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- Illustration by Thomas “Thor” Thorspecken
- U.S. District Judge Paul Byron
Noor Salman's hands shook uncontrollably.
In a few minutes, she would learn her fate from a 12-person jury who could either give her the freedom to go back to her child or sentence Salman to spend the rest of her days behind bars. Unlike the photo the media used, Salman's face was pale – no black liner rimmed her eyes and her hair stayed in a loose ponytail. Sometimes before trial started, she would send a small smile and wave to her family who sat in the rows behind her. On the day of her verdict, Salman tried to smile at her family, but couldn't – the dark circles under her eyes and petrified glance in their direction indicated she was terrified. One of her attorneys grasped her hands and held them tight.
The past month had been dedicated to delving into the most private details of her volatile marriage to Omar Mateen in front of a public audience. The first two days were dedicated to opening the wounds of Pulse. Jurors heard from tearful survivors and saw a graphic video of Mateen cruelly mowing down victim after victim in a bloody rampage. Salman – who had never set foot inside the gay nightclub – covered her face and turned away from the video as Pulse victims’ families cried. Prosecutors had called her "cold" and "callous," a person willing to keep quiet and create a cover story for her husband's suicide mission in exchange for an expensive engagement ring and designer clothes. Her defense argued she had no idea what her husband was going to do.
"If you're the wife of a man who lies to you, cheats on you, isolates you and abuses you, why would he tell you anything?" her attorney, Linda Moreno, asks. "Why would he confide in you ... He was a psychopath leading a double life who had no respect for his wife. She was not his partner, not his peer, not his confidante."
The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Salman was raised in Rodeo, California along with her three sisters. Although she struggled with learning disabilities as a child, she did graduate high school and earned an associate’s degree in medical administration at a nearby college. Still, she worked as a babysitter, teacher’s aide and cashier. Her friends and family portrayed her as simple, kind person who loved Hello Kitty and romance novels. She wasn’t particularly religious and didn’t wear the hijab – but she did criticize terrorist acts by ISIS on Facebook.
When she was 19, Salman entered into an arranged marriage with a man from her father’s hometown in 2006. Her first husband allowed her to work at a daycare, but was also abusive, her defense said. She divorced him a few years later and went back home.
In 2011, Salman met Mateen on an online dating site. Mateen had also been married before. His first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, told reporters Mateen would hit her, take her paychecks and isolate her from family.
After a short courtship, Salman and Mateen married that same year and he whisked her to Fort Pierce – her family would see little of her after that. During her pregnancy with their son in 2012, Salman saw a radical, violent change in her husband’s behavior. She told the New York Times he punched her while she was pregnant, pulled her hair, choked her and threatened to kill her if she left. Mateen, who was heavily abusing steroids, told her she would lose her son because he would get custody, according to court records.
While in jail, Salman met with Jacquelyn Campbell, a nurse and researcher at the John Hopkins University School of Nursing who specializes in intimate partner violence. Salman told Campbell that during her five-year marriage, her husband raped her and beat her. On a danger assessment test that Salman filled out, Campbell says she scored in the “extreme danger” range – women who scored similarly within this range were killed or almost killed by an intimate partner.
"Noor Salman is a severely abused woman who was in realistic fear for her life from her abusive husband," Campbell wrote in her report. "Her behavior was entirely consistent with severely abused women who are completely controlled by a highly abusive male partner."
A psychological evaluation ordered by the court diagnosed Salman with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can look different in domestic violence survivors compared to combat soldiers or first responders, Campbell explains. Most survivors don’t talk about flashbacks to one moment because abuse usually happens over a period of time, but they can be triggered into having feelings of anxiety and panic. Campbell says one woman she interviewed would feel especially anxious in her kitchen but couldn’t understand why until she realized most of the abuse she suffered happened in that room. PTSD symptoms of avoidance for abused women include trying to avoid making the abuser angry and desperately wanting the relationship to get better, in spite of evidence to the contrary, Campbell writes in her report.
"I think that explains Noor’s behavior as much as anything else," Campbell says. "In terms of how she represented herself, in terms of how frightened she was during the interrogation and in the months leading up to the shooting. She was absolutely terrified to ever ask him what he was planning, where he was going. He would just tell her to get in the car. If he said it, she did it – because otherwise he would beat her up."
About two years into their marriage, the FBI showed up at Mateen and Salman’s home.
FBI Special Agent Juvenal Martin testified that the agency had received a complaint about Mateen, who was the son of one of the agency's informants, Seddique Mateen. While working as a security guard for the private company G4S in 2013, the younger Mateen told his coworkers he was a member of Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, and had familial ties with the organization. Martin had Mateen's supervisor at G4S record him with a hidden device, but they were not able to tape him making similar comments. FBI agents went to the couple’s apartment to interview Mateen several times with his father present in at least one of those conversations. At first, Mateen denied making the statements but eventually admitted he lied because he felt "harassed" by his co-workers for being Muslim. The agency closed the investigation.
Mateen obsessively watched extremist videos and visited websites depicting beheadings and other terrorist attacks committed by ISIS until his death. Federal prosecutors, though, failed to present evidence that showed Salman was similarly radicalized. When Salman tried to question him about the videos, he threatened her and told her to stay out of his business, according to defense attorneys. He used his phone to browse for gory videos during work and late at night – sometimes even between checking out dating websites and porn, making it hard to believe Salman would be watching with him.
His behavior took another radical turn during the summer of 2016.
For the first time in their marriage, Mateen agreed to take a trip to see her family in California, according to court records. He allowed Salman to get a driver’s license and gave her at least $500 to buy gifts and clothes for the trip – a far cry from her weekly $20 allowance. When she asked why he was spending so much money, Salman said Mateen showed her a letter from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, which said he was "now eligible to enter a law enforcement basic recruit training program." Salman said her husband promised her things would be different now, according to court documents.
On June 1, Mateen added Salman and their son as payable-upon-death beneficiaries to his PNC bank account. Three days later, Mateen was at work when he watched a video where ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for people to carry out attacks during Ramadan.
Without telling Salman, he later went to the St. Lucie Shooting Center and purchased a semiautomatic Sig Sauer MCX rifle for $1,837; 1,000 rounds of .223 ammunition for $351; and three magazines for $40 with credit cards. It wasn’t unusual for Mateen to go to this shooting range – he had a work-issued .38 revolver, and he often bought ammunition for the gun to practice. In late May, the family went to a Walmart in Vero Beach where surveillance footage caught Mateen purchasing 200 rounds of .38 caliber ammunition while Salman and their son picked out a Paw Patrol toy in another area of the store. They paid for the items together at the checkout counter. Prosecutors said this showed Salman purchasing ammunition with her husband for the attack. But Mateen did not use his work handgun during the shooting at Pulse – it was left in the rental van he drove that night.
In the weeks before the attack, Mateen had spent more than $26,500 on credit cards buying clothes, toys, guns, ammunition and jewelry for Salman, including an $8,718 engagement ring and wedding band set.
On June 8, the couple and their son traveled to Orlando, and surveillance footage showed them shopping at Bass Pro Shops, the Florida Mall and Disney Springs. Later, they stopped at King O Falafel restaurant in Kissimmee and a nearby mosque. In her statements to the FBI, Salman allegedly told FBI Special Agent Ricardo Enriquez that after eating at the Arabic restaurant, they drove around Pulse for 20 minutes. But as the prosecution's own witness, FBI Special Agent Richard Fennern, testified it would have been "highly unlikely" that Mateen and Salman drove to scout out the club during this time. Cellphone towers near Pulse never connected with their phones.
The day before the attack seemed normal to Salman. Her husband had been treating her better and she was excited for their family trip to California – he had just bought their tickets. Mateen told her he was going out with his friend, Nemo, to dinner. When her mother-in-law Shahla Mateen called her to invite them to break fast at the mosque, Salman told her Mateen would be eating dinner at his friend's house, and that she wanted to stay home with her son.
"If ur mom calls say nimo invited you out and noor wants to stay home," Salman texted her husband. "Nemo" would later testify in court that Mateen had long used him as an excuse with Salman to cheat on her with other women. After her husband left, Salman went to dinner at Applebee's and picked up a Father's Day card and gift at Walmart. She put her son to bed and stayed up shopping for biker jackets until about 1:32 a.m. while she waited for her husband.