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Release of Pulse Autopsies Bring Up Painful Memories For Some

Pulse memorial
Matthew Peddie
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Laly Santiago-Leon (Lolly Santiago Loom) lost her cousin Luis Wilson Leon (Louis Wilson Loom) and his boyfriend Jean Mendez Perez in the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Both were shot multiple times – those details came out in recently released autopsies. Autopsies that Santiago-Loom has not read.

“No I do not want to,” Santiago-Leon said. “I’ve already been told about them, so in that degree, I think that’s enough information for me.”

The details are too horrific. Santiago-Leon wishes the autopsy reports of her cousin, his boyfriend and 47 other victims had not been made public. She understands that for some, the details help with their healing and show the pain their loved ones went through in their final hours.

Not for her.

“It does hinder the process because it’s like reopening the wound all over again,” Santiago-Leon said. “It’s very hard to process that over and over again. And once that information is released, it’s like I’m living that very moment in the morning when I was there trying to find out about him to the entire day. It just doesn’t stop.

There are key questions these autopsies don’t answer.

Did any of the victims die from friendly fire with police? Would any of them have lived if medical help came sooner?

Dr. Bruce Goldberger heads a task force at the University of Florida that responds with a team of medical examiner to mass casualty events, like the Pulse nightclub shooting.

He says the answers to those difficult questions will come with a full crime scene reconstruction. Autopsies are just one part of that. The final reports will include who was shot first, who was shot later, if victims were shot while alive or dead.

And that, Goldberger says, will take many, many months.

“The determination of the shooter and whether it was friendly fire or not will be a determination made by the medical examiner and by law enforcement,” Goldberger said. “It may never be known based solely on the autopsy report.”

So what do the autopsy reports tell us? We know the vast majority of victims were shot multiple times – some as many 13 times. In total, the victims had at least 212 gunshot wounds. Six died from a single gunshot wound.

A third of victims were shot in the head. And two victims had evidence of being shot from an extremely close range, less than three feet.

We also now know exactly how damaging the wounds were. Even for a victim shot once in the middle of the back, the damage was extreme, puncturing the spinal cord, puncturing the lung and causing internal bleeding into the chest.

“It doesn’t surprise me that that shot, even though it’s one shot, could prove fatal,” Goldberger said.

Emanuel Kapelsohn is with the Peregrine Corporation, and serves as an expert witness in firearms cases. He says the Sig Sauer (sour) MCX rifle used in the Pulse nightclub shooting is designed for long-range shooting -- targets that are two or three football fields away. But Pulse is a small night club, and at close range, the bullet tries to FLIP on impact -- and often shatters.

“The bullet is for a few milliseconds sideways in the wound path. That, No. 1, creates a very serious wound, but the other thing, the bullet isn’t strong enough to withstand that force.

Laly Santiago-Leon just wants the memory of her cousin and his boyfriend to live on: He was the light of everyone’s lives and lit up the room when he came into it.

“I just want to keep their memories alive,” she said. “And I don’t want the autopsies to deter from that at all.”

And, she says, trying to reflecting on the what ifs of the shooting would hinder her healing.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.