30-year-old Noor Zahi Salman was a California girl with Palestinian roots who left an arranged marriage only to find love with a man who committed the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The details about Salman, who grew up in the small suburb of Rodeo, California, which is located in the dry hills near the oil refineries 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, have emerged slowly but surely.
According to a neighbor, Salman’s romance with Omar Mateen, who had been a security guard, a bodybuilder, and a devout Muslim, began online and according to public records, the two married on September 29, 2011, near her hometown. The couple has a 3-year-old son.
Early on June 12, 29-year-old Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring 53 others.
An official who was briefed on the progress of the case but insisted on remaining anonymous to discuss an ongoing investigation said that authorities believe that Salman knew about the plot ahead of time, but the official also explained that investigators are hesitant to charge her only on the basis of advance knowledge of her husband’s plans.
Jessie Rojas, a next-door neighbor, said that on June 14, three people who identified themselves as FBI agents visited Salman’s childhood home in Rodeo and spoke with her mother.
In Fort Pierce, Florida, where Matten and Salman lived, Salman made a quick visit to their first-floor apartment late on June 13, escorted by police and her brother-in-law. Her father-in-law said that she had returned to pick up some clothing. Salman did not speak with reporters. Otherwise, Salman has been in seclusion.
According to marriage documents on file in the Contra Costa County Recorder’s Office, Salman was born in the U.S., but her parents’ birthplaces were listed as “Palestine.”
It is unclear when her parents, who had served as witnesses at her wedding, came to the U.S., but their naturalization papers allowing them to stay in the country were approved in 1984.
No one answered the door to the Salman home on June 14, but neighbors who know Salman, a 2004 graduate of John Swett High School in nearby Crockett, said that they find it hard to believe that she had anything to do with the massacre.
Jasbinder Chahal, who has lived across the street from Salman’s childhood home for the last 15 years, said Salman is “very nice…not the smartest, but she was beautiful.”
“You know, some kids after high school, they open up the box and the world is theirs. She was inside the box, just pack it up and get married,” said Chahal.
“They had a small wedding and took lots of pictures here at the house,” said Chahal. The marriage license says the ceremony took place in Hercules, California, and that an imam officiated.
Chahal said of Mateen, “He was shorter than her and did not seem very friendly.”
Chahal said that Salman’s mother, Ekbal Salman, was deeply upset when she visited her daughter during the night of June 13 and said that she feared for the safety of her daughter and grandson.
Salman’s parents tried to shelter their four daughters as the girls grew up.
“Noor never played in the street, and the girls were never allowed to drive,” Chahal said.
Chahal quoted Salman’s mother as saying that Mateen also kept her daughter from driving, until he recently allowed her to take a test to get her driver’s license.
Chahal said that Salman’s marriage to Mateen was her second. Mateen had also been married once before Salman.
Chahal said that Salman’s first marriage had been arranged in the West Bank, but that the marriage did not work out.
“He was in Chicago and they were living there, but they were not married long,” Chahal said. “They had cultural differences since she grew up here and was American.”
On one of Salman’s sister’s Facebook pages–next to a family photo–there is a box with the words: “Solidarity with Gaza.”
Chahal said that Salman rarely came home to visit after she married Mateen because Mateen would not let her. Chahal quoted Salman’s mother telling her that Mateen even tried to keep her daughter from traveling home to visit her father when he was sick.
Chahal said that the younger Salman was able to scrape together the money to visit before her father died in a local hospital.