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World & Nation

‘His head is always down, and his lips is moving’: Disturbing portrait emerging of Orlando shooter

Seddique Mateen was too exhausted Wednesday to wake at 4 a.m. and eat before a long day of fasting for Ramadan. When he eventually rose, his eyes bloodshot and bleary, he dressed in a dark suit, blue-and-white striped shirt and red tie to welcome reporters into his spacious and modern Mediterranean home in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

He said he had barely slept since early Sunday, when he learned that his only son, Omar, had carried out the worst mass shooting in recent American history. “I don’t know how long I will last,” he said.

The investigation into the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., is now turning toward Omar Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman. Federal authorities are using a grand jury in Florida that would be a vehicle to file federal charges against Salman if she knew the attack was going to occur but failed to alert authorities.

Meanwhile, the elder Mateen, 59, a political media personality known among Afghan exiles for a show he hosts on the satellite network Payam-e-Afghan, has emerged as a contradictory, eccentric figure since the shooting.

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In a rambling interview in his bright, airy living room decorated with a photo of Istanbul, crystal candle holders and potted palm trees, he maintained there were no signs of what his son was about to do in the days leading up to the attack. Omar came to his home in his work clothes the day before the shooting.

“It was just a normal day of coming and going,” Mateen said. “He came and said hello to his mom and me.” 

As an adult, Omar had few friends and spent most of his time with family, his father said.

Mateen said he did not forgive his son. Yet he also suggested his son was, in some sense, also a victim. 

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“My son got killed by terrorists,” he said. “He learned from them. He got used by them. If not for ISIS, how would he learn to do this?”

As investigators continued to pore over the electronic trail Omar Mateen left behind, a Senate committee letter suggested that he had made a series of Facebook posts before and during his attack, raging against the “filthy ways of the West” and blaming the U.S. for the deaths of “innocent women and children.”

He also searched for “Pulse Orlando” and “Shooting” online on the morning of the carnage Sunday and said on Facebook: “America and Russia stop bombing the Islamic state,” according to the letter from the Senate Homeland Security Committee. It was sent to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, asking the company to produce information on Mateen’s online activities.

Other details emerged about Mateen from those who knew him in the Fort Pierce area. Their recollections suggest that he underwent a change in recent months, seemingly becoming withdrawn and acting oddly.

“I believe that boy, he used some kind of drugs, some kind of pills, from seeing him lately: His head is always down, and his lips is moving,” talking to himself, or possibly praying, said Hamid Slimane, 61, of Port St. Lucie, who said he knew Mateen from the mosque in nearby Fort Pierce.

But Slimane also portrayed Mateen as a troubled child, saying he frequently fought with other children at the mosque. “He was a little chubby man,” Slimane said. “That boy is not normal.”

Slimane added: “His parents, his family, they are very good people. Him: very lazy, and so quiet.”

Bedar Bakht, 56, said he also knew Mateen and his family from the mosque, where Bakht volunteered.

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Bakht, who is Pakistani, said he became friends first with Mateen’s father, an outgoing character who was friendly with the St. Lucie County sheriff and helped him campaign.

 As a youth, Mateen was “very inquisitive,” especially about Islam, Bakht said. “When he became a teenager, I saw him talking about religion a lot. When our imam would sit down and talk about sunnah, our way of life, he would sit down and talk, be very curious to find things out.” 

After evening prayers at the Fort Pierce mosque, the imam stays for about 10 minutes to discuss religious texts with men, he said. They would address basic moral issues, he said, like how to treat your neighbors.

Mateen was a regular participant, Bakht said, “so inquisitive that he will turn it into an argument.” But he said he never heard Mateen talk about religious extremism.

Like many teenage boys, Mateen struggled socially, Bakht said.

“He used to chase girls a lot. We used to get complaints about that,” he said. “Some girls have said he was weird, kind of a stalking kind of a person.”

Bakht worked from 2004 to 2009 at a Subway in the Treasure Coast Mall, where Mateen worked at Chick-fil-A and later at nearby Gold’s Gym. Bakht said he moved to Maryland in 2013, and when he returned two months ago, he saw a different Mateen.

“He was totally changed,” Bakht said, no longer asking questions, just showing up for nightly prayers and leaving.

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Investigators say they have found that Mateen increasingly sought out Islamic State videos and other radical Islamist propaganda in the months leading up to his shooting rampage. And in the midst of the deadly attack on the gay nightclub that killed 49 people, he paused multiple times to get the message out that he was acting in solidarity with the militant group.

In addition to calling 911, he also appears to have called a local television station, Orlando’s News 13, to tell a producer, “I did it for ISIS. I did it for the Islamic State.” Matthew Gentili, a producer at News 13, received the call about 45 minutes after the shooting was reported at 2 a.m. and heard a man ask, “Do you know about the shooting?” then add, “I’m the shooter. It’s me. I am the shooter.”

According to News 13 reports, the man then spoke quickly in a foreign language Gentili didn’t understand, and he asked him to speak English. When Gentili asked where the caller was, the man replied that it was none of his business. Eventually, he hung up.

News 13’s managing editor researched the phone number from where the call was placed, and matched it to Omar Mateen. The station reported that Gentili later was interviewed at home by the FBI. A federal law enforcement official confirmed the station’s account. The news station said that the FBI has not yet verified that the caller was Mateen.

The description of the call matches what some witnesses heard while being held hostage by the gunman in bathrooms at the back of the nightclub. Orlando Torres, 52, said at one point he heard the gunman talking on the phone to what sounded like a reporter. Richard Aiken, 29, another witness held hostage in a bathroom stall, said he also thought he heard the gunman talking to a news outlet.

“He called somebody and was giving the run-down that he is at the club and it should be on the news,” Aiken said.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 miles away, the mother of one of Omar Mateen’s victims was making preparations to see her son’s remains.

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 31, died at Pulse. His mother, Rufina Paniagua, 54, is a Mexican citizen, and there is paperwork to be done before she can travel to Florida.

“My son was a good kid,” she said. “He always worried about me, sent me money. His father abandoned us, and Joel was always taking care of me money-wise. … I don’t understand how someone could do this.”

Paniagua said her son lived and worked in Florida for about nine years, then returned to their home in Mexico’s Veracruz state several years ago. 

There, he worked at a fruit stand in the market but made so little money that he wanted to return to the U.S., his mother said. 

“I told him to stay, to work here, but he had his dreams, his goals,” she said. Joel returned to Florida in August.

Paniagua spoke to her son Friday. He was worried about her, she said, because he had heard terrible news about “people killing each other in Mexico.”

Her son worked as a gardener and was saving money to help her get a passport and travel to the U.S. Thanks to him and his earnings, she said, she has been able to buy a house and a car.

“The [state] government contacted me [about the killing], and I prayed to God that it was not him,” she said. “I just want to have him here, to bury his body here, although I still have a hope that it may not be him.”

Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Orlando, staff writer Wilber from Washington and special correspondent Jarvie from Port St. Lucie. Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson in Orlando, Rong-Gong Lin II in Rodeo, Calif., and Brian Bennett in Washington and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

MORE ON THE ORLANDO SHOOTING

How the Orlando attack could mark a shift for gay Muslims

A night of terror: How the Orlando nightclub shooting unfolded

Gunman had used gay dating app and visited LGBT nightclub on other occasions, witnesses say


UPDATES:

6:32 p.m.: Updates with reports of Omar Mateen’s Facebook activity, recollections by mosque attendees, other details.

2:03 p.m.: The story was updated to reflect that authorities have not yet verified that the caller to Orlando’s News 13 was Omar Mateen. The station has since said that, while a man who claimed to be the gunman called them and they found that the call came from a number linked to Mateen, the FBI has not yet verified that the caller was Mateen.

12:03 p.m.: The story was updated with more background information about Noor Zahi Salman.

10:36 a.m.: The story was updated with additional background information about Noor Zahi Salman.

The story was originally published at 9:58 a.m.


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