EXCLUSIVE: Madman at the gate: A community’s close encounters with Omar Mateen

10:00 a.m. Saturday, June 10, 2017 Exclusives
Illustration by Mark Buzek / Palm Beach Post staff

Tucked among palm trees, flowers and manicured hedges, the south security gate at PGA Village is supposed to serve as a welcome mat to a development known for its upscale homes, three golf courses and streets with names like Perfect Drive and Steeplechase Lane.

But for some residents and visitors, it’s a gateway to something far less idyllic.

It’s a daily reminder of the community’s brush with Omar Mateen, the security guard who manned the gate hours before he opened fire in an Orlando nightclub on June 12, killing 49 people and wounding 53 in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Illustration by Mark Buzek / Palm Beach Post staff

“I’ve recently gone through that gate where he was stationed,” said Janet Porter of Stuart, who often visits relatives in PGA Village, “and I think of how close people were to a mad man.”

Nearly a year after the Pulse nightclub massacre, many residents in the 2,517-home community say they’ve tried to move on from their unsettling connection to Mateen. They say they no longer dwell on the what-if scenarios, raised in the days after the shooting, of a gunman going house to house or wiping out their Bingo Night at the Island Club.

“In my opinion, it was an isolated incident,” said state Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, who has lived in PGA Village since 1998. “It could have happened to any community, but unfortunately, it happened to us.”

But other residents can’t forget. And some are still unhappy that community leaders didn’t fire G4S Solutions, the international security company contracted to guard PGA Village, for missing warning signs about Mateen’s past and letting him work so close to their homes for two years.

“I don’t think (G4S) did their due diligence,” said Maria Roman, who recalls waving to Mateen on morning walks. “We thought, ‘Imagine if he’d gone off on all of us.’”

Mateen, 29, was transferred to PGA Village in October 2013 after the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office complained that he posed a security risk at his previous post, the St. Lucie County Courthouse. That transfer was made by G4S after the FBI had investigated Mateen, who was born in New York to immigrants from Afghanistan, and concluded he was not a terrorist.

An investigator sets up a 3d camera on a tripod inside Pulse nightclub in downtown Orlando on June 12, 2016, where 50 people were shot and killed by a lone gunman Saturday night. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

But residents didn’t know about any of that until a few days after he walked into Pulse with an assault rifle and a 9mm handgun. Mateen, who declared his allegiance to the Islamic State as he gunned down patrons and employees in the popular gay nightclub, was shot to death by police after a three-hour siege.

“You’d like to think G4S had a decent vetting process that would have picked up on any indications that he would do this,” said Lorenzo Williams, an attorney who owns two homes in the development west of Interstate 95 in Port St. Lucie.

“We were heartbroken for the families of the Orlando shooting (victims),” Williams said. But he said he and his neighbors also couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief.

“I think we were just blessed that his mind did not go cuckoo while he was in our community.”

Survivors and families of Pulse victims filed a lawsuit March 22 against G4S and Mateen’s wife, alleging they knew he was mentally unstable and had intent to harm before the shooting. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Fort Pierce then moved a few days later to state court in West Palm Beach. 

Drew Levine, president of G4S’ Jupiter-based North American division, in front of the company’s building at Abacoa.

Drew Levine, president of G4S’ Jupiter-based North American division, would not comment for this story. Four days after the massacre, Levine — whose father lives in PGA Village — attended a town hall meeting where he was bombarded with questions from 200 angry residents.

“We don’t believe we had a gap because whatever transformed Omar Mateen into the monster he became, we didn’t have a view of that,” Levine told residents, according to a TCPalm story on June 15, 2016.

He also said Mateen showed no signs of being a threat to his co-workers or to the residents he guarded at PGA Village. While that may be true, some people in the days after the shooting described strange encounters with Mateen in the development.

In response to outcry by residents, PGA Village in July convened a residents committee to review the community’s contract with G4S and to consider other security companies. But after a three-month investigation, PGA Village’s Master Board in December voted unanimously to retain G4S.

Among the reasons for not firing G4S, as reported by TCPalm: The company agreed to be more transparent with the board about its security guards, including sharing annual guard performances reviews and any complaints, and to allow the community discretion on which guards work at its three guard houses.

The changes take effect after the current contract, worth about $1 million a year, expires at the end of 2018.

“I know there are people in here who feel disappointed we didn’t let the security company go,” board member Gene Antuna told The Palm Beach Post.

“I tell them we think we did what’s best for our community. We did investigate other companies but we thought the changes made by (G4S) were good.”

Antuna, who described the Pulse massacre as “a one-of-a-kind-event that really had little to do with us,” said he doesn’t blame residents for still being angry.

“I am of the opinion that perhaps they could have done better in letting us know before they brought this guy in here, what his background was,” he said. “There were many red flags.”

Before he started working for G4S in 2007, Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, had been fired by the Florida Department of Corrections earlier that year.

His dismissal came after a fellow officer reported that Mateen, during training, had laughingly asked him “if he was to bring a gun to school would I tell anybody.”

Two days after that alleged remark, a student named Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the campus of Virginia Tech. “In light of recent tragic events at Virginia Tech, Officer Mateen’s inquiry about bringing a weapon to class is at best extremely disturbing,” prison warden P.H. Skipper wrote in a memo about Mateen’s dismissal.

It’s unclear whether G4S knew about that remark when it hired Mateen.

G4S said its background investigations comply with federal, state and local laws. “In Mateen’s case, his background investigations were clean and all processes and procedures were followed in accordance with policy,” the company said in a statement to The Post in May.

In September 2011, G4S assigned Mateen to the St. Lucie County Courthouse in Fort Pierce, where he worked alongside sheriff’s deputies. It didn’t take long for friction to spark between Mateen and his co-workers, whom he accused of harassing him with relentless racial and ethnic slurs.

By 2013, the FBI started looking into his background after deputies complained he made suspicious comments about terrorism.

Mateen admitted to the FBI that he told his co-workers he was related to the Boston Marathon bombers and the Fort Hood shooter and that he knew the Kenyan mall shooters.

But Mateen said none of that was true and that he only said it “to get them off my back” and stop the harassment he said he was enduring.

The FBI spent 10 months investigating Mateen. They interviewed him twice, recorded his conversations with informants and surveilled his communications. They concluded he was not a terrorist. 

Although a major with the sheriff’s office initially recommended keeping Mateen at the courthouse, Mateen was removed from the courthouse on Oct. 2.

His removal came after Lt. Troy Church — one of the deputies Mateen had accused of harassment — reported that Mateen earlier that day had “exhibited behaviors not conducive to the court atmosphere (aggressive posturing, raising his voice and seemingly attempting to incite his co-worker),” according to an email.

Mateen filed a workplace-harassment complaint with G4S because of conditions at the courthouse, which he detailed in a five-page statement that was shared with the sheriff’s office.

“It is important to note that G4S was never given any information, either by law enforcement authorities or Mateen’s co-workers, which caused us to question his continued employment with the company,” the company said in a statement to The Post last month.

Mateen’s new assignment was PGA Village.

G4S never told community leaders about why he was transferred there. They didn’t have to because “there was no policy or prior practice of disclosing” to PGA Village the reasons for transferring guards there, according to a report by the community’s security committee.

The PGA Village report said G4S removed Mateen from the courthouse because “of a hostile working environment” and “concerns of potential claims of discrimination by Mateen.”

“G4S personnel also concluded that Mateen had been an excellent employee and expressed surprise over the escalation of events at the courthouse.

“The committee thoroughly reviewed Mateen’s personnel file and found nothing to contradict the presentation of G4S regarding Mateen’s performance.”

At the town hall meeting days after the Orlando shootings, G4S’ Levine told PGA Village residents that the company had no reports of Mateen ever threatening or harming anyone while he was on duty in the community.

His remarks didn’t comfort many residents, who told Levine that G4S should have either fired Mateen or told PGA Village about his courthouse issues before transferring him to their community.

“The majority of the neighbors were extremely upset,” said Katy Messner, a real estate agent who attended the meeting. “People were just giving the riot act to the company.”

Tempers didn’t subside much in the months that followed. At another town hall meeting in October, one resident called Mateen a “hand grenade” that G4S “dumped” onto PGA Village, according to TCPalm. “He could have come in here rather than going up to Orlando and wiped out Bingo Night,” the resident said.

(Orlando Police Department)

Some PGA Village residents and visitors have offered mixed reviews about their interactions with Mateen, who worked at the south gate, one of three security gates in the development, and patrolled some of the 25 miles of roads within the community.

Edwin Roman remembers a pleasant encounter when he was stopped by a polite Mateen after rolling through a stop sign one day in April 2016.

“He was a nice, friendly person,” Roman said. “A lot of other people I know have said the same thing.”

Roman’s wife, Maria, said she always exchanged waves and hellos with Mateen on her morning walks or when he patrolled the streets. “He was never snotty or anything,” she said.

When Maria Roman saw his face on TV two months later in the days after the massacre, she said, “I was totally creeped out and now I don’t trust anybody.”

But Mateen wasn’t always pleasant. Former G4S guards who worked with him at PGA Village have described a violent temper and a penchant for making derogatory remarks about women.

Porter, the Stuart woman with relatives in PGA Village, said she felt “a creepy energy” from Mateen when she showed him her driver’s license on Easter in 2016.

“He was as cold as ice,” she said. “Usually guards at gated communities greet you with kind of a welcome and take your information, but he was robotic.”

Porter said her adult daughter — who didn’t want to comment for this story — described several uncomfortable encounters with Mateen, including one when he would start to return her driver’s license then suddenly hold it and try to pull it back from her.

“It really is amazing that the security company did not do a better job. For them to have multiple red flags and not pull him off the job, that’s what’s really appalling.”

Although some residents say they’ve heard the community’s connection with Mateen has hurt home sales, Messner said that’s not the case. In fact, research by Zillow shows a nearly 9 percent rise in the median sale price of homes in PGA Village from June 13, 2016, to March 15.

When Messner is showing homes, she said she tries in the spirit of full disclosure to subtly mention the community’s connection to Mateen. For example, if she drives a prospective buyer past the Island Club, she might mention how it is used for Bingo Night and town hall meetings such as the one held after the shooting.

“I’ve shown plenty of people homes here (since the massacre). It comes up in conversation multiple times with buyers and they don’t even seem to flinch,” she said.

Messner said she thinks that over time more and more people will forget about the community’s connection to Mateen. “I’ve forgotten about it,” she said. “I guess it just depends on the person.”

Rep. Lee said he never met or interacted with Mateen. But he said is happy with G4S’ service in PGA Village.

“The guards there are great,” he said. “If they know you’re going to be gone for period of time they will ride by your house and check on it. I am thoroughly satisfied with them and I haven’t had any of my neighbors over the past year call me with concerns.”

But Lee said he understands why some of his neighbors might still have a hard time forgetting about Mateen, especially with other terrorist attacks happening around the world since the Orlando massacre.

“You see the stuff happening in London, people are concerned,” Lee said. “But Americans rally. And my community, I think, in that difficult time that we had, we rallied. Yes, there are some who are still rattled but they will find comfort in talking to their neighbors.”

Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post
Photos of Pulse shooting victims are surrounded by flowers and candles at a memorial in front of the Dr. Phillips Center in downtown Orlando Thursday night, June 16, 2016. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
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