Florida community, President Obama pause to honor shooting victims
A community numb from three tragedies paused Thursday to remember victims of the gay dance club massacre, with mourners gathering for one of the first funerals and the president and vice president laying wreaths to honor the dead.
A flag flew at half-staff at a cemetery in the nearby city of Kissimmee and a black hearse carried the body of Kimberly "KJ" Morris. She worked as a bouncer at Pulse, where 49 people were killed after Omar Mateen began shooting into the crowd early Sunday.
Jessica Frazier, 29, of Orlando was among the mourners at Morris' funeral, held as other shooting victims were being cremated.
"She was always very positive, no matter what was going on," Frazier said.
Closer to the scene of the tragedy, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden knelt to place white flowers at a memorial to the victims. They also met privately with survivors and victims' families, the club owner and staff.
With temperatures in the 90s, hundreds of people congregated outside the arena where Obama met the victims' relatives, hoping to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade. Breasia Johnson, a friend of 21-year-old shooting victim Cory Connell, was in the crowd.
"I can't believe he's gone," she said.
The nightclub slaughter was the bloodiest event amid days of horror in Orlando. A 2-year-old Nebraska boy was attacked by an alligator and killed at Walt Disney World on Tuesday, and 22-year-old Christina Grimmie, a one-time contestant on NBC's "The Voice," was shot dead days earlier while signing autographs after a show by a man who then killed himself.
In a chilling description of the scene at Pulse after the shooting, medical examiner Dr. Joshua Stephany said the nightclub seemed like a place where time stood still.
"Picture yourself in restaurant or nightclub and all the sudden everything stops. But things will be moving. Fans will be moving. Lights will be moving. TVs will be on in the background. Drinks will have looked like they just got poured. Food is half-eaten," he said.
None of the victims seemed to have moved after they fell, indicating they didn't suffer, he said.
The rampage began at 2 a.m. and ended three hours later with Mateen, an American-born Muslim described as a club regular by other patrons, being killed by a police SWAT team.
Mateen's motive isn't clear, but a letter from the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said Mateen wrote that "real muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the west" on Facebook. He also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, his ex-wife said he was mentally ill and his father suggested that gays had angered him.
The FBI said it is still gathering evidence at Pulse and analyzing cellphone location data to piece together Mateen's activities leading up to the massacre.
The owner of a gun shop in Jensen Beach, a few miles from the gunman's hometown in Fort Pierce, told reporters Mateen came in roughly five weeks before the nightclub shootings asking to buy body armor and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition.
The young man left empty-handed when an employee told him the store didn't have either, and the worker called the FBI to report a suspicious person, said Robert Abell, co-owner of Lotus Gunworks. But nobody knew his name until after Mateen was identified in the Orlando nightclub attack.
"Unfortunately nobody connected the dots and he slipped under the cracks," said Abell.
Mateen's wife has gone into seclusion, and federal prosecutors have refused to say whether charges might be brought against her or anyone else.
Associated Press writers Michael Schneider and Josh Replogle in Orlando and Russ Bynum in Fort Pierce, Florida, contributed to this report. Dearen reported from Kissimmee.