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  • Writer's picturePulse Families and Survivors for Justice

Pulse Nightclub: The Illegal Fence, Outdoor Patio Bar, and Walled-Over Windows

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The Pulse Nightclub's unpermitted fence made the front page of the Orlando Sentinel in 2016 after it trapped survivors in various spaces of the property. Orlando Sentinel reporters Christal Hayes and Caitlin Doornbos discovered that the fence was not only unpermitted, but the fence was also a code violation in its height and its placement.


Pulse Fence was not permitted
Front page of the Orlando Sentinel on July 31, 2016. Christal Hayes and Caitlin Doornbos reported on the unpermitted fence at the Pulse Nightclub that trapped victims and others were forced to jump over.

In the Orlando Sentinel article, Joshua McGill said after he heard the first rounds of gunfire, he used a couch on the patio as leverage to haul himself over. He also stated, “I saw a few others do the same thing,” he said. “It was complete chaos. I know there’s a door on the gate but it’s latched shut and hidden so people can’t sneak in and out.”


The City of Orlando knew the fence was a code violation, but instead of addressing the issue, it began lying to the reporters doing this story. Heather Fagan told Christal Hayes via email that "without a permit, which would include a review of plans, it is hard to stay whether or not the fence could have met code."



The Office of the Mayor's Deputy Chief of Staff Heather Fagan's statement to the reporter was false, as the City of Orlando knew it was a violation and documented this on June 14, 2010, when City code enforcement photographed the (then white) vinyl fence.


Despite what the City told them, the reporters at the Orlando Sentinel did their jobs and looked at the codes themselves and found out that the fence was, indeed, a code violation.


The Orlando Sentinel article states, "The code says no wood or chain-link fences may be used at the front of the business in that area, and walls built should be a minimum of 3 feet and a maximum of 5 feet tall. City permitting worker Marissis Gandert said privacy fences, like the one at Pulse, would also be included under this category and shouldn’t be taller than 5 feet, which would mean Pulse was in violation."


These violations, including the height and placement of the fence, were also visible in photos taken by the FBI in 2016 immediately following the shooting. The photographs taken by the City and the FBI are shown in the gallery below:



The Orlando Sentinel also referred to the City's own documents that showed they knew another code violation pertaining to the unpermitted fence: "According to a three-page memo sent to the owners in 2010, City officials noted that two windows were 'blocked by the unpermitted privacy fence,' which violates a portion of the city’s Land Development Code requiring the street-facing side of the building have a minimum of 15 percent transparent materials such as windows."


You can view this 3-page memo from 2010 below, which is also accessible on the Pulse Tragedy Public Records website (it is not easy to find):


Pulse - 1912 S Orange
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Download DOCX • 20KB

A relevant excerpt from this memo is also provided below:



This memo confirms that the City did, in fact, know that the fence was a code violation and they did nothing to force the business into compliance, which means that The Office of the Mayor's Deputy Chief of Staff Heather Fagan lied when she told Christal Hayes that "it is hard to stay whether or not the fence could have met code." It was not "hard to say" because the City already had documentation that the fence was in violation of City code.


Heather Fagan also told reporter Christal Hayes, "...to our knowledge the work done without permits did not create life safety issues or limit the ability for people to get in and out of the club."


However, in the direct aftermath of the shooting, a number of survivors went public about how they were forced to jump the fence, knock a hole in it, and even struggled with locating latches to open gates for escape. The height alone, a code violation, was a life safety issue in and of itself. Codes are put into place for life safety, so any code violation is a life safety violation.


You can view some of these survivors' accounts below:

Despite the documentation of the unpermitted fence as a life safety issue, the Office of the Mayor continues to claim ignorance and state that it knew of no life safety issues at the Pulse Nightclub.


When asked about Pulse survivors' calls for a criminal investigation in 2023, Mayor Buddy Dyer told Spectrum News: "I do know that we looked at issues surrounding life safety back in 2016, but we couldn’t find any issues related to that with Pulse building itself."


Records show that the City called off an inspection of the building after the shooting that would have documented every code violation (life safety issue) at the Pulse Nightclub, even though it possessed evidence of multiple life safety code violations throughout the property. The City could have inspected the building at any time after the shooting to document the unpermitted fence (which is still standing in 2023) that violated City codes as well as other code violations inside of the club visible in the FBI's photographs of the nightclub. But to date, it has not.


The City of Orlando clearly did not and does not want to collect any additional information about the code violations at the Pulse Nightclub. We know that because the City of Orlando called off what was to be a post-shooting inspection of the building by Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes -- meant specifically to document code violations on the Pulse Nightclub property.


The email below states, "However, once the scene is safe I will have Fire Marshal Tammy Hughes evaluates the facility to ensure that it is in compliance with all applicable codes."



This evaluation/inspection was never done.


When asked for the results of this evaluation in a public records request, the City of Orlando responded, "The evaluation was not completed as the Pulse location was considered an open/active crime scene and subsequently a vacant building. The Fire Department's policy does not require the inspection of vacant buildings."



This never made the news. The City did not think it was important to document code violations in a building with known violations where 49 people were murdered, 53 were wounded, and many others were trapped—unable to escape for hours.


The questions are: Why did the City avoid documenting the code violations at Pulse? Why did they never pursue a criminal investigation against the Pulse Nightclub owners who were responsible and liable for doing illegal work to the building that hindered the escape and rescue of shooting victims?


Public records show that the City of Orlando had been preparing for any potential civil or criminal litigation regarding the code violations at Pulse. Documenting more code violations at the Pulse Nightclub would have placed additional liability on the City, since the City failed to force the nightclub into compliance and allowed it to operate in violation of City codes for years.


In 2020, we requested a number of emails. One of the emails had an attachment sent by City Attorney Mayanne Downs from her Gray Robinson law firm business email (not her government email). The attachments were released completely redacted, as shown below:


The document received from the City of Orlando with public records request 20-1368. This document was completely redacted.

It was 4 years after the shooting and past the statute of limitations for any kind of lawsuit against the City so what did the City of Orlando want to keep from the public? We decided to find out.


We demanded this document be given to us without redactions. This is documented in the email below that was sent to City Attorney Mayanne Downs on September 28, 2020, which states, "there is no reason why these records have been released without redactions."



Weeks later, on October 13, 2020, we received the document without redactions and it was a list of all of the code violations and issues at Pulse that the City of Orlando had documented and knew about. You can view this document in its entirety below:


Email - Permitting code enforcement planning fire timeline (Attachment)
.pdf
Download PDF • 816KB

Ignoring the violations at Pulse was a pattern for the City of Orlando. We now have proof that, for years, the City knew about a list of violations and issues at the Pulse Nightclub. After the shooting, they tried to keep this information from the public and they successfully kept this hidden from view for years until we demanded that their list of issues at the Pulse Nightclub be unredacted in the Fall of 2020.


Records also show that Pulse's major violations were reported to the City by members of the public as early as 2008. These official complaints about Pulse's serious violations were reported to the City through proper channels and documented in the City's official reporting system.


One of these complaints (shown below), addressed the outdoor patio bar, which was surrounded by the unpermitted fence, built without the proper permits, and was also in violation of City code.





However, the City dismissed these complaints and did not fully or accurately investigate them. For instance, on March 8, 2010, someone named Hanna reported to the City that the Pulse owners built and installed a new bar without permits. In response to this reported violation, Bernard, a city inspector, documented in the City's reporting platform that "this person complains about this property every [sic] week. They [sic] have permits."


In fact, Hannah was correct. Pulse did not have permits for the new bars, the fence, or the outside patio.



An awning permit does not and would not allow for an outside patio bar that violates numerous other City codes. Was this dismissal of the reported code violations incompetence or something else? Why did the City have a pattern of dismissing Pulse Nightclub's violations year after year?


A month later, the Orlando Police Department (OPD) came out to the club and warned them "about enforcing the laws/ordinances" according to an email Rosario Poma forwarded to Frank Billingsley from Barbara Poma and a Pulse employee/manager. The email states that they were there to address noise levels and they were no longer allowed to play music on the patio anymore at all. The manager also stated, "I just have a feeling we either have a huge target on our backs or someone is out to get us..."


Frank Billingsley, who was then the Director of the Economic Development Department, responded to this email, "got it."


On the night of the shooting, there was a DJ playing music outdoors. Pulse was never fined for violating any laws/ordinances and the City never forced them into compliance.

What other codes did the unpermitted outdoor patio bar violate? We know from the FBI's photographs (as well as photos taken by Pulse patrons, Google, and the City itself) that the unpermitted fence, liquor cabinets, posters, and paint all blocked the required windows necessary for 15% transparency, as required by Lane Development Code. The City itself stated this requirement in its 2010 memo (above) and photos of Pulse Nightclub's construction show that these windows were added for compliance (last photo below).



At the time of the shooting, the outdoor bar's liquor cabinets blocked the windows, which were also completely boarded over. Thus, in violation of Land Development Code, there was zero transparency and no windows on the east side of the building facing S. Orange Avenue.


Building plans archived in the City's permitting database show how the parking lot and area outside of the Pulse Nightclub were permitted, without a fence or outdoor patio. As stated in the records shown above, three parking spaces were illegally removed to make room for an unpermitted outdoor patio. The plans below (from 2004) show that the illegally-removed parking spaces included a disabled parking space.




The Orange County Property Appraiser's website shows what a compliant Pulse looked like from S. Orange Avenue, with its windows completely visible from the street, no fence, and the extra parking spaces that were removed without permits for the patio bar. This is NOT how the Pulse Nightclub looked at the time of the shooting and for years before the shooting.



The windows in the front of the nightclub were not the only windows illegally covered. Windows are shown on 2010 building plans that the City of Orlando released to the media, law enforcement, and the public showed windows in the back room as well—the Adonis Room. These building plans were used to interpret and analyze the events of June 12, 2016. The windows in the Adonis Room are circled in blue below:



Photos taken in the direct aftermath of the shooting (below) show that these windows also did not exist, leaving not a single window in the entire back section of the Pulse Nightclub. The only window in the whole building was the one in the unpermitted reception area that law enforcement shattered to gain entry into the club while the shooter was still active.



According to this Pulse survivor Miguel Leiva, the lack of windows played a role in being trapped in the nightclub's bathroom on June 12, 2016.



Why did the City choose to dismiss reported complaints about the Pulse Nightclub? Why didn't they ever accurately inspect the building when they were made aware of these and other violations at the nightclub?


Jason Burton, Chief Planner of the City of Orlando, noted in an email that something was not right here. On June 24, 2010, Burton stated, "April 7, 2008. Citation from Code Enforcement for expanding use into the parking lot, adding patio and canopies, and removing parking spaces without permits and in violation of Conditional Use Permit. Unresolved, yet case closed."



Why was this case closed? Why was Pulse Nightclub never forced into compliance? Why did the City let another 6 years go by without even a citation?


The Orlando Sentinel published a photo of the fence and outdoor patio, which showed the legs of a murdered victim who was killed on the illegal patio.



The illegal outdoor patio bar created additional space for more people to be crammed into the nightclub and evidence suggests that Pulse Nightclub was over capacity on the night of the shooting. The illegal fence hindered the escape of shooting victims. This is why we continue to call for a criminal investigation into these issues.


We were told in 2022 by security stationed at the interim memorial now located at 1912 S. Orange Avenue that the interior of the nightclub had been completely "shelled out." However, if the City wanted to, they could still inspect what's left of the building today (shown below). As of 2023, this includes the unpermitted fence, outdoor patio, boarded-up windows, and an unpermitted second floor.


***If you have any information about the issues presented in this article or are a survivor and would like to share your personal story with us, please email us nopulsemuseum@gmail.com.



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