Prosecutor says Pulse gunman's widow knew about the attack before it happened

The widow of a terrorist who gunned down dozens of people at a Florida nightclub in June stood solemnly before a judge, her hands clasped together in front of her waist.

Noor Zahi Salman, 30, had been sleeping Monday morning when FBI agents burst into her mother’s home in Rodeo, a working-class community in Contra Costa County.

Appearing in a federal courtroom in Oakland on Tuesday, Salman stood next to a federal public defender and listened to charges that she had known in advance of the attack on the gay nightclub and had lied to federal investigators about it.

Her husband, Omar Mateen, was killed during the shooting that left 49 patrons of the Pulse nightclub dead and dozens of others injured.

Salman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, wore a wrinkled, baggy, mustard-colored T-shirt, gray trousers and a grim expression during her brief appearance.

She turned around twice to gaze at the packed courtroom, but spoke only once, to reply with a one-word answer to a question from U.S. District Judge Donna M. Ryu.

A federal prosecutor from Orlando read the charges against Salman and indicated the government would oppose her release on bail.

An indictment delivered by a  grand jury in central Florida charged that Salman, as early as April, knowingly aided Mateen’s attempt to provide “material support or resources” to Islamic State in the Middle East. The indictment did not give more details.

A second count accused her of obstructing justice by lying to FBI investigators and police in Fort Pierce, Fla.

One of her attorneys, Linda Moreno, said in a statement that Salman didn’t have advance knowledge of the attack, adding, “We believe it is misguided and wrong to prosecute her and that it dishonors the memories of the victims to punish an innocent person.”

Salman grew up in Rodeo, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. 

She was divorced when she met Mateen online. The couple later married, moved to Florida and had a son.

Her uncle, Al Salman, attended Tuesday’s court appearance and spoke emotionally to reporters afterward.

He said after his brother, Salman’s father, died, he helped raise her. Speaking in accented English, Al Salman repeatedly described his niece as “simple” and unsophisticated.

Mateen physically abused her and threw her against a wall, he said, but she stayed in the marriage for her son.

If his niece had known “what that crazy guy would do,” he said, she would have “taken her son and run away from him.”

The uncle conceded that a more sophisticated person might have figured out Mateen’s plans, but said his niece’s whole life had been centered around her young boy, the one person she lived for. The boy’s grandmother is now caring for him.

“She had no idea” of Mateen’s plans, he said over and over again.

Mateen “got what he deserved” when he was killed, the uncle said, but his widow is just  a “poor, innocent girl.”

The uncle said he had been in regular contact with the FBI and agents knew his telephone number. But instead of arranging for his niece’s arrest, the agents showed up at her mother’s home unexpectedly, and young children in the house were “scared to death,” he said.

Tuesday’s court session was mobbed by media. Reporters had to stand outside the courthouse in a line to be admitted one by one.

Ryu postponed Salman’s arraignment until Wednesday. A federal public defender who stood beside Salman in court indicated she would probably be represented by Charles Swift, a Texas-based lawyer who directs the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America.

Swift, a former Navy officer, previously challenged the legality of a military tribunal on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Salman has previously denied any advance knowledge of Mateen’s attack on the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016, during which he pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Mateen was killed in a shootout with police after a long standoff.

The FBI had been examining whether she knew of her husband’s plans, and she was questioned extensively after the shooting. Officials said she had accompanied Mateen at least once to the nightclub where he later carried out the massacre, and also drove with him to shop at a gun dealership.

Salman had previously told the New York Times that Mateen was volatile and had often beaten her. She also said he had watched jihadist videos.

Salman said she was at home in bed during the attack and that Mateen had texted her during the ensuing standoff with police to ask her whether she had seen what happened. “I love you, babe,” he added.

“I was unaware of everything,” Salman told the newspaper. “I don’t condone what he has done. I am very sorry for what has happened. He has hurt a lot of people.” 

Pearce reported from Los Angeles and Dolan from Oakland.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

@mauradolan

matt.pearce@latimes.com

@mattdpearce

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UPDATES:

3:30 p.m.: The story was updated with additional details and editing. 

10:30 a.m.: The story was updated with details of the court hearing.

The story was originally published at 8:35 a.m.

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