom were already out of the club. Investigators could not find any evidence that shots hit the survivors in the north bathroom. “The wall was separating the survivors from the trajectory of the bullets,” Barra said.

The last shot came after officers approached Mateen’s body, she said. There was what appeared to be an explosive device on his body — which turned out to be a fallen exit sign — and a gun within reach of his hand, so an officer shot him one more time in the head, she said.

“To ensure that he was no longer a threat, one bullet was fired into the shooter and he was no longer a threat,” Barra said.

The findings were announced at a morning press conference at the Rosen Centre Hotel on International Drive. In attendance was Orange County Sheriff John Mina, who was Orlando police chief at the time of the massacre, and the presentation was live-streamed for survivors and victims’ families to watch, officials said.

“I am relieved for the officers and deputies, the brave men and women who went in there, at risk to their own lives, and now themselves have a little bit of final closure and relief that they weren’t responsible for the death of a victim,” Mina said.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer in a statement said the investigation made it “even more clear that when faced with this horrific act, our Orlando police officers acted with great bravery and courage.

Barra and investigators from the state attorney’s office reviewed the FBI’s report, which they received in May 2018. That report has not been made public. They also had a Florida Department of Law Enforcement review completed two months after the shooting, more than 300 witness statements, 911 calls, and footage from security cameras, officers’ body cameras, and a sheriff’s office helicopter.

In a statement, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings thanked Ayala and Barra for their review of officers’ actions. Demings was the county’s sheriff in 2016.

“While I am pleased to know that law enforcement performed admirably… I am still saddened by the loss of the 49 innocent souls and the pain that their family, friends and our extended Pulse community will endure for the rest of their lives,” Demings said.

A federal jury in March 2018 acquitted Mateen’s widow of aiding and abetting him and of lying to FBI agents. There have been no other arrests in the case.

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