Monday, August 19, 2019

Brandon Wolf: Dru's Lesson

This post is about the shooting that took place at the Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. It contains difficult content, so please do not read on if you feel you may be effected. 

This article and sketch have been posted with the express written permission of the interviewee. Analog Artist Digital World takes the privacy and wishes of individuals very seriously.

Brandon Wolf explained that a nightclub is a safe place for the LGBTQ community because the places they should feel safe aren't. Homes, schools, churches, a street corner, none are safe. He needed to escape his small rural town he grew up in near Portland, Oregon, and moved to Orlando to work for Disney World. After Disney he worked for Starbucks where he became an assistant manager and then a regional manager.

In 2013 he met Dru (Christopher Andrew Leinonen). A friend, Austin, introduced them at Ember. Dru was fascinating, confident, and suave - nothing could bother him. He was in charge. Meeting Dru shifted who Brandon was as a person. They became friends, inseparable. Around 2015, Dru met Juan Ramon Guerrero. They were perfect together. You could sense their connection across a room. Brandon got an apartment in the same building two doors down from them. The three of them would take vacations together. On one vacation Dru put his arm around Brandon and said, "You are my best friend."

In June of 2016 after gay days, Brandon had just broken up with his boyfriend Eric. He asked Dru for advice and Dru said, "This is the first time I have seen you care so much about someone, you have to go back." They decided to throw a pool party on June 12th. The party would be a remedy for Brandon being single again and a way to kick off the summer. Eric texted and wanted to go out the night before the pool party. Dru and Juan had spent the day at Sea World and didn't want to go out. Brandon pulled the best friend card saying, "I really need you to be there with me." Dru responded, "Well since you put it that way, I'll be there."

That night Eric went to Brandon's apartment to change. It was awkward since Brandon cared so much and Eric couldn't be bothered. Finally the door knocked and there were his saviors Dru and Juan. Everyone had shots. They discussed where to go. Southern Nights was within walking distance but they decided to go to Pulse Nightclub. They took an Uber and got to Pulse after midnight.

Pulse was super busy. He was shocked it was so crowded. They went to the bar behind the dance floor toward the patio. Kate was the bartender. They ordered the usual drinks and Dru had a fireball shot. Brandon left the tab open. Eric turned to Brandon and said "I am on Tinder." "WTF!" Brandon thought. Dru decided to step in, pulling everyone outside. He said, "You are letting every little thing get in the way of your communication. You are letting everything derail you. You either love him or you don't. Allow it to be what it is." He pulled them into a little circle and put his arms around everybody and said, "All of this nonsense stops right now. What we never say enough in this world is that we love each other. So everybody needs to go around and say I love you." They all agreed and complied. That is when Eric said, "OK I'm ready to dance."

The crowd thinned a bit as they danced. Around 1:55 AM it became clear that they were too old to be at Pulse because everyone was like 19. They all had a little bit too much to drink, it was time for the night to end. They gathered at a spot in front of the stage and agreed to go. Brandon went to the bathroom. The plan was to call an Uber and get back home. Eric followed him to the bathroom. The bathroom near the VIP area always had a really long line so they went to the men's room in the the corner of black room. Time slowed down and things got so vivid. There was a water bottle on the edge of the sink. Brandon placed his empty cup on top of the urinal. He turned to the sink to wash his hands and heard a strange popping sound. Unexplainable sounds or smells happen all the time yet they don't register. This was different. It was a strange sound that didn't feel good. Eric turned to Brandon and said, " What do you think that is?" Brandon responded, "I don't know, maybe a speaker is broken?" Then it was quiet, with only the music filling the club.

Ten or twelve people poured into the bathroom. They were panicked and frantic. Some were hyperventilating, some were crying. They kept saying, "Oh my god, Oh my god."  Then the popping started again. The first time it was a few shots, then it was relentless. The hair stood up on Brandon's arms and he got a feeling in the pit of his stomach that something was really, really bad. He turned to Eric and said, "Oh my god, that's gun shots." The smell of gun fire wafted in.

What were they going to do? The bathroom had no door and no stalls, just three urinals on the wall. They debated weather to stay or go. Eric grabbed Brandon's hand and said, "We have to get out of here." He dragged Brandon out the bathroom door. They made a human chain of people holding each other's hands and they went around the corner back into the club. The popping was loud. The club was full of smoke making it difficult to see but the strobe lights and music were still going.  To there right some fire exit doors were propped open. They sprinted out the doors.

Once outside, their eyes tried to adjust to the bright street lights. No police were on site yet. People were streaming out of the club jumping over things, screaming, and you could hear the POP, POP, POP POP in the background. They ran down the street and maybe a half block down, Brandon fell and the wind was knocked out of him. Eric pulled him up saying, "Come on we have to go." Brandon looked at him and said, "They are still in there. We have to go back!" Eric said, "We can't go back there's no going back." That is when the first sirens grew near and the police cars started to flood the area.

Not only was there the sound of gunfire in the background, but there were people screaming, bleeding and the smell of blood was overwhelming.  Police with assault rifles were screaming at people to get on the ground. That moment haunts Brandon to this day. It informs the anxieties about being in public. The first ten minutes were the most out of control, chaotic and disorienting of his life. They ran around the back of Pulse and turned left to go up Orange Avenue and they got to the hospital.

They made several phone calls. He posted on social media, "Oh my god, I can't find my friends." They were trying to collect their thoughts. Brandon's dad was on the phone, he didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Chaos broke out outside the hospital with police cars and people screaming, "Get on the ground!" In an instant he lost Eric. He was all alone, face down on the sidewalk. He crawled and found Eric hiding behind a car. Then they walked up Orange to the 7-11 on Orange and Gore. They sat on a concrete wall partition for hours, trying to contact friends. He posted on Facebook, "Eric and I are fine, but we can't find our friends." A friend, Nate wrote, "I saw Juan on a stretcher, he was being carried out. He was alive and gave me the thumbs up."

Dru's mother, Christine Leinonen, was out of bed at that time and she logged onto Facebook. she saw Brandon's post and messaged him. She asked, "Is Christopher (Dru) with you?" He messaged back, "You need to come here now." She got there a little after 4 AM. By then some friends were there. They set up a base camp for charging phones and buying water from 7-11. Eric and Brandon were inconsolable. Gal, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, sat the entire night with them. She didn't ask one question, she just brought water and Kleenex. Another reporter from ABC came and just said, "I just want you to know that people care." By this time he had to turn off his phone which was was being bombarded by social media and reporters who wanted a statement. His phone was also about to die because he must have called Dru 150 times. He borrowed other peoples phones to call Dru over and over and over.

Christine  went to the hospital to wait outside since that is where FBI and police would be coming in and out. At around 5 AM the shooting was still going on. They were keeping up in real time from blocks down the road. They kept discussing theories. Maybe Dru wasn't answering his phone because it was dead. Maybe he was held hostage in a bathroom. Maybe he was unconscious. Christine waited all night outside the hospital asking everyone who went in or out if they had seen him. About 10 AM someone said to Brandon, "You have to go home." It was a hot humid Florida morning. Brandon and Eric went back to their respective apartments.

Brandon's apartment became mission central for the week since it was two doors down from where Dru lived. So much was a blur that week. The satellite antenna was tuned so he could watch local news. He stared at the TV for hours on end watching every time a victim was announced. Friends brought food and drink to his apartment, also doing his laundry. He had never met Juan's family. He knew Juan had a sister around the same age, so he scoured the Internet to find her name. He found her on Facebook. He sent her a message, "Hey I'm Brandon, Juan's friend, you need to call me when you get this." She called about 25 minutes later. She kept asking, "Is he OK? Was he there?" Brandon said, "I know he was taken out on a stretcher, I think you need to find him. He's in a hospital somewhere." Juan's mom must have entered the room on the other end of the line. She asked, "Is Juan there?" When Juan's sister said, "We need to go to the hospital." His mom screamed because he was her baby. All Brandon could say was "I'm so sorry."

Juan's sister later called back, he said "Please tell me you found him."  She said, "He's gone." Brandon's heart broke. He was sitting on the steps to his apartment. He couldn't go up and tell everyone yet. He wondered, why? Why would it happen here to the most beautiful, important people in the world? How could something like this happen, something so horrific? He walked up the steps and told everyone. That night he tried to sleep. He could not.

Christine had still not heard anything about Dru. Her interview with ABC had like 2.5 million views by now. No law enforcement agent could be unaware that Dru was missing. Brando tried to drink himself to sleep. Eric called saying, "I can't be here alone." So he went over Brandon's place.  Brandon did mange to sleep for a while that night but had horrible nightmares.

The next morning his vigil watching TV continued. Juan's name was on the list now. They knew 49 people were dead. There were 38 named on TV. That left 11 names unaccounted for. What were the chances that Dru was in a hospital perhaps in surgery, unconscious? Maybe they couldn't get a hold of Christine. What if he lost his ID? They struggled through the possibilities for hours.

Christine called. She said, "He's gone too." Brandon really didn't understand what a broken heart meant until that phone call. It was so painful, physically, mentally, emotionally. It was like when a speaker blows in a car from being turned up too loud. Everything was muffled.

Brandon helped Christine find a venue for the funeral.  Christine was so calm, strong and composed at first. She was mom to everyone. She brought pizza and they would google venues for funeral services. He thought two or three hundred people might show up. So they picked a larger venue so those people would fit comfortably. The funeral was at the cathedral in downtown Orlando. The place was packed. Every seat was full with standing room only in the back and out the doors into the street. There had to be over 1,000 people there.

Brandon was asked to give a eulogy at Dru's funeral. He didn't know what to say. When he tried to write his hand shook so much he had to stop. Dru was the best of them. How do you do justice to that? He decided to talk about what Dru meant to him. Sometimes in your life you meet people who are earth shattering, they are truly once in a lifetime. It was the first time he got to tell people how Dru saved him from himself. He had taught him so much. On that tragic night Dru challenged them to love people more. He was the social glue of their community.

Dru taught them to be good people, to be selfless, connect with people. There had to be a way to honor that. A Go Fund Me page was set up to raise money for Christine and Juan's parents so they could recoup. One month after Pulse about $100,000 had been raised. Christine didn't want the money, she said, "Do something with it that which would make Dru proud." That was the birth of The Dru Project. One of the things Dru was most proud of was starting the first Gay Straight Alliance Program at his high school. With that in mind the Dru Project would give scholarships to the next Dru's of the world. The project would also help schools set up safe spaces that would protect young people. The Dru Project was launched in July 2016. They have awarded $35,000 in scholarships so far.

Brandon has become an advocate for change. He is now the Central Florida Development Officer and Media Relations Manager at Equality Florida. He is a nationally-recognized advocate for LGBTQ issues and gun violence prevention, Brandon found his passion for social change following the shooting at Pulse Nightclub. Communication is his catharsis.

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