We wanted answers about Pulse. Instead, we were fed lies about Noor Salman

Corrupted Justice

Linda Moreno And Noor Salman
Linda Moreno And Noor Salman Illustration by Thomas “Thor” Thorspecken

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He would never come home.

Instead, Mateen had traveled to Orlando. Prosecutors theorized that Disney Springs – not Pulse – was the intended target of Mateen's attack, but a heavy police presence seemed to have scared him off, and he headed toward downtown Orlando. Initially, he got directions to EVE Orlando, a nightclub on Orange Avenue. But for reasons unknown, he passed the club and headed down Orange Avenue toward Pulse. After passing the gay nightclub several times while trying to get back to EVE, he finally pulled into the Pulse parking lot – a "target of opportunity," according to the defense.

He walked inside, got a drink at the bar and watched gay couples having fun on the dance floor. Minutes before the attack, Pulse security guard Neal Whittleton said in a statement that a man who later turned out to be Mateen asked him, "Where are the girls at?" Mateen watched the crowd for several minutes and went back into his van to get his guns.

At 2:02 a.m., the first shots rang out at Pulse – graphic surveillance video from inside the club showed Mateen methodically shooting at the crowd. He ignored calls from Salman and his mother but posted on Facebook, "America and Russia stop bombing the Islamic state ... You kill innocent women and children."

His last text before police confronted him was to Salman. "I love you babe," he wrote. She texted back, "Habibi what happened?!"

He was dead by 5:15 a.m., after killing 49 people and injuring 68, the majority of whom where LGBTQ Latinx and African American. Mateen didn’t only attack a gay nightclub – he shot up a home for queer and trans people, left bodies in the living room dance floor and terrorized clubgoers in their bathroom. Whether it was his intention or not that night to gun down people specifically at Pulse, Mateen attacked a safe space for LGBTQ patrons that was free of judgment, nasty stares and threats. His intentions to terrorize in response to U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are important for criminal trials and law enforcement statistics – but they matter little when almost two years after a massacre, people stay close to exit signs at gay nightclubs in Orlando.

After her last text to her husband, Salman got a call – local police officers were outside her door.

Fort Pierce Police Lt. William Hall asked Salman to come outside to talk with them after being warned of possible bombs or booby traps in the apartment. She walked out in her pajamas and he briefly searched her home. During his conversation with Salman, Hall testified in court that informed her that something had happened in Orlando, and she told him her husband was careful with guns and wouldn’t use them to hurt anyone unless he was protecting himself. Salman and her 3-year-old son were placed in the back of a police car and driven to the FBI’s Fort Pierce office, where she would remain for the next 11 hours.

The FBI agents testified they were immediately suspicious of her. FBI Agent Christopher Mayo said Salman made a strange comment during their interview when she said her husband liked everyone, including "homosexuals" before knowing the attack occurred at a gay club. During closing arguments, government prosecutors later conceded Salman could have heard police talking about the attack when she was first approached at her apartment. When they told Salman of her husband's death, Mayo said she cried while FBI Special Agent T.J. Sypniewski claimed she didn't.

For hours, they interrogated her in a large conference room – though they chose not to record or videotape her statements. Mayo said he "never thought" about taking her into one of the interview rooms at the Fort Pierce office, which had the capability to record. Sypniewski testified that it was against the agency’s policy to record people not in custody – to do so would require special permission from a supervisor. Salman technically wasn’t under arrest when she willingly talked to agents.

Agents testified that they brought Salman and her son breakfast and treated her cordially. But Mayo also said he found her sleeping on the floor of the conference room around 11 a.m. in between interviews. When Salman asked to go leave, Mayo told her she couldn’t go until they finished searching her home, so she signed a consent form to allow the FBI to search. The agents asked her to call someone to pick up her son while they continued talking to her – her brother-in-law Mustafa Abasin came to take the child and testified that he asked if Salman could go with him as well. But agents asked Salman if they could continue questioning her, so she stayed.

The last agent who interviewed Salman that day was FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez, a polygraph expert for the agency. Enriquez testified he knew little about the shooting except for hearing an FBI official say briefly on TV that the incident at Pulse was a "terrorist attack," and therefore could not contaminate Salman’s confession. Sypniewski, though, testified that he had briefed Enriquez on what Salman had told them.

Enriquez didn’t perform a polygraph exam on Salman – instead, the agent took her into a room with no recording equipment and interviewed her for several hours. He told her if she lied during their interview, he didn’t know what would happen to her child. Salman later told a psychologist that agents threatened her son would be taken away and raised in a "Christian home."

Her alleged confessions were not written in her own hand – agent Enriquez testified during trial that he wrote her words down because she was "too nervous" and had her initial each statement. After the first statement, Salman wrote in her own hand, "I am sorry for what happened. I wish I’d go back and tell his family and the police what he was going to do."

While Salman went to the bathroom, Enriquez read her apology. He said he realized she knew more about the attack than she was letting on.

"I told her I was disappointed with her," Enriquez testified. "This statement tells me that you knew."

A confused Salman responded, "No, I didn’t."

But after Enriquez insisted that she knew and wasn’t telling him the whole truth, Salman broke down.

"She began to cry and said, 'I knew,'" Enriquez said.

In her alleged confession, Salman said Mateen had taken her to case Pulse, Disney Springs and the outdoor shopping mall CityPlace in West Palm Beach. But cellphone data location showed they never went to Pulse. Despite Salman describing a 45-minute drive casing CityPlace on June 5 around 1 a.m., defense attorneys pointed out the government provided no surveillance footage of that occurring, and cellphone location data placed the couple at Delray Beach around that time. Salman confessed to Enriquez that Mateen showed her the Pulse website and said, "This is my target," but a review of web history on Mateen's and Salman's devices and the Pulse nightclub’s server showed no evidence they accessed the Pulse website.

Salman allegedly told Enriquez the last time she saw her husband was about 5 p.m. on June 11 with a backpack of ammunition. "Omar took his handgun from the closet, put it in his holster, cover it with his shirt and said he was going to see his friend 'Nemo.'" Enriquez said that at first, Salman said Mateen told her he would see her after prayer – but after hours of being interrogated, Salman told Enriquez two more versions of the story. In the second one, Mateen told her "This is the one day." In the third version, she told Enriquez she knew when her husband left that day to see Nemo he was "going to do something bad."

But Mateen left both his holsters at home that day. His work gun, found near the rental van at Pulse, was in a blue case. Much of the ammunition he bought was still in boxes near the scene.

Dr. Bruce Frumkin, a forensic and clinical psychologist who specializes in false confessions to law enforcement, testified that Salman had an IQ of 84 and was at "higher risk" than the average person to give a false confession to investigators. Again and again throughout the hours of interrogation, agents accused Salman of lying until, it seems, she finally relented to their version of the truth.

"[She's] really extreme, particularly under pressure, in yielding to misleading information," Frumkin told the jury. "She's not the brightest. She comes across as really immature, and immaturity really doesn't help the matter when it comes to law enforcement."

After Enriquez finished interviewing Salman, she waited in a room with FBI agents for a couple hours. FBI Supervisory Agent Duel Valentine testified that Salman was worried about her son and wondered how she would tell him that his father had murdered 49 people. Mateen's actions were selfish, Salman said, according to Valentine, and she told him the laws should make it harder to purchase guns. Salman was also concerned about money – she wondered if the recent credit card debt Mateen left behind could be forgiven by the bank because he was dead. Salman, a housewife, didn’t have a job or the means to support her son.

"She was a target of them," says Fritz Scheller, Salman’s Orlando-based attorney. "Every time there’s a terrorist attack, they always investigate the wives. … From the get-go, they were focused on her, and they rushed to judgment."

After the trial, Charles Swift, one of Salman’s lawyers, said the FBI needed to view this case as a "wake-up call" for how they conduct interrogations.

"The FBI must join the rest of law enforcement and record all statements," he said. "The FBI must think about some serious reform in the wake of this … If Orlando Police had investigated this, which they could’ve, they would have done it differently."

OPD spokesperson Michelle Guido says the department’s protocols state that "at no time shall a suspect, detainee, or prisoner be in the interview/processing rooms without the [video] recorder being on."

Orlando Weekly reached out to the FBI for more information about its recording policy but did not hear back by press time.

After Salman was found not guilty, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida has limited its comments to saying it was "disappointed in the outcome."

"We respect the decision of the jury and appreciate their hard work and service during this trial," says spokesperson William C. Daniels.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office would not elaborate on the trial’s most controversial moments – when an FBI agent said the agency knew in the days after attack that Salman’s phone had never been to Pulse, and the prosecution’s last-minute disclosure that Mateen’s father was an FBI informant who was currently under investigation.

During Fennern’s testimony, U.S. District Judge Paul Byron stopped him and asked if he told anyone that data showed Salman had never been in the vicinity of Pulse. Fennern said he told his superiors, and the judge asked for their names.

After the jury left the room that day, Byron scolded prosecutors – he felt misled. In earlier filings to revoke Salman’s bail, prosecutors said she "admitted to law enforcement that she went with her husband to Orlando and drove around the Pulse night club prior to the attack." Byron granted the government's request to keep Salman in jail partially based on this assertion. Despite the government knowing this information long before Salman was even arrested, her defense attorneys received access to a presentation with cellphone data evidence last August – well after they had spent thousands of dollars in hiring experts to prove the same thing. The government is required to turn over exculpatory evidence to a defendant – failure to do so is a violation of due process.

"The government doesn't have to be told to do the right thing," Byron told prosecutors. "They must do it."

The next shock came from the prosecution’s second disclosure. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney revealed to defense attorneys Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, was a confidential FBI informant between January 2005 and June 2016. After the Pulse attack, the FBI searched the elder Mateen’s home and found receipts for money transfers to Turkey and Afghanistan between March 16 and June 5. In 2012, the agency received a tip saying Seddique Mateen was collecting $50,000 to $100,000 in donations to "contribute toward an attack against the government of Pakistan."

After discovering the receipts, the FBI opened an investigation into the elder Mateen. The defense filed for a mistrial, which Byron denied. Seddique Mateen, apparently, did not know he was under investigation and had been talking to the FBI – he was on the prosecution’s witness list. After the disclosure, Scheller informed Seddique Mateen’s lawyer Todd Foster, who he says is a good friend.

"If that had been disclosed earlier during trial, then we could have done a more meaningful investigation," Scheller says. "Noor Salman told me Seddique Mateen and Omar Mateen had a lot of contact together – but when they were around her, they only spoke in Farsi, which she doesn’t know."

Charles H. Rose, a legal expert at Stetson University puts it bluntly: "The government lied."

"Either they lied in one place or lied in the other," Rose says. "Either the FBI agent lied when they said Ms. Salman made the confession, or at some point, this falsehood about what evidence they had to prove her involvement was put out to trial, and when push came to shove, they would pull it back to what they know the provable truth to be."

Rose says the prosecution’s case was especially hurt by the FBI’s decision not to record agents interviewing Salman. After the trial was over, the jury foreman told media outlets that based on the letter of the law, they had no option but to find Salman not guilty of aiding and abetting her husband – but they wished the FBI had recorded her alleged confession.

"A verdict of not guilty did NOT mean that we thought Noor Salman was unaware of what Omar Mateen was planning to do," the anonymous foreman said. "On the contrary we were convinced she did know. She may not have known what day, or what location, but she knew."

Rose says the FBI’s procedures are organized in a way to limit taping.

"They’ve historically done that on purpose, since the time of J. Edgar Hoover," he says. "When an FBI agent was testifying on the stand, it was assumed the agent would be beyond reproach and a jury would accept their testimony at face-value. … The problem is the unrelenting assault on the action of the FBI have damaged that."

Rose says the government won’t face consequences for any potential misdeeds in the trial because Salman was acquitted. For the expert, the most impressive thing about the trial were the Orlando jurors who found Salman not guilty.

"American jurors, at the end of the day, gave her a fair opportunity for justice," Rose says. "Within a two-mile radius of Pulse, where all those people died, Floridians came together and provided justice. That’s an incredible story."

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