FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Residents of this tattered little working class city of strip malls, fast food and slow living describe it as a refuge from the "big city," a place where families can afford to raise children and where the buzz of Orlando’s theme parks and attractions are but a murmur.
"It’s quiet, peaceful and neighborly," said Veronica Beers, 28, who lives in an apartment complex of low-slung buildings just off of 17th Street here. "The kind of place where you’re neighborly and polite."
"To think,” her husband Jason, chimed in. “We lived just 100 feet from a mass murderer.”
The Beers’ downstairs neighbor, Omar Mateen, was killed during a shootout with police early on Sunday morning after authorities say he shot and killed 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando, injuring 53 others, before his own life was taken during a gun battle that followed.
Mateen is the New York-born son of immigrants from Afghanistan. His family has said that a possible spark for the killing was Mateen’s outrage over recently seeing two gay men kissing.
But during a lull in the massacre Mateen called 911 and proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS and other Islamic militants, according to authorities.
The shooting, one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, is rocking this Central Florida city of 42,000 but also the broader LGBTQ community that Mateen targeted.
As investigators continue to search for clues in the case, including how and when Mateen was apparently radicalized, federal authorities on Monday confirmed that Mateen traveled to the Middle East in recent years. In March of 2011 and again in March 2012, Mateen visited Saudi Arabia to take part in the Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca.
In the following years the FBI twice made contact with Mateen, first in 2013 after he’d made comments to co-workers that implied a tie to terrorist organizations and again in 2014, after special agents discovered that Mateen had communicated with a known terrorist. In both cases investigators found little evidence to substantiate any meaningful ties to terrorists or terrorist organizations and the cases were closed.
Sunday’s massacre ripped off whatever veil Mateen had used to conceal the darkness brewing below what his neighbors and at least one member of the mosque he attended described as calm and quiet.
“Nobody believes it, but it has happened. We’re all just overwhelmed and really don’t know how to react. It’s horrible and it’s a bad thing to happen to this community, to the religion, to everybody,” said Bedar Bakht, 51, a member of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce. Standing in a foyer at the mosque, Bakht said he’d known Mateen as a youth and that he just recently reconnected with him at the mosque. He said he saw him a few times a week, mostly at the late-night Isha prayer.
Bakht said that Mateen didn’t speak much and rarely made eye contact. He’d come to the mosque, pray and leave.
Since the massacre, the mosque has been targeted for thinly veiled threats, mostly in the form of curses hurled from passing cars. But there is also more scrutiny on the mosque. Mateen is the second American-born Muslim from this small community, and from this mosque, to engage in terror in recent years.
In May 2014 Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a 22-year-old Palestinian American from Fort Pierce carried out a suicide attack in Syria. Abu-Salha drove a truck bomb into a restaurant filled with government soldiers and detonated it, killing himself and many others. He was the first American to carry out a suicide bombing in Syria. Abu-Salha was inspired by the fiery rhetoric of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
When asked to make sense of how two young men from the same mosque could become apparent tools for Islamic militants, Bakht called it a terrible “coincidence.”
He said that he had known Abu-Salha in passing and figured that Mateen and Abu-Salha would’ve known each other, given their similar age and the small size of the Muslim community in Fort Pierce. But nothing stood out with either; they showed no sign of anger and were “normal kids who came in here and worked.”
Bakht said there was nothing in the words of the Imam or about the mosque that would’ve incited any militancy.
“There is no rhetoric here. You can come on Jumu’ah (Friday) prayers, you can listen to our Imam, there is no rhetoric,” he said. “We are against ISIS and all this Hamas and al Qaeda and all these people killing for no reason.”
Bakht said though that there are certainly forces out there vying for the souls and spirits of young Muslims, and that this may be a time for greater introspection by Muslim leaders and elders.
“It’s very, very troubling. I don’t know what’s making them do that. I think it’s the rhetoric that’s around the world going on,” Bakht said. “We need to look at ourselves first, Muslims, brothers. We need to look at ourselves and see what we’re doing wrong. And maybe we can correct this.”
Back at Mateen’s apartment complex, a steady stream of media and police officers milled about. A group of officers had been dispatched to the building after authorities were alerted that Mateen’s apartment, which he shared with his wife and their toddler, had been left unsecure. The back door was unlocked and left wide open and at least one television news crew had gone in and done a live shot from Mateen’s living room.
"I'm shocked, angry, disappointed," said Jason Beers, the neighbor. "That someone could inflict that kind of devastation, that someone could have that kind of hate in their heart. It's just, my God."
With his dog yapping in the background, Jason and Veronica peered over the second floor balcony down onto a trickle of police officers gathered below, and recalled the moment they learned their standoffish neighbor was connected to the killings they'd heard about on the news.
"You could hear the agents banging on all of the neighbors’ doors, then ours," Beers said. "The FBI said something serious had happened and that we had to go," Veronica Beers chimed in. "We had no idea that it was connected to the killings."
Not long after the shooting, residents of the complex were scrambled from their apartments by federal agents. The Beers said they hunkered down in their car for hours as investigators scoured the complex, streaming in and out of Mateen's first-floor unit. Slowly, through word of mouth and bits and pieces from news accounts, the Beers and other residents learned the truth about Mateen.
“It still hasn’t really registered 100 percent,” Jason Beers said. “How could this happen?”
The Beers' said they’d often see him early in the morning leaning on the security vehicle that he apparently drove to and from work each day. They’d offer a “good morning” but would get nothing but an icy stare in return.
They said it’s ironic that people in the complex felt a sense of safety knowing that there was a security truck parked out front of their complex, but that the man behind the wheel would ultimately shatter any sense of safety they’d felt.
“Who gave him the right to judge people, to tell them who to be or how to be?” Veronica Beers said. “Who gave him the right to murder?”