The gunman who went on a rampage at a gay nightclub early Sunday told police he would strap explosives to four hostages and strategically place them in the corners of the building, Orlando’s mayor said Wednesday, shedding some light on the decision to send a SWAT team into the building as well as the delay in removing the dead.
Over the course of several hours after Omar Mateen attacked the Pulse nightclub and took hostages, he told police negotiators that he planned to strap bombs to four people, Mayor Buddy Dyer of Orlando said. In phone calls and text messages to 911 operators, friends and family members, people trapped inside the club, who heard statements the killer was making, also warned of explosives.
“We had independent verification of that,” Dyer said. “We had a lot of information from the inside, and they independently were saying yes, the bomber is about to put on an explosive vest.”
Dyer confirmed reports that Mateen, 29, had been driving around that night visiting locations, apparently casing potential targets for a massacre.
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But on Wednesday, Ronald Hopper, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Tampa office, said investigators believed that Pulse was the gunman’s sole intended target.
Hopper would not say whether Mateen actually had any explosives.
Investigators have been looking into whether the gunman’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, knew in advance what her husband had planned, and they were scouring his computer use.
Salman has told FBI investigators that she tried to talk her husband out of some kind of attack, according to senior law enforcement officials. But she also told them that she had gone with him to buy ammunition and that she had once driven him to Pulse, they said.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, officials would not discuss the possibility that she or anyone else would face criminal charges.
“I’m not going to speculate with respect to any charges that might be brought,” said A. Lee Bentley III, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida. “We’re not sure what charges will be brought, or if charges will be brought.”
Hopper urged patience. “Investigations are deliberate by their very nature,” he said. Investigators were still analyzing a crime scene at which well over 100 shots were fired, a labor-intensive process.
Hopper appealed for the public’s help in retracing Mateen’s movements and contacts and said investigators were going back years in time in search of a motive or possible accomplices.
John Mina, the city police chief, has said that after a three-hour standoff Sunday morning, law enforcement officials made the decision to storm the club using explosives and an armored vehicle because they had reason to believe they were facing an “imminent loss of life,” but he did not elaborate.
Mateen’s assault on Pulse left 49 people dead and 53 wounded in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Mateen used both an assault weapon and a handgun in the attack.
Survivors of the siege have said that Mateen, who died in a shootout with police, talked of accomplices as well as bombs — snipers who he said were prepared to gun people down. Many of the survivors said they had been searched carefully by the police when they escaped the club or were rescued to make sure they did not have explosives or guns on them.
The concern that explosives might be at play grew after Mateen was killed, the mayor told reporters after a morning news conference to announce the opening of a victims assistance center at Camping World Stadium, formerly known as the Citrus Bowl.
“When the shooter was killed, you could see a battery pack right next to him, which would indicate to us that there’s a detonator of some sort,” Dyer said. “There was also a bag near his body, so you would logically lead to the conclusion that the bag contained explosives and he had some type of detonator that could have been a pressure detonator that was under the body.”
That led to a delay of several hours before the building was cleared “because all indications were that it was booby-trapped,” he said.
News 13, a cable news channel in Orlando, reported that the gunman also called the station during the siege. The producer who took the call said that Mateen proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State, as he did when talking with police.
The area around Pulse remained cordoned off by federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies. Large multiagency mobile command trucks barricaded the club, blocking the view from the public.