The man suspected of fatally shooting five people and wounding six others at a Florida airport told investigators initially he was under government mind control and then claimed to be inspired by Islamic State websites and chatrooms, authorities said at a hearing Tuesday.
FBI agent Michael Ferlazzo also confirmed that the 9mm Walther handgun used in the Jan. 6 shooting rampage at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is the same weapon Anchorage, Alaska, police seized and later returned to 26-year-old Esteban Santiago last year.
Ferlazzo testified at a bond hearing that Santiago mentioned after the shooting that his mind was under some kind of government control. Later in the interview he claimed to have been inspired by Islamic State-related chatrooms and websites, although it is not clear if the FBI has been able to corroborate any terror-related claims.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow set a Jan. 30 arraignment hearing for Santiago to enter a formal plea. Snow ordered Santiago kept in custody as a risk of flight and a danger to the community, which Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Del Toro said was clear from his actions at the airport.
"He has admitted to all of the facts with respect to the terrible and tragic events of Jan. 6," Del Toro said. "These were vulnerable victims who he shot down methodically."
Santiago could get the death penalty if convicted of federal airport violence and firearms charges that resulted in death. His public defender, Robert Berube, said Santiago would not contest the pretrial detention order.
"Mr. Santiago is prepared to remain in custody," Berube said.
Investigators say Santiago legally brought a gun box containing his weapon and ammunition as checked luggage for his flight, then retrieved it at the Florida airport and went into a bathroom. After loading the gun, authorities say he came out firing randomly and then laid down on the floor after using all 15 bullets in two clips.
Much of the hearing focused on Ferlazzo's testimony about what Santiago said after the shooting and what records from Alaska reveal about him.
Ferlazzo said Santiago, an Iraq war veteran who was a member of the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard, visited a gun range late last year before booking the one-way ticket from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale. It was previously reported that Santiago visited the FBI office in Anchorage last year complaining about hearing voices and supposed CIA mind control, which led to Anchorage police temporarily seizing his gun and Santiago's brief stay in a mental hospital.
At the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Ferlazzo said, records show Santiago was given anti-anxiety medications but no prescriptions for drugs that would treat serious mental conditions such as schizophrenia. He was released after a five-day stay with no restrictions that might prevent him from possessing a gun, and his weapon was returned by police.
"He was deemed to be stable," the agent testified.
In the post-shooting interviews, Santiago at first repeated claims that he did it because of government mind control but later told investigators he had been visiting chatrooms and internet sites frequented by the Islamic State terror group or those inspired by it.
"It was a group of like-minded individuals who were all planning attacks," Ferlazzo said.
The FBI is examining Santiago's computers and other devices as well as those of family members, but so far agents have not confirmed any terrorism ties.
Other evidence collected so far includes video from 20 different airport camera angles that show the entire shooting episode, Ferlazzo testified. In addition, the roughly six-hour interview in which Santiago supposedly confessed was audio and video recorded.
|© ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock Shooting at Fort Lauderdale Airport, USA - 08 Jan 2017 Broward Sheriff Office Sheriffs stand guard outside the entrance to Terminal 2 baggage area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Sunday morning|
Airport shooter Esteban Santiago said he visited 'jihadi chat rooms' online, prosecutors say
Accused airport shooter Esteban Santiago told investigators after his arrest that he communicated with Islamic State terrorists or sympathizers in "jihadi chat rooms" before he killed five people in Fort Lauderdale, authorities said in court Tuesday.
Whether that's true is not clear. Prosecutors and agents are still combing through electronic devices Santiago may have used, looking for evidence to show whether he was radicalized and whether he actually visited those terrorist chat rooms and websites, law enforcement sources said.
Santiago's statements to investigators were revealed during a court hearing Tuesday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
Also during the hearing:
• Federal prosecutors said Santiago, 26, practiced firing his weapon at a gun range in Alaska in the months before the Jan. 6 attack at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
• Agents testified that the semi-automatic handgun Santiago used in the attack was the same weapon the Anchorage police department returned to him in December, after his stay in a psychiatric hospital.
• Santiago was not prescribed psychiatric drugs when leaving the hospital, despite his earlier complaints that the government was controlling his mind and he was hearing voices.
Santiago, who has not yet been formally charged, faces allegations that he fatally shot five people and injured six others on Jan. 6 at the Terminal 2 baggage claim area of the airport. If convicted of the most serious allegations, he could face the death penalty or life in federal prison.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow ruled that Santiago will remain jailed while the case is pending, after deciding that he might flee from justice and is a danger to the community.
"Much of the danger to the community [he presents] is on camera," the judge said. "He's facing either the death penalty or life if prison so he has no incentive to appear" in court if released.
Santiago is due back in court Jan. 30. He is on suicide watch, in solitary confinement, at the Broward County main jail.
Santiago barely spoke publicly in court Tuesday, just answering "yes" and "no" when the judge asked him a series of questions about whether he agreed with a request from the prosecution and defense to delay his next court appearance.
He wore a red maximum-security inmate jumpsuit and was handcuffed, shackled and surrounded by deputy U.S. marshals and courtroom security officers. He spoke in a low, inaudible voice to his lawyers, Robert Berube and Eric Cohen, who work for the Federal Public Defender's Office.
"Mr Santiago is prepared to remain in custody," Berube told the judge.
After emptying two magazines of ammunition and "methodically" shooting people by aiming at their heads, Santiago dropped his gun, lay on the ground and made no attempt to escape before Broward sheriff's deputies arrested him, prosecutor Ricardo Del Toro said in court.
"During the interview, the defendant admitted that he planned the attack," Del Toro said. "He has admitted to all of the facts with respect to the terrible and tragic events of Jan. 6."
"At various points ... he said he carried out the attack because of government mind control," Del Toro told the judge. "But he later said he did so because of ISIL ... after participating in jihadi chat rooms."
Santiago was first interviewed by FBI agents and sheriff's detectives in a law enforcement office in the airport in the hours after the rampage, prosecutors said. Later that night, he was brought to FBI headquarters in Miramar and questioned more.
Investigators said he spoke with them for a total of about six hours. The first few hours were audio recorded, and all but about 10 minutes of his interview at the FBI office was recorded on video, FBI Agent Michael Ferlazzo testified.
Santiago was born in New Jersey, grew up in Puerto Rico and served in the Iraq War before moving to Alaska. He also traveled to the United Kingdom in 2012, prosecutors said in court.
This past November, Santiago went to the FBI office in Anchorage and told agents the government was controlling his mind and he was being pushed to watch terrorist propaganda, prosecutors said.
Authorities said he asked for help on Nov. 6 and said he did not want to harm himself or anyone else.
Anchorage police confiscated Santiaigo's gun, and he voluntarily agreed to go to a psychiatric hospital for treatment, though agents said there may have been some court order or proceeding before he agreed to treatment.
The agents testified that they believe Santiago spent about one day in Providence Alaska Medical Center and was transferred to Alaska Psychiatric Institute, where he spent about five days and was released Nov. 14 after he was "deemed to be stable."
He was not prescribed psychiatric drugs while hospitalized or upon his release, just anti-anxiety medication and melatonin, an herbal supplement people use to help them sleep, agents said.
FBI agents met with Santiago again and interviewed him Nov. 30, when he went back to the Anchorage police department to try to pick up his gun, Ferlazzo testified under questioning by defense lawyer Berube.
No information has been released about that meeting, other than the FBI and Anchorage police saying Santiago left that day without his gun. Anchorage police eventually returned the gun to him Dec. 8, they said.
Agents testified that Santiago's gun was legally purchased and was legally licensed, as far as they know, in Alaska.
Prosecutor Del Toro told the judge that the five people killed were between ages 57 and 84, and the six people who suffered gunshot wounds were between ages 40 and 70.
Investigators said they have video footage from about 20 cameras that recorded Santiago or aspects of the mass shooting at the airport. Santiago does not appear on footage from all of those cameras, but agents said they captured most of his movements in the airport.
There is no video of him on the sidewalk outside the baggage claim area, they testified, though agents wrote in court records that he briefly walked outside during the shootings.
If prosecutors formally decide to seek the death penalty for Santiago, that would slow down the case, experts said. U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer and his advisers would have to make an initial decision, which would reviewed by a U.S. Department of Justice panel, before a final decision by the U.S. attorney general.
If Santiago wants to plead guilty, and is found legally competent to do so, that could take the death penalty off the table, legal experts said, though prosecutors could still insist on going to trial. The defense has not asked for Santiago to undergo a psychiatric evaluation or legal competency testing, according to court records, but that it is likely to be ordered.
Fort Lauderdale shooter says he carried out attack for ISIS, FBI claims
Esteban Santiago, the man charged with killing five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport, told FBI agents he carried out the attack on behalf of ISIS, FBI special agent Michael Ferlazzo testified at Santiago's bond hearing Tuesday.
The agent did not elaborate on whether Santiago was purporting to be linked to ISIS or simply inspired by the terrorist organization.
Federal authorities in Alaska said Santiago told them prior to the attack that he was hearing voices and that his mind was being controlled by the CIA. Santiago initially made similar claims during an interrogation following the shooting, but once he was transferred to the FBI office in Miramar, Florida, Santiago introduced the ISIS claim and never again mentioned mind control, Ferlazzo testified.
ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the January 6 attack at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Ferlazzo, who conducted the interview in Miramar, said only that Santiago claimed to be fighting for ISIS and that he'd been in touch via jihadi chat rooms with like-minded people who were planning attacks as well.
Santiago is charged with using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence; performing an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that caused serious bodily injury; and causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm.
The latter two are punishable by death, while the first charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Authorities have said that Santiago confessed to the mass shooting, which they said he perpetrated after disembarking a plane from Anchorage and collecting a checked bag containing a Walther 9 mm pistol and two magazines.
How did Santiago get his gun back?
At Tuesday's hearing, the defense did not argue the prosecution's assertion that Santiago posed a flight risk, as well as a danger to the community, and said that the defendant was prepared to be detained throughout his trial.
The judge ruled he be held without bond. His next court appearance is January 30.