To her father-in-law, the California native whose husband attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., killing 49 people, is a “sweet lady” and attentive mother.
Yet as the FBI investigates Noor Zahi Salman, 30, as a suspected accomplice in one of the worst mass shootings in American history, many are wondering whether Omar Mateen’s mysterious second wife is in fact more sinister.
As Salman moved to the center of attention in the criminal investigation Wednesday, she was pilloried in social media and in print after investigators said they were looking into what role, if any, she played in the shooting rampage. Did she help Mateen plan it or help scout the location, the Pulse nightclub?
The front page of the New York Post was dominated by a picture of Salman and a headline: “She could have saved them all.” The paper, never known for subtlety, went on to call Mateen a “monster” and describe Salman as “attuned to his desire for mass bloodshed.”
“I don’t care if she tried to talk him out of it,” one Missouri woman, Gloria Beers, railed on Facebook. “She knew his intentions.... She is as guilty as the one who did the shootings. She needs to be sent to prison & on murder charges & given life without parole.”
Others were more sympathetic. “Before you judge Omar Mateen’s wife, consider his history,” one Twitter user wrote, alluding to Mateen’s first wife’s allegations of spousal abuse.
The child of Palestinian immigrants, Salman was born in San Pablo, in the Bay Area, and grew up in Northern California in a hilly neighborhood of tract homes in Rodeo, about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco. She graduated from John Swett High School in 2004.
She had wed once before in an arranged marriage that was organized in the Palestinian territories.
Her relationship with Mateen, a security guard from central Florida, began online, a neighbor said. They were married in Hercules, in Contra Costa County, Calif., on Sept. 29, 2011. The couple have a 3-year-old son.
Salman has not spoken publicly since the shooting on Sunday. All day Wednesday, satellite TV trucks surrounded a tan one-story home, with air-conditioning units in the window, where Salman and her son are believed to be hiding.
She has spoken to the FBI, telling investigators that she accompanied Mateen to the Pulse nightclub at least once before the massacre. She also said she drove with him to purchase ammunition, and pleaded with him not to commit the shooting.
Salman has not been arrested, but if she had knowledge of the plot and failed to alert law enforcement, she could face criminal charges, including the intentional concealing of knowledge of a felony, aiding and abetting a crime, or even conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, depending on her level of culpability. Federal authorities reportedly convened a grand jury in Florida on Wednesday to help investigate the shooting, and that would be a vehicle for filing federal charges against Salman.
Neighbors at Salman’s former home in Rodeo, a small suburb of 9,000 people just east of an oil refinery near San Pablo Bay, said she moved to Florida shortly after celebrating her wedding to Mateen in the neighborhood.
One neighbor who declined to provide her name said that Salman was one of at least four daughters, and that the family was friendly.
“As far as I’m concerned, they are just a good family,” she said. She remembered Salman and her sisters playing outside. “They were happy kids. They’re laughing, teasing.”
The neighbor said of Salman’s mother: “She’s a good mother. She’s a good neighbor.”
Of the news, she said: “I was really surprised.”
After her marriage, Salman rarely visited. One of the few occasions she returned home was around the time of her father’s death in December 2012, neighbors said.
Her mother, Ekbal Salman, has been saddened and depressed since she heard about the Orlando shooting, they said.
“You know, some kids after high school, they open up the box and the world is theirs. She was inside the box, just pack it up and get married,” a neighbor, Jasbinder Chahal, told the Associated Press.
After moving to Florida, Salman seemed to make few friends. Bedar Bakht, 56, a Pakistani man who knew Mateen and Salman from the local mosque in Fort Pierce, where Bakht volunteered, said she was friendly but mostly kept to herself.
“She didn’t socialize with the masjid people,” Bakht said, using the Urdu word for mosque. “She would not mingle with people in the mosque because that’s how her husband told her: not to socialize with the mosque women because they were too nosy. I think that was because he was already divorced and people were already talking. There were rumors that he had beaten his wife.”
In an interview at his Port Saint Lucie home, the gunman’s father, Seddique Mateen, described Salman as a pleasant woman who attended family affairs and took good care of his grandson. He said he had no idea whether Salman had known about his son’s plans and referred all questions to the FBI.
“I never saw anything wrong,” he insisted.
Special correspondent Jarvie reported from Fort Pierce and Times staff writer Lin from Rodeo. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Orlando, Nina Agrawal in Los Angeles and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press.
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