As the first officer to exchange gunfire with the mass shooter who terrorized Orlando’s Pulse nightclub on the morning of June 12, 2016, Adam Gruler was quickly hailed a hero. For his actions, the Orlando Police Department honored him with a “Pulse Valor Award,” and Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) invited him to be her guest at President Trump’s State of the Union address.
But nearly two years later, some of the victims and the families of those who died are telling a different story.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Orlando on Thursday, the victims and families claim that Gruler, who was working an extra job as Pulse’s security guard that night, remained outside “to ensure his own safety” while the gunman shot and killed 49 people and injured 68 others inside Pulse.
Gruler is one of 31 Orlando police officers being sued but the only one of them identified by name. The plaintiffs contend that Gruler and the other Orlando police officers acted too slowly and failed to protect the nightclub’s patrons as the gunman, Omar Mateen, opened fire on the club and then held hostages for more than three hours inside a bathroom before he was shot and killed by police.
At a news conference Thursday, family members of those who died, as well as those who were at the club that night, said they thought police could have saved more lives had they acted quicker.
“It pains me to think my brother might still be alive if the defendants in the lawsuit acted differently,” said Berto Capo, who lost his brother Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo in the shooting. “What if the Pulse security guard stopped the shooter from ever coming inside Pulse? Would my brother still be alive? What if the Orlando police officers who responded to the shooting were aggressive with the plan to rescue hostages and victims and killed the shooter? Would my brother still be alive?
“We believe the answer is yes,” Capo said. “[My brother] would still be alive if their actions would have been faster.”
In a joint statement released to various news outlets, the Orlando Police Department and City of Orlando, also a defendant, said they had not been served with the lawsuit and could not comment on the substance of the litigation.
“Nearly two years after the horrific act of hate inside the Pulse nightclub, our community continues to mourn the 49 lives taken and provide support for all those impacted,” the statement said. “On the morning of June 12, 2016, federal, state and local law enforcement officers and first responders put themselves in harm’s way to save as many lives as possible.”
The lawsuit accuses Gruler of being the first to fail the victims. The plaintiffs claim Gruler “abandoned his post” inside the club, making it easier for the shooter to enter without being stopped at the door. But in his account given to the Orlando Sentinel in the days after the shooting, Gruler said he left the club because he was searching for a teenager who had gotten in with a fake ID.
Gruler couldn’t find him inside, he said, so he headed out to the parking lot to take a look — and that’s when he heard the shots ring out.
Dash cam footage captured Gruler firing at Mateen from the parking lot at 2:02 a.m., but, realizing he was outgunned, Gruler said he called for backup and remained outside.
“Not only did the officer allow this to take place by apparently abandoning his post,” attorney Solomon Radner said at the Thursday news conference, “but also instead of immediately going in and neutralizing the shooter, he appeared to be primarily concerned about his own safety. He stayed outside where it was safe and allowed dozens of people to be massacred, knowing that was taking place, knowing that he was the only armed person there who could stop this. That was his job.”
The accusations against Gruler mirror those lobbed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s armed security officer Scot Peterson. Peterson told The Washington Post he left the school building to go investigate reports of fireworks, heard gunshots once outside, then remained outside while the shooter gunned down 17 people in hallways and classrooms. Peterson said that he could not figure out where the shots were coming from. President Trump called him a “coward,” as did families of the victims in a lawsuit against him and others.
A former student at the school, Nikolas Cruz, is being charged in the shooting.
At Pulse that night in June, backup arrived six minutes after Gruler first confronted Mateen, at 2:08 a.m. At that point police entered the club and exchange gunfire with Mateen before he holed up in the bathroom and initiated a three-hour standoff.
The lawsuit also accuses Orlando police of detaining dozens of people in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and seizing their personal property, including their cellphones.
Radner said police would not allow those who had just experienced the mass shooting to call their family and friends to tell them they were okay. They were not allowed water or bathroom breaks, Radner claimed. And they were detained for hours awaiting interviews with the police, without knowing when they would be allowed to leave, he said.
“Virtually every victim they could get their hands on who wasn’t shot and dead, they basically arrested them,” Radner said, adding: “The police are not allowed to detain you even if you are the victim of a terrible crime, even if they need to interview you.”
The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages.