9 Investigates: FBI special agent recalls his response to Pulse attack

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ORLANDO, Fla. - It’s been six months since the deadliest mass shooting in United States history played out in Orlando.

For the first time since the initial response, the FBI is talking about the case only to 9 Investigates.

Investigative reporter Karla Ray sat down with the special agent in charge at the scene.

FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ronald Hopper said when he heard Orlando Police Chief John Mina’s voice, he knew what was happening at Pulse was a dire situation.

At 2:02 a.m. on June 12, the moment the first shots were fired at Pulse, Hopper’s life forever changed.

“It’s still pretty much a blur. A lot of the reaction was both instinct and training, which is a big reason we were able to handle the situation the way we did,” Hopper said. “I immediately called Chief John Mina, and as soon as I started talking to him, and heard the tone of his voice, I knew it was accurate, that there was an active shooter situation in downtown Orlando.”

Overnight, the man who had only held his title for about a year was thrust into leading the investigation of the worst terror attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

“Within minutes, I was dressed, in the car, en route to the scene, and at the same time, dispatching multiple agents strategically to determine who the shooter was, and start looking at whether there was a coordinated plot or effort nationwide,” Hopper said.

The calls included some to the highest level of the FBI.

“I’d actually engaged the hostage rescue team in Quantico, Virginia, and had them loading a plane while I was en route to the location,” Hopper said.

When Hopper got to Orange Avenue, he knew there wouldn’t be time to wait for that team.

“I was in the command post with John Mina and Sheriff (Jerry) Demings when we made the decision to initiate the hostage rescue,” Hopper said. “Excellent decision; timing was perfect in that the situation went from a hostage negotiation to a hostage rescue, and that is a very fine line to determine when you need to take that action to save the remaining people who were still inside.”

About 30 people were saved by that effort, but 49 people were already dead.

Questions still linger about how and why the shooting happened, and the FBI took sharp criticism after revealing that the shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, had been investigated twice before, but was legally allowed to buy weapons.

“Do you think there could’ve been more that the FBI could have done?” Karla Ray asked, referring to the former investigations and a call from a gun shop owner who felt Mateen was suspicious weeks before the shooting.

“So there’s no telling what could’ve happened, but if a better picture could’ve been painted, then other things could’ve made a difference,” Hopper said.

Mateen tried to buy body armor and ammunition at a Jensen Beach gun shop and was turned away weeks before coming to Pulse, and the store owner called the FBI.

Hopper said the information relayed wasn’t sufficient enough to launch an investigation.

“It's painful sometimes to realize that had we not withheld certain investigative techniques, we may have come to a different outcome,” Hopper said.

Without surveillance photos, a name, or license plate number, agents couldn’t narrow down who the suspicious man was, without crossing the fine line from proactive policing to profiling.

“Is it frustrating to you that you are sort of limited?” Ray asked.

FBI agent talks about Pulse response 6 months later

“I understand why it exists. Civil rights are highly important. That's what this country is founded on. It does create a challenge in certain situations, and hindsight being what it is, is 20/20,” Hopper said. “The FBI is bound by the Constitution and the attorney general guidelines, as well as the Domestic Investigative Operations Guide, so there are a lot of restrictions on what we can and can't do.” 

Hopper said one of the hardest, but most important lessons to come from Pulse, is that while the mantra "see something, say something" is critically importantly, the more detailed information you can provide about a perceived threat, the more likely an investigation can be launched.

“I can understand the public's frustration, or ‘how come that couldn't have been stopped,’ but at the same time, we have to understand that with that, it does have indications of what could happen to civil rights. So it's a very fine line,” Hopper said.

Hopper was promoted to Orlando’s assistant special agent in charge position in July 2015. He had turned down a promotion to the same position years prior because he would have had to move away from Orlando.

He said the shooting felt personal.

“I’ve gone through periods of sorrow, frustration, and extreme anger when I think about what happened that night,” Hopper said. “I have to restrain myself from saying what I really feel about the individual who committed that heinous act. I can tell you it's profoundly affected me, and it will until the day I die, but if it's done nothing else it's given me a further resolve to ferret out any terrorists that are working to attack Orlando, or anywhere in the United States."

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