The Florida gun store where Orlando shooter Omar Mateen apparently tried to buy body armor and bulk ammunition weeks before the attack on a gay bar reported the effort to authorities, according to the store owner.
But the tip went nowhere because the store didn’t know the man’s name and had no way to lead authorities to him, gun store owner Robert Abell told reporters Thursday.
“We had no link, no contact, we didn’t know who he was, but we did contact authorities and let them know we just had a suspicious person in here,” said Abell, the owner of Lotus Gunworks in Jensen Beach, Florida.
Authorities received a report from the store of a suspicious man who tried to buy body armor, three law enforcement officials told CNN, but the details of their account of the encounter were slightly different than Abell’s.
They said the store first alerted authorities to a group of men who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent buying police gear. The FBI looked into it and determined the men were visiting police officers and the purchase was not suspicious.
It was at the conclusion of that investigation that an employee told agents about the attempted purchase of body armor and ammunition, the law enforcement officials said.
But the store had no name, purchase record or surveillance video to help authorities investigate, the officials said.
Law enforcement sources had told CNN earlier they had no record of a call from the store regarding the encounter.
According to Abell, store employees recognized Mateen as the man who had visited their store about six weeks ago after reports identified as the gunman who killed 49 people Sunday at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub before police shot and killed him to end the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.
Abell said the man sought high-level body armor that the store doesn’t carry and asked questions that seemed unusual for a civilian, Abell told reporters.
“Our salesman got very concerned about it and just informed him we do not have this body armor. At this time, he pulled away and got onto the cell phone,” Abell said. “When he was on the cell phone, he had a conversation in a foreign language that was more concerning. Then he came back and he was requesting ammo. He wanted bulk ammo only.”
The employee — by now increasingly suspicious — told Mateen that the store didn’t have the bulk ammo and the man left, Abell said.
“Unfortunately, nobody connected the dots, and he slipped through the cracks,” Abell said.
The FBI had no official comment on the matter when reached Thursday night.
Spokesmen for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Martin County Sheriff’s Office said the agencies don’t have any records of receiving calls from Lotus Gunworks.
The revelations are the latest in the investigation into what motivated Mateen, whether anyone else knew of his plans and whether law enforcement could have done more to stop him. The FBI had previously investigated Mateen.
Among new details emerging Friday:
• Mateen was suspended from his high school for 48 days — five days out of school and 43 in-school, according to Martin County High School. Among the suspensions are two for “fighting with injury,” according to documents provided to CNN.
• It’s been reported earlier that he traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at some point in 2011 or 2012, but on Friday, New York University confirmed he traveled on a pilgrimage to holy sites in Saudi Arabia organized by the university’s Islamic Center in 2012.
He was among about 80 people on the trip, including three others assumed to be his family members, NYU spokesman John Beckman said. There’s no indication now that Mateen was in contact with any suspicious individuals during that travel, an official familiar with the investigation had told CNN earlier.
Gunman’s wife under scrutiny
One focus of the investigation has been his wife, and on Thursday a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told CNN that the couple exchanged text messages during the shooting.
Around 4 a.m. Sunday, about two hours after he started the attack and while holed up in a bathroom, Mateen texted his wife, Noor Salman, asking if she’d seen the news, the official said.
At one point, she responded with a text saying that she loved him. Salman also tried calling her husband several times during the standoff, a second law enforcement official said.
The timing of her calls came after reports of the attack had emerged and apparently after she realized her husband might be responsible. He didn’t answer, the official said.
It’s not clear if Salman made any attempt to report her husband during that time.
Salman is coming under increasing scrutiny as police investigate the killing of 49 people and wounding of at least 50 at the gay nightclub in Orlando. Authorities say Mateen carried out the killing with a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic assault-style rifle and a pistol.
Salman apparently gave conflicting accounts about what she knew of Mateen’s intentions in the hours before the attack, authorities said. She also told investigators that in the weeks before the attack, Mateen spent thousands of dollars, including for the guns that he used.
Mateen and Salman married in 2011. They have a 3-year-old son and lived in Fort Pierce, about two hours from the massacre.
A U.S. attorney plans to bring evidence before a federal grand jury to determine whether charges will be filed, two law enforcement officials said.
Mateen also vented on Facebook before and during the massacre.
“America and Russia stop bombing the Islamic state,” the gunman wrote, according to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
“You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes … now taste the Islamic state vengeance.”
Then, in his final post, an ominous warning: ”In the next few days you will see attacks from the Islamic state in the usa.”
The messages were described in a letter from committee Chairman Ron Johnson to Mark Zuckerberg, asking the Facebook CEO to provide “all Facebook data on Mr. Mateen’s activities on his account and any affiliated Facebook accounts.”
It’s not the only time Mateen invoked ISIS during his rampage early Sunday. He also called 911 to pledge allegiance to the terror group and CNN affiliate News 13 to say, “I did it for ISIS. I did it for the Islamic State.”
And an analysis of Mateen’s electronic devices showed searches for jihadist propaganda, including videos of ISIS beheadings, an official said.
ISIS, or personal conflict?
Despite mounting pledges of allegiance to ISIS, some say they believe Mateen was actually fueled by struggles with his sexuality — and may have latched on to ISIS as a vehicle for his anger.
Several regulars at the gay nightclub said the gunman visited frequently over the past few years. Cord Cedeno said Mateen saw him at Pulse and messaged him on Grindr, a gay dating app.
Cedeno said he wasn’t interested in Mateen, but his friend was.
“One of my friends … has been speaking with him since 2007, on and off,” on another gay dating app, Cedeno said.
“(Mateen) sent him a picture of his private part, and my friend actually was attracted to him. He almost went and hooked up with him.”
FBI agents are interviewing people who claim they met the gunman on gay dating apps, a law enforcement official said. Those claims “certainly change the perspective,” the source said.
CNN military analyst Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said the gunman’s complex background makes the investigation challenging.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, but the struggle with his humanity, his sexuality, combined with the potential for putting the onus on an organization that’s asking people to do this — asking extremists to do these kinds of things — is an interesting dynamic,” he said.
“And that’s the thing that makes this case so extremely difficult.”
The gunman’s ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, said she was not sure about his sexuality.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he might be gay,” she said. “And it doesn’t surprise me that he was leading two totally different lives and was in such deep conflict within himself.”
But the gunman’s father, Seddique Mateen, has said he didn’t think his son was gay. He emphasized that Mateen had a wife and child.
Throughout Orlando, survivors mourned the dead and recalled their experience.
Miguel Leiva shot cell phone video while huddled inside a bathroom with about 16 others, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night.
The video showed people passing around a cup of water. One man was choking on his own blood, Leiva said. They whispered because they feared the gunman, who twice came back and fired his weapon, would return.
“I just remember you can smell the blood, there was so much blood,” Leiva said. “All my clothes (were) full of blood. We were sitting down, and there was a huge puddle of blood.”
Only five or six people made it out alive, he said. Leiva was shot in the foot and leg.
“So many innocent people just there to have a good time.”