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Review: No Club-goers Hit By Friendly Fire During Pulse Shooting

Chief Assistant State Attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit Deborah Barra explains the findings of the investigation. Photo: Emily Lang, WMFE
Chief Assistant State Attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit Deborah Barra explains the findings of the investigation. Photo: Emily Lang, WMFE

Officers shot no club-goers as they pursued the Pulse gunman, according to a review unveiled Wednesday of law enforcement gunfire during the mass shooting that left 49 dead.

The review conducted by State Attorney Aramis Ayala's office found 14 officers fired more than 180 shots during five exchanges with the gunman, striking no civilians and killing the gunman on the scene. Eleven of the officers were members of the Orlando Police Department, and three were with the Orange County Sheriff's Office.

The findings were based on separate investigations by the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Ayala announced she had cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

"No casualties were the result of friendly fire, and my review now is complete," Ayala said.

The review, made public more than two years after the mass shooting that at the time was the deadliest in modern U-S history, signaled an end of the investigation into law enforcement response to the rampage. The findings brought comfort to some and raised questions for others.

"How could a guy in a dark bar who's just firing an automatic weapon just all the way around, just firing it, how does he get so lucky to hit everyone, and the police are so unlucky that they could fire 180 rounds, and they don't hit a single person?" asked Christine Leinonen, whose son Christopher "Drew" Leinonen died at the nightclub.

Laly Santiago-Leon lost her cousin, Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon.

"It still saddens me. It doesn't bring him back," she said. "I already knew in my heart, I knew my cousin was murdered or shot, if you will, by the murderer, not by use of police force."

Chief Assistant State Attorney Deborah Barra said investigators also considered video footage from body and dash cams, reviewed witness statements and listened to 911 calls. More than 400 rounds were fired in all.

The officers engaged with the gunman at the club entrance, near the bathrooms and outside the club on the west side. The officers said they used their weapons because feared for their lives, the lives of other officers and club-goers.

Off-duty officer Adam Gruler said he opened fire after watching the gunman kill two victims at the club entrance. He fired again from outside the club as the gunman was inside shooting victims who already were down. Officers also mistakenly shot at a patron who was not the gunman but did not hit him. Finally the gunman opened fire on the officers as they punched a hole in a nightclub wall. The officers returned fire, accounting for the bulk of shots made.

A SWAT officer shot the gunman one last time because he was believed to have an explosive attached to him. That later turned out to be an emergency light that likely was broken during the final rampage.

Barra said the shooter entered the club with two weapons, an assault rifle and handgun. Minutes after opening fire on the dance floor the rifle jammed, leaving him with just the handgun.

"That's significant because I believe that actually saved lives," she said.

Orange County Sheriff John Mina was police chief at the time of the mass shooting. He said all but one of the 14 officers who used their weapons during the mass shooting are back on active-duty. Ahead of the report's release the officers were reminded of post-traumatic stress disorder counseling services availble to them, he said.

"I'm relieved for the officers and deputies the brave men and women who actually went inside there and risked their own lives and now themselves have a little bit of final closure," he said.

Pulse owner Barbara Poma released a statement about the report.

"The findings of today’s State Attorney’s Office's report brings a close to law enforcements’ efforts to understand the events of June 12, 2016," it read. "We are thankful to the State Attorney’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for the work that they have done. But as this chapter closes, we know that the families, survivors, first responders, the community of Orlando, and the LGBTQ community will never forget the 49 lives taken that night. As we continue through our journey of mourning and loss, we will also work to help people understand that hate and violence are never the answer. We will continue to honor the 49 Angels and tell their story. We will never let hate win.”

With reporting by Amy Green, Brendan Byrne, Emily Lang, Abe Aboraya.