Putting together the pieces of a tragedy that claimed two lives and injured nine more.
As part of this project, every so often VICE will take a deeper look at one event that, while representative of a common type of mass shooting, didn't receive widespread coverage. This month, we look back on a February 2016 mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which two people were killed and nine more wounded.
The first shots barely registered with Brandon*. From where he stood by the sinks in the men's room at the Glitz Ultra Lounge in Orlando, the noise was just a low pop-pop-pop swallowed by the din of around 300 people partying to blaring reggaeton. Outside the bathroom door, witnesses heard screams and saw people rushing from deeper within the crowded dance floor to the exits. But beyond that fulcrum of action, the sounds were so soft and brief that many in the club initially brushed them off.
"The DJ said, 'Oh, it's just fireworks,'" Brandon recalls. "'Keep partying!'"
Situated on the corner of Universal and Carrier, near the heart of Orlando's tourist district—a mile south of Universal Studios and down the block from the kiddy-theatrical Pirate's Dinner Adventure restaurant—Glitz seemed like it was in a safe part of town. But just before 1 AM on February 7, a mass shooting touched off in the outwardly family-friendly area.
After those first few shots, a second round of gunfire unleashed by at least one additional shooter slammed into the wall separating the club from the bathroom with a loud bam-bam-bam. One bullet pierced the wall, striking a young man in the lower back as Brandon instinctively dove to the ground. Outside, the bullets ripped into the throng clustered at the edge of the floor by the men's room. Maria*, a young mother with another child on the way who was waiting for her fiancé to finish up in the bathroom, suddenly felt a bullet rip through her wrist.
Then she saw a man with a gun rush past.
Maria was one of at least three people shot by the bathroom door in that second burst of gunfire. By this point, the crowd near the bathrooms had devolved into a scrum rushing for the exits. But it took at least a couple more minutes before the terror penetrated the rest of the venue, still dominated as it was by throbbing neon and bass. A cellphone video shot in the bathroom shows the man who was struck in the back laying on the ground, at the end of a trickle trail of blood. Someone in the background yells, "He's shot, bro!" and a security guard pushing his way in screams, "Where?" over and over, while music continues to blast away.
At 12:59 AM, a security guard referred to in a police account only as "Lehman" ran to Jerome Kenon, Landon Thomas, and Manuel Genao—all off-duty-but-uniformed Orlando Police Department officers hired to sit outside and project a sense of security. Within a minute of that trio's call to police dispatch, victims started streaming out in droves. Another video from inside the club around the same time shows the lights cut and the last attendees filing out, more confused than hectic, as security personnel scream, "Everybody out!" and a man in a long coat appears to perform CPR on a body splayed near the exit by the men's room.
As they waited for on-duty cops to arrive, Officers Genao and Thomas followed Lehman around the exterior of the club to the exit by the bathroom. Witnesses there told them that a man with a gun had just run out of the building through that door and turned the corner toward the club's rear exit. When they went around back, the group found 23-year-old Jose Jaime Brull-Lopez holding a Glock with an extended magazine, his shirt covered in blood. He stood over the body of 22-year-old Joseph Lugo Villalobos. Once he spotted the off-duty officers and Lehman, Brull-Lopez tossed the gun onto the roof of a storage shed attached to the rear of the club. The officers then ordered him to the ground at gunpoint. Soon after, on-duty Orlando cops arrived and found another loaded magazine in the suspect's pocket. They eventually booked Brull-Lopez into custody on charges of carrying a concealed firearm and tampering with physical evidence, but initially declined to charge him for the shooting itself.
Brull-Lopez, for his part, at first tried to deny that he'd been inside the club or had a gun. But he eventually admitted to tossing the Glock in a police statement. He maintained he'd never fired the gun, which he said he brought into the club for protection and pulled near the men's room because he was aware of a "beef" between people inside. He went on to claim Villalobos was his friend (although he could not think of his surname without police prompting), that the wounded man had run to him for help, and that his shirt had been bloodied while helping Villalobos to the ground.
Brull-Lopez threw his Glock away, he said, because he'd acquired it illegally.
On February 18, he was arrested a second time—after bailing out on his initial charges—on charges of shooting at, within, or into a building and using a firearm or weapon in the commitment of a felony, suggesting that the police now believe he was one of the shooters.
In the end, the tragedy left nine people with bullet wounds and Villalobos, along with 33-year-old Jonathan Avila Rojas, dead. Local police were unsure how many shooters took part in the incident, but as of the following Monday, they suspected as many as three gunmen were involved.
Four months later, the Orlando Police investigation into the Glitz shooting is still open. As such, cops have been reluctant to share names of victims and have declined to comment on the case beyond a few scant official statements. Some survivors are choosing to remain anonymous for reasons of privacy, others for fear of the shooters, one or two of whom may remain at large. Hopes that security or management from Glitz might be able to clear up what happened have also been dashed, as the club was shuttered immediately after the incident and management and official employees have been unreachable ever since.
"If I asked you to search me, you probably wouldn't reach around my junk."—Robert C. Smith, nightclub security expert
Despite those roadblocks, conversations with victims, witnesses, people who worked in the club, and security experts offer insight into how a massive shooting like this could happen at a venue with an off-duty police detail and a significant number of guards. Which in turn sheds light on the shocking commonality of mass shootings in clubs and other nightspots across America.
Within minutes of the off-duty cops' call to dispatch, a number of police arrived and rapidly secured the chaotic scene. By 1:25 AM, they started releasing vehicles, and less than 20 minutes later, Universal Boulevard had been reopened to traffic. By about 2 AM, most of the wounded had either been found by first-responders or made their own way to local hospitals. A grand total of 113 police units stayed on site or in the hospital with victims, trying to figure out what had happened, on and off throughout the following day.
Within 24 hours, a preliminary investigation suggested to police that the violence had been the result of a conflict between two groups of Hispanic men. By Friday, February 12, Orlando cops were saying Rojas and Villalobos had been members of the two conflicting sides, along with three of the wounded.
Social media reactions on the night of the shooting and interviews with employees at businesses near the club suggest the incident may have been part of a drug-trafficking conflict between Puerto Rican gangs. Local police have not endorsed that theory, and only obliquely reference gang reactions to the attack in Brull-Lopez's arrest report. But there's a fair amount of evidence supporting the gang hypothesis.
For starters, Rojas and Villalobos, as well as Brull Lopez and 21-year-old Luis Gadiel Cruz-Nazario—who was also arrested in connection with the shooting on February 18—were originally from Puerto Rico, and although they hadn't been arrested for serious crimes in the United States, Rojas and Villalobos were under investigation by Puerto Rican authorities for drug trafficking.
Rojas, also known as "Pescue" and described by some in Orlando as a veritable kingpin, had also been pegged by Puerto Rican cops as a person of interest in at least four murders, and he was suspected of violating local gun laws on the island. Reports in Puerto Rican news outlets also linked him to the island's Alkaedas drug ring. For his part, Brull-Lopez doesn't appear to have clear gang affiliations, but his statement to the police on the night of the shooting does suggest he was aware of the "beef" between the alleged gang elements in the club.
These details might shed a bit of light on the nature of the conflict inside Glitz that night, but they don't explain how the suspects were able to get the guns they used inside the club. According to a police spokeswoman addressing the press on the day of the shooting, the club wasn't just in an apparently safe touristy part of town—it had an "extensive security system." Indeed, people who worked in the venue say at least a dozen guards were on duty any given night, a couple of them tasked with thoroughly patting down everyone coming in for weapons.
The police spokeswoman insisted at the time that "the club really did everything that it's supposed to do," and cops later stressed to local reporters that this was an isolated event.
Some experts I spoke to think the local police simply overstated the quality of Glitz's security protocols, either accidentally, or in an effort to assuage fears that might harm Orlando's vital tourism sector.
"Small mistakes do happen," offers Robert C. Smith, an ex-cop and head of San Diego's Nightclub Security Consultants, the only American firm exclusively focused on bouncer training at the national level. Smith was chairperson of the committee that wrote California's relevant security curriculum; he also flew out to Florida in February to touch base with local clients and contacts, and boned up on the Glitz shooting before leaving town. "Allowing an underage person to slip by you happens," he tells me. "Serving someone excessively in a crowd of thousands of people every night—that happens. But allowing not [a] gun, but guns to come in, allowing people to die, that's not just a fluke of nature."
When I visit in late March, it's easy to suspect Glitz was never up to snuff. A squat white building with blacked-out windows and a tattered red carpet under its black awning, perched on the edge of a strip-mall parking lot, the place doesn't exude a feeling of safety. It looks like what it is: a failed eatery—the club used to be the Volcano Bar & Grill Mexican Restaurant—sitting on a busy intersection forgotten by through traffic, reborn with an extra dose of neon.
Employees in the decrepit strip mall regarded Glitz, which used to open long after they closed for the day, with mild suspicion. The receptionist at the Palm Construction School, the closest business to the club, says she assumed it was abandoned until the morning she found police cars outside. Three employees of the nearby Pirate's Dinner Adventure, along with a barber from the strip mall, cite rumors of crime and intrigue, but admit they never visited the club themselves. Rather than attracting locals, sources in the local club world say Glitz drew different crowds almost every night from all over greater Orlando—people who followed DJs or performers, rather than venue loyalists.
Lawyers hired by Maria and two others wounded in the attacks—they're filing two separate civil lawsuits against the club for negligence—suspect its operators were irresponsible and failed to institute or enforce security measures proportionate to the threat level. Opened in 2013 by Setay McKnight of Apopka, a suburb north of Orlando, the club was run by DiMaggio's Ultra Lounge, an LLC registered to McKnight's home address in 2011. Whereas many of the businesses in the expensive tourist district were owned by hard-hitters in the Orlando real estate world, McKnight doesn't appear to own any other business ventures. Judging by a résumé posted to the job site Indeed, almost from the start, he left the club under the management of Arvind Kalipersaud—a 26-year-old man who'd previously worked retail and appears, according to voter registration records, to have lived at McKnight's home.
There is no record of code violations or serious complaints for Glitz. But Thomas "T. C." Roberts, one of the lawyers representing Maria, says he found an eviction notice on the venue's door soon after the shooting indicating the owners owed $82,663 in unpaid rent. John Phillips, Maria's other lawyer, suspects the club was operating without insurance, citing the disappearance of McKnight and co. The attorney hopes to flush them out as the case grinds on, but based on past experience, Smith imagines some sort of settlement could be reached even if the operators don't make it to court in the flesh.
In the year prior to the attack, police responded to 54 calls at Glitz for everything from fights to car burglaries. Two of these calls were for shootings in the club's parking lot: In June 2015 , a shooting injured one there; that October , another shooting injured two more. According to Smith, who cites a photo one of his trainees showed him, at least one bouncer took to wearing a Kevlar vest at the venue. And a person who worked in the club during events on and off for over two years tells me that for a while, at least, Glitz was full of people sporting gang colors and flashing signs.
The club apparently cracked down on gang symbols after complaints and upped the number of security guards and cameras in the space following a large scuffle on the floor. But the event worker says many of the same gang-affiliated patrons kept coming back. Other regulars allege that, even if the venue had a large number of bouncers, their screenings were inconsistent at best.
Maria says she and her fiancé were both patted down on the night of the shooting, but adds that it was a loose and quick affair that would have been easy enough to sneak something through. One witness told local reporters that while Glitz security was performing pat-downs, they never checked anyone's ankles. Another patron told Phillips that not everyone underwent even such a mediocre search. And Brull-Lopez said in his statement to police that he was able to get his handgun and spare clip into the club because he was neither patted down nor checked with a metal detector wand, as other patrons were. Brandon, who recalls that a few weeks before the shooting he saw someone packing a gun during a fight at Glitz, thinks the bouncers were allowing guns to make it in—which Smith says isn't entirely uncommon for nightlife security in general thanks to the natural temptations of bribery and friendship.
Despite Brandon's suspicions, corruption isn't the only way to explain guns making it inside—the possibility of poor training and execution looms. No one involved with the club could connect me to a bouncer there, and none of the lawyers pursuing suits against Glitz are clear on whether the club employed a security firm or retained its own security in-house. But it's legal in Florida to just post on Facebook looking for people to post up at a venue door for, say, ten bucks an hour, $15 if they have a security certificate. And even those trained by dedicated firms might miss things from time to time.
"If I asked you to search me, you probably wouldn't reach around my junk," Smith says. He's done this exercise with his students before—and managed to sneak cutlery past them because they don't want to get up in his crotch with their hands. (This is where Brull-Lopez told police he hid the extended clip later found in his pocket.)
There's no real metric for measuring violence in American nightclubs, but the Glitz attack was just one of three mass shootings at US night spots that week alone.
That doesn't mean club mass shootings are about to become an everyday occurrence. Nightclub violence writ large is still relatively uncommon, and when it does occur, it's usually an overzealous bouncer roughing someone up, a shooting in the parking lot beyond security's reach, or a fight without lethal weapons. And these tragedies tend to cluster on weekends. But the fact that America can witness three such incidents within a week is alarming enough in its own right.
Smith doesn't buy into the fatalistic notion that this type of violence is inevitable, though. He believes we can reverse this trend—without undertaking Sisyphean gun control efforts. Citing the example of a club in a rough part of Washington, DC, that operated for eight years with nary a stabbing or shooting inside, he claims that with the right level of professionalization, training, and oversight, security guards can keep every weapon out of a dedicated venue. He notes that three (soon-to-be-four) states now require that bouncers be licensed, some with club-context-specific training—a regimen that owners and insurers are starting to favor out of concern for the effect of violence on their bottom lines. If enough states force clubs to hire sufficiently professionalized guards—people whose jobs depend on their diligence—then venues with metal detectors and comprehensive pat-downs (the protocols Orlando Police say they would have recommended if Glitz reopened) might be able to stop everyone from random hotheads to organized gangs from wreaking havoc.
Of course, such measures could incur expenses that force bars operating on narrow margins to close up shop. They might also simply serve to push violence between gangs to other venues. But given the sheer number of mass shootings American clubs suffer each year, and the role lax security plays in at least some of these attacks, a new wave of regulation is long overdue.
"If you know that's your crowd, I don't give a fuck if it's Crips and Bloods, Hell's Angels, or Mongols, doesn't matter to me," Smith says. "If you handle your door, no guns are coming in."
* Citing safety concerns or a desire for privacy, several individuals in this story have been granted pseudonyms.
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