Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Commissioner Patty Sheehan

This post discusses 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. 

Orlando Commissioner Patty Sheehan has just won her bid for re-election when her opponent dropped out of the race. I know her as a strong supporter of the Orlando arts scene and that was exemplified by the art decorating her office in City Hall. It was encouraging to see art by local artists that I admire, and of course Patty is also an artist.

In 2016 she also had just been re-elected and sworn in. She was working on an initiative using left over campaign funds to cut back on graffiti, there was a duplex ordinance in the works, and she was battling puppy mills. Then Pulse happened and everything shifted. When something that horrific happens there is so much to do. Someone can make less than a $700 investment and do millions of dollars in damage in minutes. No one should have that kind of power, but Orlando had to deal with the aftermath. There are so many things that you can never ever prepare for. No other city or any other community, should have to go through this. It was horrific.

Pulse was formerly an Italian restaurant. It was such a pretty club. Ron Legler, was Barbara Poma's partner at the time it opened. Ron loved theater, one room was like the Moulan Rouge, it had a huge chandelier, a dance floor, it was beautiful. Then there was a darker bar in the back, then you had this white room. There were planters and LEDs would change the entire color of the room, it was so cool. It was so theatrical and amazing. They remodeled it a couple of times since then. Barbara's brother had died of AIDS and that fueled Barbara's passion and why it was called Pulse. It is unfair that something so awful happened to someone who is so good. She had to deal with much of the anger from families.

On June 11, 2016 Patty remembered going for a walk, painting, it was a typical day, but Sunday morning June 12 will stand out for as long as she lives. Her phone was off and she got up around 7:30am to 8am that morning. She went to check her phone and she thought, "Damn, my phone is blowing up." Everybody was calling. Just then the phone rang, the house phone. It was Frank Billingsley the chief of staff. He said, "Are you sitting down?" He said "I don't know how to tell you this but 21 people have been shot at Pulse Nightclub." She relied, "No, no no, please tell me it is not the largest mass shooting. I'll be right down." She called Eddie, her police liaison. Eddie used to work off duty at Pulse. He had just stopped since he had other commitments on Sundays. Eddie picked her up. The car pulled right up to Kaley and Orange Avenue by Einstein Beagles. This was about 8:30am.

All the officers faces were ashen. It was very raw. She looked over and saw two people wrapped in tarps. Eddie didn't want her to see that. She looked down and saw the blood. There were places where people had fallen, and you could  tell they were dragged across the street. There were bullet casings and and she thought "Oh my God, this is Orange Avenue."  She looked down, and realized she was standing in blood. There was blood everywhere. She walked over near the club and saw Jim Young. He had been her police liaison for a few years, so they were close. She asked, "Where is Barbara?" he said,  "We don't know yet." She thought, "No, no, no." She thought Barbara the club owner was inside.

Mayor Buddy Dyer and several other commissioners went into a command center for an update. It was an air conditioned tent. They said 21 people had died at the time. They were really matter of fact about it and she was devastated. They didn't understand what she was going through. Thank god Eddie was there. She walked back out with Eddie and Jim, they were her safe emotional space. The governor was there and she just didn't want to deal with him. He had never been supportive of the LGBTQ community. Terry DeCarlo got there. She just hugged him. Pastor Kevin Cobaris came over and asked if he could prey with them. A picture of that moment went everywhere. Joe Burbank took that picture.

Later at a press conference they said 50 had died including the gunman in the count.  There was a hush. Media are usually always talking but everybody gasped. Media are usually don't react they are trying to be professional, but she remembered that audible gasp. Everybody was shocked. The  number was unbelievable. She just hugged Terry. So multiple politicians got up to speak and she thought , "No one had said the word, Gay, they didn't say Latino." So she got up there and said, "We are a gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender community and we are united. If you think you are going to destroy us you are not because we are a strong, resilient, decent, loving people. This is who we are." She was mad because she didn't want them to be erased.

Patty's phone blew up after her remarks. Everyone wanted to talk to her and a PR person stepped in to handle the deluge. She was told, "You need to be the voice of this, because others will take advantage and you are going to say the right things to help your community even if they are not." This became her roll. She started doing interviews. She was concerned about Barbara and found out that she had been in Mexico and she was coming back. Thank god she was not inside. But then she thought, she will be devastated that she wasn't there.

She remembered seeing Christine Leinonen who kept asking, Where is my son?" Patty could only relate "I didn't know, and that I'm sorry. It was so hot, and people were sitting on the sidewalks crying. They had nowhere to go. They were taken to the hotel but there was too much of a scene. People were just looking for their kids. That was so heartbreaking and there was no information yet. Finally they opened up the Beardall Center so they had somewhere to go, looking for some answer.

Then she would get shocked back into anger since CNN wanted to do an interview with Pam Bondi and Patty together. So Pam walked right up to her and said, "You know Patty we have to do something to help the LGBTQ community." Patty responded "I look forward to the change." She needed to  be diplomatic since State benefits were on the line and the families were going to need the funeral benefits. Patty was already set with a mic. She thought, "I can't do this." A producer walked up and asked if she was OK with doing the interview and she said no. The FBI brought resources, the State people brought resources, they were helping. As much some politicians did not help, Senator Bill Nelson was getting families visas and all the things that were needed. Not all families were here they had to come from other places.

Patty met Christopher Hanson on the street. She had seen him on the news. She told him he needed to go to the Center, to get help, there were counselors there. There was another young man, he came up to her between media interviews and said, "My friend is in my apartment and he has been shot. He is undocumented." She grabbed him by the arm and said, "You have to promise me, Immigration is not going to come, ICE is not going to come, promise me you will take your friend to the hospital." Stuff like that was heart breaking. Patty went from media tent to media tent. Her goal was to talk about the LGBTQ community, The Latin American community, the people of color who were impacted. She wanted to talk about victims and to get blood to the blood banks, and to raise money to help. Equality Florida had a Go Fund Me already in place. She wanted to be sure people gave to a trusted source. There were many scams afterwards.

She had been on the street from 8:30 in the morning until 11:30 that night. She stayed the next day all day as well. It was so hot. Her feet were burnt from the soles of her shoes. It was a frenzy. She finally got back to her office later that week. She expected a pile of complaints about the streets being closed, hundreds of people were being inconvenienced. There was only one complaint from a guy that hadn't bothered to renew his drivers license. Everyone else was offering help. There were people on the street with food. All these restaurants that were loosing business brought out food to all the people at the scene. Ace hardware was was cooking hot dogs for everybody on their grills. They were closed they lost thousands of dollars in business. The church put out drinks for everybody. We recharged our phones at the church and they put pastries and food out for everyone. Everyone was so kind. If there is a message to this, it is that love wins, that we all came together. You can never just turn the lights off, that says that darkness wins. You want to be a light to the world you want to show love. That is what Orlando did.

Equality Florida wanted to have the vigil right away. The city tried to discourage them for as long as they could, and they had the vigil that following Monday. Patty wasn't even planning to go. She was honestly mad at them because they still had officers on the street. There were so many resources that were needed elsewhere. She decided to go just to find Eddie because there were just no cops. Should something happen she wanted to be there with Eddie to help protect people. She wasn't planning to go on stage but when she walked up, people were clapping and she was overwhelmed. She didn't feel worthy of the applause, because they had died. People told her she did a good job but it wasn't about her getting attention, it was about the 49 it was the worst moment of her life. She doesn't remember what she said. Everything said those first 4 or 5 days was all off the cuff. She wanted to tell the story of Orlando, many people have this idea of Orlando being the theme parks, but we have a downtown. As mad as she was at Equality Florida it was a beautiful thing that happened. She remembered the bells ringing 49 times. She approached a news cameraman and asked how long it took to ring the bells 49 times. It took eight and half minutes. An eternity.

Patty lost half her friends to AIDS between the age of 25 and 30. she dealt with some horrific things in her life, but it prepared her so she could be on that street to try and help those families.  Don Price put aside 49 cemetery plots at Greenwood Cemetery in case they were needed. There was a family with a divorce, and the dad took all the money and he buried his son in a paupers cemetery. So they are trying to get him back to Orlando but he has to be cremated and they are Catholic, there are all these issues.  It is still going on. It was great of the hospital to forgive the bills. But there is continuing care. The money raised by the one fund was enough to bury victims but it wasn't enough to help the most horrifically wounded victims. There are about ten of them that have injuries that are going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Patty has become friends with a lot of the survivors. They are amazing, beautiful, loving, and forgiving people. They did not deserve what happened to them. Many people have moved on. One survivor went to work and sat down and the incision in his stomach opened up. He doesn't get to move on. We are still healing from Pulse. We are probably never going to be the same.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at analogartistdigitalworld@gmail.com

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