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Officers may have shot Orlando club patrons

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ORLANDO — Omar Mateen, the killer who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, hid in a bathroom at Pulse, a gay nightclub where he had slaughtered scores of people. A wall of cinder block separated him from a team of police officers outside. For three hours early Sunday morning, crisis negotiators tried to end the siege.

Then Mateen — whom police said had acted “cool and calm” during discussions — talked about killing more people. Alarmed, police placed an explosive device against the wall and detonated it. The breach failed; the hole wasn’t large enough to allow for a successful rescue.

A cop rammed his Bearcat armored vehicle through the club wall. Hostages poured out. So did Mateen, guns blazing.

With quick efficiency, officers shot him dead.

 

So ended the worst armed massacre in American history: 49 victims were killed and 53 wounded.

Monday, Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other law enforcement officers offered new details about the shooting, including the possibility that some victims may have been killed by officers trying to save them.

“I will say this, that’s all part of the investigation,” Mina said. “But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, the backdrop was a concrete wall, and they were being fired upon.”

A law enforcement source close to the investigation who asked not to be named said a crowd of up to 300 people and the complex layout of the dance club may have resulted in some patrons being struck by gunfire from officers.

 

Mina said his decision to enter the club with such violence was tough. “It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right decision,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is on saving lives, and it was the right decision to make.”

Local, federal and state investigators continued to process the scene Monday from a collection of law enforcement mobile command units that lined South Orange in downtown Orlando. Authorities determined Mateen, 29, walked up to the club at 2:02 a.m. armed with an AR-15 rifle and a Glock handgun.

An off-duty police officer working at the club Sunday night was investigating an underage drinker outside when he heard gunshots inside, according to the law enforcement source. The off-duty officer ran inside the club and traded gunfire with Mateen, backed up soon by three other police officers, the source said.

The officers fired at Mateen, who retreated into a bathroom toward the rear of the club. 

“Those additional officers made entry while the suspect was shooting,” Mina said. “They forced him to stop shooting and retreat to the bathroom where we believe he had several hostages.”

Mateen called 911 three times from a bathroom he shared with hostages and pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State, a terrorist group also known as ISIL or ISIS.

 

He called dispatchers twice and hung up before they called him back, the source said. 

“He was in one bathroom fortified with hostages,” Mina said. “There were people in the opposing bathroom, about 15 or 20 people. And the details are unknown, they’re part of the investigation.”

Orlando police crisis negotiators were called to the club and spoke with Mateen three times. He remained calm during the talks, but he made clear that his plan was to kill more people, Mina said.

“Based off statements made by the suspect and based on information we received by the suspect and from the hostages and the people inside,” Mina said, “we believe further loss of life was imminent. I made the decision to commence the rescue operation and do the explosive breach.”

A SWAT team failed to topple the exterior wall leading to the bathroom that held 15 to 20 people, so Mina made the call to use the Bearcat.

Officers wore combat-grade body armor and helmets as they rammed the bathroom wall, creating a small hole — about 3 feet wide and 2 feet off the ground — so the captives could escape.

 

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

Mateen wielded an AR-15 and a semiautomatic handgun he had bought from a Port St. Lucie gun shop a week ago. He fired at officers, striking one of them in his helmet before he was shot several times and died.

Dozens of bullet holes dotted the exterior concrete wall, evidence of the shootout that included dozens of rounds fired by officers.

The last exchange of gunfire Mateen had with Orlando police and Orange County sheriff’s deputies occurred at 5 a.m. and ended a three-hour standoff.

Orlando officers walked into the nightclub and found lifeless club patrons strewn about a bar and lounge area. More bodies were found in a nearby bathroom.

Follow Arek Sarkissian on Twitter: @ArekSarkissian

 


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