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Gunman who killed 50 in Orlando club was questioned by FBI in recent years

Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Florida - The FBI interviewed Omar Mateen in recent years for having possible terrorist ties, the agency said Sunday after he killed 50 people at a gay nightclub.

FBI learned of him in 2013 after he made inflammatory remarks to co-workers, said Ron Hopper, an FBI assistant special agent in charge.

The FBI investigated and interviewed witnesses and Mateen, but closed the investigation. He came to the FBI’s attention again in 2014 for making contact with a suicide bomber. FBI determined their connection was minimal and closed the investigation.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Sunday that Islamic State claimed responsibility for the shootings at Pulse, the nightclub.

The mass shootings at the Orlando club were the worst in U.S. history.

Mateen, 29, of Port St. Lucie, Fla., called 911 moments before the attack and pledged his allegiance to Islamic State, a federal law enforcement official said.

Mateen died after a shootout with Orlando police.

President Barack Obama said at a news conference that the shootings are “a sobering reminder that attacks on any American – regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation – is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.”

“We know enough to say this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” he said.

U.S. investigators are operating under a theory that the Orlando nightclub mass shooting was inspired by Islamic State, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said Sunday.

The similarities between the November attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris and that the shooter appeared to target a gay dance club during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan “indicates an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Intelligence officers were looking at terrorism databases to see if there are any known links between the gunman and a terrorist group, Schiff said.

Christopher Hansen, who was inside the Pulse nightclub during the attack, said he dropped to the floor when he heard about 40 gunshots. People ran from the bar as police officers screamed for everyone to leave.

“I just fell down and crawled out,” said Hansen, 23.

“I helped someone who was on the ground. I wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive,” he said.

Police Chief John Mina said Mateen fired the first shot about 2 a.m. at an Orlando police officer, and then ran into the club, which held more than 200 people. Details about exactly what happened inside the club were unclear, but police handled it as a hostage situation.

By 5 a.m., the police department’s SWAT team opened fire. They distracted Mateen with an explosive device and plowed into the building with a vehicle. When officers went inside, they found 50 dead, including Mateen, and 53 injured.

Mina said nine officers were involved in the shooting, and one sustained an injury to his eye and was saved by his helmet.

Mina credited his officers with rescuing 30 hostages from the club, which is just south of downtown Orlando.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer declared the city in “a state of emergency” and Gov. Rick Scott, who was at the scene, extended it to all of Orange County.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., called the attack a “hate crime” because the shooting happened at a gay club.

“It’s no coincidence the attack took place where it did and when it did,” he said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is leading the investigation.

Mina said some people trapped inside the club hid in the bathrooms and called 911.

Christopher Hansen, who was inside the Pulse nightclub during the attack, said he dropped to the floor when he heard about 40 gunshots. People ran from the bar as police officers screamed for everyone to leave.

“I just fell down and crawled out,” said Hansen, 23.

“I helped someone who was on the ground. I wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive,” he said. Rosie Feba was there with her girlfriend for the first time.

“She told me someone was shooting. Everyone was getting on the floor,” Feba said. “I told her I didn’t think it was real, I thought it was just part of the music, until I saw fire coming out of his gun.”

Feba and her girlfriend ran out of the club. On the way out, they saw a man who had been shot.

Feba grabbed him. Others around her called 911. Some of the man’s blood stained the sleeve of her striped T-shirt.

Feba and her girlfriend were unharmed, but shaken. They waited in a CVS parking lot for more information.

He said the immediate priority is to identify the dead and injured and notify their next of kin, something that he said would require people to be patient.

“Unfortunately this tragedy and the amount of bodies that are in there, the amount of victims, is going to take some time,” Mina said.

Meanwhile, authorities scoured the area for explosive devices, using robotic devices and K-9s. In addition to carrying the weapons, Mina said Mateen was possibly wearing an explosive “device.”

Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, urged people to pray on what he called “a heart-breaking morning.”

“It’s a horrible tragedy. We are mourning, We are sad. We are heartbroken,” he said.

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