Authorities Sort Through the Chaos of Orlando Shooting


AP_139235178790-620x412U.S. authorities offer new details; Saudi Arabian officials say the alleged gunman twice visited the kingdom

ORLANDO, Fla.—The investigation of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history continued Monday, as officials in Saudi Arabia said the gunman had visited the kingdom twice on pilgrimages, and U.S. authorities probed the possibility that other people were involved.

Omar S. Mateen, who police say opened fire Sunday in an Orlando gay nightclub, visited Saudi Arabia in 2011 and again in 2012 to perform Umrah, a Muslim religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, said a spokesman for the kingdom’s interior ministry. The trips lasted eight and 10 days each.

U.S. and Saudi officials aren’t sure yet who Mr. Mateen met with there during his visits or whether the trips were connected to the shooting. Authorities said Mr. Mateen made a 911 call declaring his allegiance to the terrorist group Islamic State before he was shot and killed.

Meanwhile, A. Lee Bentley III, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, said Monday that a team of prosecutors and agents were getting search warrants and court orders to investigate other people who may have been involved in the shooting rampage. He added he did not believe the public was in danger.

“We do not know yet whether anyone else will be charged in connection with this crime,” he said.

Pilgrims like Mr. Mateen flock to Mecca and Medina year-round for the Umrah. The pilgrimage is optional for the faithful, and many worshippers prefer to make it during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which began last week.

Around 5 million people from around the world visit Saudi Arabia every year for umrah. Commonly known as the lesser pilgrimage, it can be performed at any time. By comparison the hajj, the major Muslim pilgrimage, is mandatory once in every Muslim’s life and takes place at a specific time each year.

Syed Rizwan Farook, the main suspect in a mass shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino last year, visited the kingdom twice in 2013 and 2014 to perform hajj and umrah, Saudi officials have said.

At a news briefing in Orlando Monday, officials offered new details about the shooting spree.Regina Lombardo, special agent in charge of the Tampa division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said two of the weapons found at the scene were traced to the alleged gunman, Mr. Mateen. She said a third weapon was found in his vehicle and that the agency was working on tracing that one.

While the number of victims killed in the Sunday morning shooting spree had previously been given as 50, Paul Wysopal of the Federal Bureau of Investigation clarified Monday morning that the total was 49. The attack also left 53 people injured. Police said they shot and killed the Mr. Mateen at about 5 a.m. Sunday.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina, at the news conference, outlined aspects of the police response to the attack.

A uniformed police officer was working for the nightclub when the shooting started, and he exchanged gunfire with the shooter near an entrance, Mr. Mina said. Additional officers arrived and also exchanged gunfire with the suspect, forcing him to stop shooting and retreat to one of the nightclub’s two bathrooms.

There, he had cordoned himself off with about five hostages, Mr. Mina said. About 15 to 20 people were hiding in the other bathroom, he said. It was during that time that Mr. Mateen made a 911 call declaring his allegiance to the terrorist group Islamic State.

During talks with crisis negotiators, Mr. Mateen asked for very little, Mr. Mina said. “We were doing most of the asking,” he said.

The police chief said he eventually made the call to breach the back wall of the nightclub with an explosive device. Police were concerned about statements Mr. Mateen made about having explosives, possibly a bomb vest. But the breach only partially worked, so police rammed the wall with an armored vehicle, Mr. Mina said.

“We were able to rescue dozens and dozens of people out of that hole,” he said. The shooter “came out of that hole himself, armed with a handgun and a long gun, engaged in a gunbattle with officers, where he was ultimately killed,” the chief said.

Still, more details about the exact sequence of events during the hourslong standoff remain unclear. Among the open questions include what exactly Mr. Mateen said to authorities—and what specifically made the police wait for hours before conducting the raid.

Meanwhile, many of the survivors wounded in the rampage continued to undergo treatment at Orlando Regional Medical Center. Among the many family members there Sunday night were those of Cory Connell, 21, who is missing and possibly—the family hoped—among the injured.

Mr. Connell’s girlfriend, Paula Blanco, was shot in the arm and is being treated at the hospital, said Megan Nolan, the fiancée of Mr. Connell’s brother Ryan. Ms. Blanco asks where Mr. Connell is, Ms. Nolan said. “We have to keep telling her, unfortunately, ‘we don’t know,’” she said.

As of about 8 a.m. Monday, the families of 48 of the victims killed had been notified. The city of Orlando had released the names of 26 people killed in the assault, most of them in their 20s and 30s.

One of them was Enrique Rios, a 25-year-old New Yorker and nursing student who was in Orlando on vacation, according to his aunt, Nancy Castillo of St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I’m devastated, and I’m more devastated for my sister,” said Ms. Castillo early Monday morning by phone, after visiting an Orlando senior center serving as a gathering place for victims’ families. “I can’t comprehend the ‘why.’ Why would you come here and destroy the lives of innocent people? And I’m very angry about that also, because something has to be done with these terrorists.”

Mr. Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, said Monday that he was “terrifically saddened” by the attack and didn’t know his son’s motive.

“I have no idea what caused him to shoot last night,” he said in a brief Persian-language video posted to his Facebook account and addressed to the Afghan people. “He was working in a company and the company gave him a pistol. I don’t know what has caused him to shoot, and I don’t know and I don’t understand the grudge he holds in his heart that [led him to] shoot 50 people with a gun. I am very upset.”

Mr. Mateen had worked for British security firm G4S PLC since 2007.

His father said he was an educated, “good” son who respected his parents. He decried the attack’s taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week and typically sees increased violence by jihadist groups to mark the holiday commemorating sacrifice and struggle.

During Monday’s news conference, officials vowed not to be cowed by the violence. “We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “We will be defined by how we respond, how we treat each other, and this community has already stepped up to do that.”

Authorities said Mr. Mateen opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando in an onslaught that sent patrons scrambling for the exits. Many remained trapped inside in what became an hourslong siege. During the attack, Mr. Mateen took time to call 911 and claim allegiance to Islamic State, officials said, leading them to treat the shooting as a terror attack inspired by a foreign terror organization.

Two counterterrorism officials said Mr. Mateen, 29 years old, worked as a security guard, had a gun license and was a U.S. citizen. Mr. Mateen was born in the U.S. to parents from Afghanistan. He lived in the Port Saint Lucie, Fla., area, officials said.

A woman who said she is the ex-wife of Mr. Mateen described him as an “unbalanced” person who was abusive during their marriage. Mr. Mateen had told her he wanted to become a police officer, she said on CNN, adding that she believed he was mentally unstable, but that she saw no sign that he had terrorist leanings.

A propaganda agency linked to Islamic State claimed the massacre was “carried out by an Islamic State fighter” and “targeted a nightclub for homosexuals.” The statement from the propaganda outfit, known as Amaq, was distributed on Telegram, a secure communications channel.

Senior U.S. officials who reviewed the statement said it didn’t contain any evidence of a link between the shooter and Islamic State, such as foreknowledge of the attack or indications that the group gave him direction.

In the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq, Islamic State routinely executes homosexuals and releases videos of its fighters throwing men accused of homosexuality off tall buildings. Islamic State supporters online called Sunday for more shootings in gay nightclubs world-wide and referred to an Islamic State spokesman’s recent appeal for Western followers to launch attacks at home.

Mr. Mateen had twice been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for terrorism links in recent years, but those cases were closed after interviews with him proved inconclusive, FBI officials said.

Ronald Hopper, an FBI assistant special agent-in-charge in Orlando, said investigators first became aware of Mr. Mateen in 2013 “when he made inflammatory remarks to co-workers alleging possible terrorist ties.” Mr. Hopper said the FBI “thoroughly investigated the matter, including interviews of witnesses, physical surveillance, and records checks.”

Agents interviewed Mr. Mateen twice, but “ultimately, we were unable to verify the substance of his comments and the investigation was closed,” he said.

Mr. Mateen came under scrutiny the following year, out of concern for possible contacts with Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a Florida man who carried out a suicide car bombing attack in Syria. Again the FBI conducted an investigation, and interviewed Mr. Mateen, but agents “determined that contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or a threat at that time,” Mr. Hopper said.

“All the killing that was done was with an assault rifle, a single weapon…it was done very quickly also,” said Rep. Alan Grayson, (D., Fla.). “There’s blood everywhere” in the club, he said, noting that he spoke to someone who had seen the club after the shooting. “There’s an enormous amount of evidence to be collected systematically over the course of many hours.”

Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that Mr. Mateen had legally purchased a rifle and a handgun within the last week or so, said Trevor Velinor, assistant special agent in charge for the agency’s Tampa field division. He declined to say where the weapons were purchased.