A mother accused of domestic abuse and described as “paranoid.” A father became a supporter of the Taliban. Parents who spent years in and out of courtrooms. That’s the family that gave rise to mass-murderer Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando last Sunday.
As investigators continue to search for a motive in the largest mass-shooting in U.S. history, they are focused intensely on the three years prior to the attacks, including the period when Mateen, who worked as a private security guard, was on a terrorism watch list.
But a portrait of the killer’s upbringing also is beginning to emerge, through snapshots of a childhood marked by domestic strife, struggles in school, and outbursts of violence, which may yield some insights about why Mateen embarked on his murderous rampage.
Mateen grew up in a house of four children, where he was the only boy. School records obtained by The Daily Beast show that the New York-born Mateen struggled in school and stayed in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes through middle school. As he grew older, the bad grades became supplemented with violent outbursts, including at least two instances in which Mateen hit another child. One teacher noted that Mateen “lacks remorse.” When the family moved school districts in the eighth grade, he was suspended for 25 days from his new school. In his freshman year of high school, he was even sent to another school after fighting a student.
Between eighth and 10th grade, Mateen was suspended for 48 days for fighting and other behavioral issues. The final suspension recorded for Mateen came in the new school year, two days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Mateen, whose parents were born in Afghanistan, was given a five day in-school suspension at the alternative school for an “other disciplinary violation” on Sept. 13.
In school records, Mateen’s mother, Shahla, seemed largely absent from the discussion.
Official records suggest the couple had a history of marital problems. In 2002, when Mateen was 16, police came to the family house on Waterlily Place, in Martin County, Fla., and arrested Shahla on charges of beating her husband. According to a police report, the couple, then married for 20 years, had been arguing while their children slept. Seddique went to brush his teeth, and Shahla began cursing at him, and then pulled his hair and pinched him on the bicep hard enough to leave a red mark visible to police officers.
Shahla was carted off to the police station, where officers took her mug shot. Seddique asserted that his wife had threatened to hurt him in the future. “She said she knows what to do with him,” an officer reported. To the question, “Has the defendant previously assaulted or battered you,” Mateen answered, “Yes.”
Seddique didn’t press charges, and even posted his wife’s bail. There are no records of further domestic disturbances. But the incident would find disturbing echoes years later when Omar Mateen’s ex-wife accused him of beating her while they were married. (The allegations came to light after the shooting.)
The altercation between Seddique and Shahla wasn’t the couple’s only interaction with the legal system. They have been a party in at least eight civil lawsuits in St. Lucie and Martin counties since 1994, according to court records.
In at least three cases, the Mateens were dragged to court to settle an alleged debt; in five, they’ve been plaintiffs. In 1998, Seddique sued his employer, Equitable Life Insurance, saying they failed to make good on his own disability insurance policy after he became unable to work following an automobile accident and alleging they “harassed and intimidated” him while he sought payment.
In 2010, he sued Progressive Express Insurance Company; the case was dismissed in 2012.
The Mateens also sued two individuals: a couple in small claims court in 1996, and a woman in 2011 for auto negligence. The details of those cases weren’t immediately available. And in a handwritten letter to the Martin County court announcing his intent to sue his property owner’s association for what he said were unfair charges he refused to pay, Seddique scrawled, “I’m not a punching bag!”
Becky Diefendorf, 57, who worked with Shahla at two St. Lucie County Walgreens stores, told The Daily Beast she had several explosive run ins with her former co-worker, whom she described as “paranoid.”
Diefendorf, who said she left the chain in 2011, was a manager; Shahla worked the makeup counter. She said that Shahla had once accused her of throwing eggs at the family’s home and of slashing the tires on Shahla’s car.
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“I would guess that [she could be violent],” Diefendorf said of Shahla Mateen’s arrest for domestic abuse. “My daughter had to come to the store one night to make sure I was okay. That was the night she accused me of doing that to her house. And I got so upset that I was crying…and then it just became a really big mess.”
Diefendorf said Mateen’s mother rarely mentioned her son at work, but that she often alluded vaguely to problems at home.
“I do remember her leaving because she had family problems,” Diefendorf said. “She would just come at me and say, ‘I have to go, family problem,’ and leave.”
A client of Mariam Seddique, one of the family’s three daughters, who managed a beauty salon, said she sometimes saw Shahla at the shop.
“These are nice people, these are nice, friendly people,” the client, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast. “They’re generous, they’re lovely…. I mean, I’ve never gone to her salon, had my hair done, and not come away with a gift.”
But while Mariam spoke often of her sisters and parents, the client said she rarely mentioned her brother, Omar. “I don’t think she has the relationship with him that she has with the rest of her family,” the client said.
She told The Daily Beast that she and Mariam would often discuss the differences between Islam and Christianity, and that it seemed like Mariam was “searching.” Mariam even worked for a time as a secretary at a now-defunct church in town, the client said.
The client also attended Mariam’s wedding in 2015, which she described as “the United Nations,” because so many people from different backgrounds and walks of life came. The Mateen family has said that Mariam’s husband, Masood Khan, is from Dubai.
The client said that the Mateens never told her that they were from Afghanistan. “They said they were Persian,” she recalled.
Of all the Mateen family members, Seddique has been the most visible, outspoken both in his condemnation of his son’s actions and his insistence that he can find no explanation for what drove Omar to commit mass murder.
Over the years, the elder Mateen has worked mainly as an insurance salesman. But recently he has turned to politics and made it into a family business. He founded a non-profit organization whose sole purposes appears to be the promotion of TV and Internet broadcasts of a political talk show he hosts. His daughters Sabrina and Mary are listed as directors of the company, the Durand Jirga Inc.
Since at least 2011, Mateen has hosted the show, which airs on a station in California that’s predominately aimed at the Afghan diaspora in the U.S. and Europe. In the 100-plus videos of the show posted to his YouTube page, Mateen usually sits at a desk in front of a video backdrop of mountains or animated graphics. Occasionally he’s joined by a guest or a panel, and from time to time Mateen turns roving reporter and interviews people in the field.
The theme of the videos is consistent: Mateen is an unabashed Afghan nationalist with a visceral hatred of Pakistan. The so-called Durand Line, a 19th Century border between the two countries, is a subject of frequent, heated discussion. Mateen styles himself as a kind of peacemaker–in at least one video he offers up a detailed peace plan for the two rival nations.
But he can be wildly inconsistent, too, at one moment praising the Taliban–the militant group that sponsored al Qaeda before 9/11 and continues to attack U.S. forces–and then condemning them for their violent acts.
Lately, the videos have taken on a delusional tone. Mateen has appointed himself president of Afghanistan and has posted to his Facebook pages the names and photos of people he claims are serving as ministers in his cabinet. Recent videos on his Facebook timeline show Mateen wearing camouflage fatigues and saluting the camera.
Mateen has something of a following in Afghanistan, but probably not the kind he’d like. “Many Afghans on social media have circulated his videos just to laugh and write some funny comments,” said one person who translated some of the videos for The Daily Beast and asked to remain anonymous. “In his videos, he addresses Afghan people to raise against the government of Afghanistan and Pakistan to pave the way for him to come to Afghanistan. … He is known among Afghans because of his abnormal statements.”
Since the shooting at the Pulse nightclub, other commenters have left pornographic images in the comments of Mateen’s Facebook page, condemning his son for attacking LGBT people. But there’s nothing in the videos that suggest Mateen was a religious fundamentalist. His diatribes are more nationalist and engineered for self-aggrandizement and political effect.
In comments after his son was killed by police, Mateen made remarks that seemed to condemn homosexuality on religious grounds, but he subsequently tried to walk them back, suggesting that while he might not personally approve of homosexuality, it was no basis for his son to kill 49 people.
“He doesn’t have the right, nobody has the right to harm anything, anybody,” Mateen told CBS News. “What a person’s lifestyle is, is up to him. It’s a free country. Everybody has their own choice to live the way they want to live.”
And yet his support for the Taliban stands in stark contrast to such live-and-let-live attitudes. The group is notoriously homophobic and has murdered gay men.
Omar Mateen was surely aware of his father’s political views. And according to men who knew the son and said they had talked with him in gay clubs in Orlando, he complained about his strict father.
For his part, Seddique Mateen has insisted that he knows his son wasn’t gay. “He wasn’t gay. I know 90 percent, 95 percent,” Mateen told The Advocate, the influential LGBT news publication. Mateen doesn’t deny that Omar may have gone to gay clubs. “Based on what I’m thinking of, he must have gone scouting or something,” he said, in preparation for the attacks.
But in the interview, Mateen acknowledged that his son–whose childhood misbehaviors he had defended–clearly had hidden a lot about himself. The father said had thought the two were close. “But he fooled me,” Mateen said.
Federal investigators don’t seem convinced. On Friday, Mateen was placed on the federal no-fly list, along with Mateen’s widow, Noor Salman, who has given conflicting accounts about what she knew of Mateen’s plans before the attack. Prosecutors are reportedly bringing evidence to a grand jury, an indication that they intend to charge Salman.
—with additional reporting by Lynn Wadell