Exclusive interview: María Elena Salinas on Pulse gunman’s motives, immigration and telling The Real Story

María Elena Salinas’ big debut on Investigation Discovery, The Real Story, is a huge success.

The Univision anchor’s first English-language series has been met with high ratings and big buzz among fans of true crime television.

Tonight on her show she investigates possible motives overlooked by police and the media in last year’s shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.

The episode comes as the country prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, in which 49 people died, on June 12.

The shooting is just one of several high-profile stories that Salinas has re-investigated in the first season of her new program.

Others have included the Deltona Massacre, in which six people were murdered by squatters, and a decades-long quest for justice by the mother of one of suspected serial killer Felix Vail’s possible victims.

We spoke with Maria Elena Salinas about her show and her take on the Pulse nightclub shooting.

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Monsters and Critics: Maria, what is driving you to change the general perception of Omar Mateen with the Pulse nightclub story? The FBI’s previous investigation was closed due to lack of evidence. In the episode you speak to Mateen’s alleged gay lover, who reveals his identity. Tell us about that. 

María Elena Salinas: [The fact that] he is now unafraid and willing to show his face and give his name was pleasant.

One of the things that attracted me to the story is that it’s a combination we journalists always like — to put the very compassionate story of the three Pulse survivors, who tell us in detail everything that happened that night so we get a first-hand account, and then the more newsy side.

Which is this story about Omar Mateen’s intentions and the idea that it might not have been radical Islamic terrorism, but rather something else, some type of revenge against those he felt had either disrespected him or rejected him.

So the theory that this gentleman brought out was that Omar Mateen was gay and that he was his lover and he believed that maybe his motivation for doing this might have been revenge against some people at that particular club that did him wrong.

M&C: Why do you think then that on Mateen’s social media he wrapped himself in Islamic propaganda and rhetoric? Was it self-hatred being shielded by his purported religion?

MES: See, you just reached your own conclusion! [laughs] It’s interesting that you say that because we tell the story and let people try to decide what they think.

There’s a lot of questions there…for one thing, this gentleman tells me that he [Mateen] was a very calm person until he spoke to his father.

His father was very domineering and he told him once that if his father found out he was gay, he would not kill him [Omar], he would kill whoever was his alleged lover because he would think they would have been the person to draw him to that.

So the controlling nature of his father could have been a reason.

One reason I wonder or doubt the official story of radical Islamic terrorism is that the modus operandi is very different.

At least up to now, I have never seen a terrorist attack where the suspect hangs out for three hours, goes on social media and Facebook, calls his wife, sees if he is getting publicity, calls the cops…

Usually they come, kill and leave or come, kill then kill themselves. So there are these little things here that just kind of make you wonder if it is true or not.

We also spoke to other people from his past who don’t necessarily corroborate the idea he was gay, but they do give you an idea maybe this gentleman was so disturbed and so unhappy with his life, that that might have contributed to this.

I think it’s a combination of many things but the important thing is to get the full story and all the different angles of the possibilities, and at the end of the day, we don’t know what went through his mind when he did this.

We can speculate as much as we want whether he decided one day to become a member of ISIS or he was a gay man who was angry and the only reason why he said it was ISIS was for his father to see him as a hero.

But at the end of the day, when someone does that they are not here to tell us their story.

They take it with them to their grave and we have no idea what crossed his mind the moment he planned this massacre. Obviously, it was planned.

M&C: Have you had a chance to speak to his wife?

MES: No we haven’t had a chance. She doesn’t really want to speak to anyone. We did speak way back a year ago to his first wife, his ex-wife.

And in one of the interviews she did say she thought he was gay. And that he was very violent.

But not his wife now. His family is trying to stay away from this and forget about this.

You know, it’s been a year, the anniversary, and the idea and thoughts come back. These horrible things come back, and I am sure they don’t want to relive that.

The father and husband to the wife and the kids not only is dead, but is infamous for killing 49 people in one of the worst massacres.

I can understand why she is in hiding. And also because she was once accused of being an accessory to these murders because she knew he had these weapons. I think she went with him to buy the weapons.

M&C: As a journalist and in your estimation, why would Mateen hold a grudge against just Latino men? In both the Hispanic culture and the Islamic world, homosexuality is a tricky subject, if not outright major taboo. Why would Mateen just focus on Latino men?

MES: I can only speculate. The story I got, that was told to me, is that he liked Latin men.

He had…well, all I can do is really soak in the information that was given to me about him and his interest in Latin men and having felt rejected by them or felt that they did him wrong and wanted to somehow get back at them.  That is the information I received.

M&C: Switching gears, can we talk about Texas’s S4 immigration enforcement law and the news about the fight on the legislation floor. What you make of these draconian laws?

MES: To begin with SB4, I am sure that there is going to be an effort to try to block and stop it.

It reminds me of SB1070 in Arizona. But SB4 goes even farther than SB1070 [and] we remember in that case the law was, or at least part of that law was, shut down by the court because they were unconstitutional.

Up to now it’s been the federal government who makes immigration laws, not the states. So there is a chance that maybe they will be able to also stop it from going into effect.

But things have changed from Arizona SB1070, there’s a more hostile environment right now against Latinos and immigrants.

I think those who are against undocumented immigrants feel emboldened and feel it’s okay to show their disdain towards immigrants.

For years many in this country have been blaming immigrants for all the ills of the country, and they’re not seen as contributors to our society. I think it’s a shame that this is happening.

I think that the way it was handled, people have a right to protest, you don’t call ICE to arrest all these people and take them back. Who knows if they have a criminal record or don’t have a criminal record?

Again, it is an attempt to criminalize immigrants when I don’t know how many times we have to say over and over again but as of now — that might change, who knows, Republicans are in power so that might change — but as of now crossing the border illegally is an administrative fault. It’s not a crime.

If the government and Congress are going to decide to criminalize it, well you know, that’s different. But as of now, it’s not.

So you hear from the government ‘Oh we are really only going after the ‘bad hombre’. But every single day we see stories of people that are going about their business, parents with children born here, that have not committed any crimes…and now it’s not someone who happens to have committed a crime, but we are going to deport you.

They are actually going to people’s homes, schools…we had an incident in Florida where a man was run over, hit by a car, he was on a bicycle and, of course, the officer comes and says, ‘Do you speak English? Are you illegal?’

Well, guess what? That guy who was a victim of being run over is now going to be deported, so…do not get me going on this! [laughs]

M&C: Your perspective needs to be out there. ID gave you this incredible platform, how has it been switching gears from an investigative journalist to more a host and network talent analyzing old and cold cases?

MES: I am excited about it because this is my first big project outside of Spanish language television, which I have been working on for the past 36 years.

I have done a few things in English for CBS Sunday morning and for our Univision online English version but this is my big project and I am so happy it is this type of show…

I’ve always dedicated my life to seeking the truth and uncovering corruption and denouncing injustice and that’s precisely what we do in these types of stories.

For those who work in television, it’s a privilege to have a whole hour to tell your story, that’s how you give justice to the story.

Also, not only did I want to be able to dig in and find new evidence and new angles to a story so that we look at the story behind the story, but I also wanted to make sure we humanize the victim.

We realized that the person who dies is not the only victim in this situation, it’s also the family members, and sometimes even the family members of the perpetrator.

It has so many different elements, it’s a learning experience…I always put myself in the place of the viewer because I am a US citizen, I pay my taxes, I have two daughters, I’m just like any other viewer, except I happen to be the one telling the story.

I am also the consumer of these types of stories and these types of information.

When I do the interviews I put myself in the place of the viewer because I am one of them also.

For me, it’s a learning experience and helped me to see that danger is right around the corner or sometimes right in front of you.

This show maybe helps you to be able to dissect the danger signs so you can protect yourself and loved ones and also realize that even though the authorities in this country are here to protect us, and for the most part they do, sometimes there are some bad apples in police departments who care more about…who don’t want to bother protecting someone who claims to have been harassed or who care more about stopping a crime so that they can have it on their record than finding the real killer.

M&C: In closing, I had read something interesting from fellow reporter Gloria Borger at CNN who wrote about a Trump White House insider who said, ‘These guys don’t play chess, they play checkers.’ Can you talk about POTUS marginalizing journalists and your take on this administration and your feelings about how he has pushed back journalists and endangered them in general?

MES: It is tough for me to give an opinion because I cover the news every single day and we in Spanish language media have gotten backlash [just] like all the other members of the press.

But I can say this, words matter. And I know that candidate Trump, since he became President Trump…just the weight that his words can have.

I think the negative rhetoric towards immigrants is what has caused a lot of these people who maybe had their racist views hidden, now they have a license to attack, criticize people for their race…and that has increased also.

Then his attack on the media, you know, politicians always criticize the media especially during election time because we are the only filter between them and the voters.

People forget we are not the enemy of the people, on the contrary, our job is to question authority, that’s what our job is. We have to question them and protect the rights of the people.

But it’s very sad that some people are buying it [the negative rhetoric] and believing it.

I think a misinformed or uninformed community is vulnerable to the abuses of those in power. I think that is what’s happening right now.

So I think it’s very sad not only because of our well-being, because now we see some journalists being physically attacked and insulted, but what worries me is in our democratic society you should have a free press and people have the right to be informed.

I think this administration, whether they are wanting to do or it’s just a by-product the way that they manage things, they are actually hurting society by not allowing people to believe what they are seeing and what they are hearing.

Sooner or later people are going to have to realize that this whole thing about ‘fake news’ is fake news!

The story of ‘fake news’ IS fake news.


The Real Story With Maria Elena Salinas airs tonight at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.

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