Accountability is Justice for Pulse Victims
I have been combing through the public records surrounding Pulse’s unpermitted renovations and code violations ever since the Orlando Sentinel reported on the OnePULSE Foundation’s plans to build a multi-million dollar memorial/museum complex and Barbara Poma’s six-figure salary for leading this non-profit she started. My research has uncovered some staggering new information.
First, nightclub owners Barbara and Rosario Poma did significant illegal, unpermitted renovations to the building that included new hallways, a new bar, remodeled bathrooms, an outdoor bar and patio, an enclosed vestibule, and much more. All of these modifications can be easily identified by comparing the floorpans that were released to the public after the shooting with the last approved floorpans on record with the Permitting Division. The last approved building plans come from a building permit pulled in 2003 (BLD2003-08240) when Lorenzo’s Italian restaurant at 1912 S. Orange Avenue was converted into Pulse.
A report issued by the Police Foundation states the rescue of hostages was impaired by a “narrow hallway,” which was the reason why law enforcement had to breach the exterior wall. This report also repeatedly notes how narrow hallways interfered with the rescue effort throughout the incident. The 2003 permitted building plans show no hallways. Hallways, like the curved corridor near the front entrance where SWAT entered the building at 2:10 am, were erected illegally without permits.
In addition, the Community Coalition Against a Pulse Museum (CCAPM), which I am a member of, released a video compilation of survivor’s accounts of escape. These clips were taken from available news interviews recorded immediately after the shooting and are first-hand accounts of survivors who were encumbered by Pulse’s narrow hallways and unpermitted fence as they fled the club.
And yet in response to an Orlando Sentinel reporter who was gathering facts for a story published about the nightclub’s unpermitted fence in 2016, city officials claimed “life safety issues” were not identified “to the best of [their] knowledge.” This was the reason the nightclub was never shut down in the six years since the City of Orlando first became aware of the unpermitted renovations.
It is also worth noting that despite complaints from neighbors, the city also did not shut down Pulse for operating in violation of its conditional-use permit (CUP2003-00012), which was approved for a martini bar and restaurant and not for a nightclub/dancehall. Records reveal that back in June 2004, Rosario Poma re-submitted plan revisions showing the removal of the dance floor in order to be in compliance with the approved CUP. However, Pulse operated with a dance floor and as a nightclub for years.
What’s more enraging, however, is that due to the renovations being unpermitted, up-to-date building plans were never recorded with the City of Orlando’s Permitting Division. As a result, the Orlando Police Department (OPD) did not have access to official building plans on the night of the shooting. Instead, first responders relied on a hand-drawn layout of the building that was sketched by an employee of the Poma’s. Even days after the shooting, emails obtained through private public records requests show that city workers were scrambling to locate all of Pulse’s building plans.
Obtaining accurate floor plans is a standard of tactical response protocols in response to critical incidents like active shootings and hostage situations. The OPD was criticized for their delayed response, as a tactical unit did not storm the building until 5:05 am—three hours after the shooting began.
Furthermore, documents that show official building plans were not accessible to first responders during the shooting were omitted from the records the city released to the public, except for a brief mention in the middle of a redacted OPD Supplemental Report that details how the layout of the building was hand-drawn.
To date, I have submitted 95 records requests. Eighteen are still pending, including my request for transcripts of the OPD’s command center on the night of the shooting; a request that has gone unfulfilled since October 4, 2019.
I urge the public to help me, Christine Leinonen (mother of Christopher Andrew Leinonen, who was shot and killed at Pulse), and other survivors who are part of the CCAPM to get access to ALL emails, photographs, and documents related to the Pulse tragedy; to hold Pulse owners and the City of Orlando accountable. The individual record requests submitted have already cost hundreds of dollars.
Enough is enough. Pulse victims deserve complete transparency.