ORLANDO, Fla. - A woman who survived the Pulse nightclub shooting by hiding under a body and the first Orlando police officer at the scene were among the first witnesses called Wednesday by the U.S. government in its case against the mass shooter's widow.
Noor Salman, 31, is charged with aiding and abetting her husband, Omar Mateen, in the attack on the Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016, and with obstruction of justice. Forty-nine were slain and dozens of others were injured in the mass shooting. Her trial began March 1 with more than a week of jury selection.
The prosecution called nine witnesses following opening statements at the U.S. District Courthouse in Orlando.
The first witness of the trial was Orlando police Officer Adam Gruler, who was working security at Pulse the night of the attack, in uniform.
Gruler became emotional at times during his testimony as he described hearing gunfire at exactly 2:02 a.m. on June 12 and said he knew the gunfire was from a long gun.
The defense played Gruler’s police radio transmissions when he sent out a signal 43, which is an immediate distress call to all officers in the area. Gruler said "time froze" as he tried to engage Mateen.
Jurors also saw several body camera videos from officers who responded to the call that showed multiple shooting victims being loaded into the back of pickup trucks to be taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center. A few jurors looked shocked during a video during which two women, one shot in the chest and the other in the leg, were screaming in pain.
Gruler said that when he entered the club, he saw multiple people down, and said some were obviously not alive.
“No matter where we stepped, we were stepping over bodies,” Gruler said, looking down at his hands while on the stand.
Some victims’ family members who were in the courtroom Wednesday listening to Gruler’s account started crying and wiping away tears.
[EXPERTS DISCUSS JURY SELECTION: Morning preview | Noon briefing | Evening recap]
Orlando police Cpl. Jeffrey Rine testified later Wednesday that when he entered the club during the standoff with Mateen he saw approximately 28 victims on the ground and heard ringing cellphones that went answered.
The second testimony of the day came from Bobby Rodriguez, who survived the shooting by hiding under a victim’s body in one of the bathrooms where Mateen opened fire.
As she hid with her friend Orlando Torres in a bathroom stall, a shooting victim died right in front of her.
“He died in between my legs and I put his body on top of me and played dead,” she said.
Rodriguez waited three hours before SWAT blew a hole in the bathroom wall and she was able to crawl out. She said she called her mother when she thought she was going to die.
“I thought it was going to be my last day, so instead of calling 911, I wanted to call and tell her I love her,” she said.
Another survivor, Nelson Rodriguez, of Tampa, testified he went to Pulse nightclub with his friend Christopher Sanfeliz on June 11 to celebrate his graduation from a law enforcement academy. Rodriguez is unrelated to the other survivor, Bobby Rodriguez, who testified earlier in the day.
Nelson Rodriguez, who now works at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy, described seeing Mateen reloading during the shooting and Rodriguez was able to escape by jumping over a bar.
“He looked really tactical. He was taking his time,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said after hours of waiting he learned that Sanfeliz and their friend Shane Tomlinson were both killed.
A 911 dispatcher and a former Orlando police crisis negotiator who both spoke with Mateen during the standoff also testified for the government. The gunman cited multiple attacks carried out in the name of the Islamic State and pledged his allegiance to the terrorist organizations in calls with 911, the negotiator and a local news producer during the three-hour standoff.
Apart from the lengthy cross-examination of the government’s terrorism expert the defense kept its follow-up questions brief.
Braniff is the executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, known as START, at the University of Maryland. He testified that when Mateen carried out the attack, he was parroting the orders by an Islamic State spokesperson to create destruction during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Defense attorney Charles Swift countered that Braniff was not shown Salman’s social media and online habits and could not know if she also supported the Islamic State.
Braniff said that, from his radicalization studies, he knows that sometimes love is one of the reasons people become involved in terrorist organizations, whether they believe in the organization or not.
Swift showed Braniff a post from Salman’s Facebook page condemning the murder of a Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State during which the pilot was burned alive.
“The ISIS people aren’t Muslim to me,” she wrote on Feb. 4, 2015, and before that she said, “Islam is a beautiful and peaceful religion.”
Feds say Noor Salman created cover story for her husband
Wednesday started with passionate opening statements from attorneys from each side.
After describing the graphic nature of the shooting, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Mandolfo said the government will show that Salman assisted Mateen by creating a cover story for him during the shooting, lying to his family and authorities.
Mandolfo described how Salman told her mother-in-law that Mateen was visiting his friend Nemo the night of the Pulse attack. Mateen’s mother later bumped into Nemo’s mother at dinner.
“My son is in medical school in Maryland,” Nemo’s mother reportedly said, exposing the lie.
Salman's defense attorney, Linda Moreno, followed Mandolfo, explaining to jurors that “the law does not punish the failure to act” and that the government must prove “she was more than a spectator.”
She spoke at length about how and for how long the FBI questioned the 31-year-old mother in front of her then 3-year-old son, saying the “so-called confessions and details were false" because they were what investigators “got her to say.”
Moreno said the defense concedes that Mateen attacked the Pulse nightclub and does not plan to cross-examine any survivors or victims’ family members called by the prosecution.
“We don’t need to further strain their pain,” she said.
Salman has appeared in court every day with her attorney throughout jury selection. She has been in custody since her arrest in January 2017. In court Wednesday she waved and smiled to her uncle and other family members sitting behind the defense table.
On March 1, U.S. District Judge Paul Byron started questioning possible jurors who had been drawn from a pool of more than 600 people.
Potential jurors were excused for many reasons, including ties to Pulse shooting victims, views on Islam and immigration and biases against Salman's alleged involvement.
The final panel of 12, plus six alternates, was seated Monday. The jury is mostly white with 12 women and six men.
Jurors will not be sequestered, but their identities will be protected. U.S. marshals will meet them at an undisclosed location every day before court and take them into the Orlando federal courthouse.
The trial is expected to last three weeks and court will not be in session on Fridays. If convicted, Salman faces life in prison.
See a recap of the opening statements and testimony below from News 6 reporters inside the courthouse.
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