FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The Iraq war veteran accused of killing five travelers and wounding six others at a busy international airport in Florida was charged Saturday and could face the death penalty if convicted.
Esteban Santiago, 26, told investigators that he planned the attack, buying a one-way ticket to the Fort Lauderdale airport, a federal complaint said. Authorities don't know why he chose his target and have not ruled out terrorism.
Santiago was charged with an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death — which carries a maximum punishment of execution — and weapons charges.
"Today's charges represent the gravity of the situation and reflect the commitment of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel to continually protect the community and prosecute those who target our residents and visitors," U.S Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said.
Authorities said during a news conference that they had interviewed roughly 175 people, including a lengthy interrogation with the cooperative suspect, a former National Guard soldier from Alaska. Flights had resumed at the Fort Lauderdale airport after the bloodshed, though the terminal where the shooting happened remained closed.
Santiago spoke to investigators for several hours after he opened fire with a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun that he appears to have legally checked on a flight from Alaska. He had two magazines with him and emptied both of them, firing about 15 rounds, before he was arrested, the complaint said.
"We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack. We're pursuing all angles on what prompted him to carry out this horrific attack," FBI Agent George Piro said.
Investigators are combing through social media and other information to determine Santiago's motive, and it's too early to say whether terrorism played a role, Piro said. In November, Santiago had walked into an FBI field office in Alaska saying the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos, authorities said.
"He was a walk-in complaint. This is something that happens at FBI offices around the country every day," FBI agent Marlin Ritzman said.
On that day, Santiago had a loaded magazine on him, but had left a gun in his vehicle, along with his newborn child, authorities said. Officers seized the weapon and local officers took him to get a mental health evaluation. His girlfriend picked up the child.
On Dec. 8, the gun was returned to Santiago. Authorities wouldn't say if it was the same gun used in the airport attack.
U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said Santiago would have been able to legally possess a gun because he had not been judged mentally ill, which is a higher standard than having an evaluation.
Santiago had not been placed on the U.S. no-fly list and appears to have acted alone, authorities said.
The attack sent panicked witnesses running out of the terminal and spilling onto the tarmac, baggage in hand. Others hid in bathroom stalls or crouched behind cars or anything else they could find as police and paramedics rushed in to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.
Mark Lea, 53, had just flown in from Minnesota with his wife for a cruise when he heard three quick cracks, like a firecracker. Then came more cracks, and "I knew it was more than just a firecracker," he said.
Making sure his wife was outside, Lea helped evacuate some older women who had fallen, he said. Then he saw the shooter.
"He was just kind of randomly shooting people," he said. "If you were in his path, you were going to get shot. He was walking and shooting."
Over the course of about 45 seconds, the shooter reloaded twice, he said. When he was out of bullets, he walked away, dropped the gun and lay face down, spread eagle on the floor, Lea said.
By that time, a deputy had arrived and grabbed the shooter. Lea put his foot on the gun to secure it.
Lea went to help the injured and a woman from Iowa asked about her husband, who she described. Lea saw a man who fit his description behind a row of chairs, motionless, shot in the head and lying in a pool of blood, he said. The man, Michael Oehme, was identified as one of the dead victims on Saturday.
Bruce Hugon, who had flown in from Indianapolis for a vacation, was at the baggage carousel when he heard four or five pops and saw everyone drop to the ground. He said a woman next to him tried to get up and was shot in the head.
"The guy must have been standing over me at one point. I could smell the gunpowder," he said. "I thought I was about to feel a piercing pain or nothing at all because I would have been dead."
Santiago had been discharged from the National Guard last year after being demoted for unsatisfactory performance. Bryan Santiago said Saturday that his brother had requested psychological help but received little assistance. Esteban Santiago said in August that he was hearing voices.
"How is it possible that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for only four days, and then give him his weapon back?" Bryan Santiago said.
His mother declined to comment as she stood inside the screen door of the family home in Puerto Rico, wiping tears from her eyes. The only thing she said was that Esteban Santiago had been tremendously affected by seeing a bomb explode next to two of his friends when he was around 18 years old while serving in Iraq.
Santiago, who is in federal custody, will face federal charges and is expected to appear in court Monday, Piro said.
It is legal for airline passengers to travel with guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag — not a carry-on — and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in.
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage aboard a Delta flight Thursday night, checking only one piece of luggage — his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.
|© Broward Sheriff's Office/AP Images|
Florida airport shooting suspect faces charges that could bring the death penalty
Investigators say Florida airport shooting suspect Esteban Santiago told them he planned the carnage and purchased a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale to carry it out.
But it is still unclear why South Florida was targeted.
Federal prosecutors filed court documents Saturday detailing airport violence, gun and murder allegations against Santiago. If convicted, he could face the death penalty or life in federal prison, they said.
"Santiago fired approximately 10 to 15 rounds of ammunition from his firearm, aiming at his victims' heads. He was described as walking while shooting in a methodical manner," FBI Agent Michael Ferlazzo wrote in court records.
Five people died and six more suffered gunshot injuries.
"At one point, he exited the Terminal 2 baggage area [and went] onto the sidewalk and then re-entered, still carrying the handgun," agents wrote.
Moments later, a Broward County sheriff's deputy approached Santiago, who "dropped the handgun on the ground, in lock-back [mode], meaning that all the ammunition had been fired, and [he] dropped to the floor," investigators wrote.
They say Santiago told them he checked baggage that contained a Walther 9mm semiautomatic handgun and two magazines of ammunition. After claiming his baggage, he said he took it into a stall in the men's restroom, removed the gun, loaded it and put it in his waistband, authorities said.
"He then left the men's restroom and shot the first people he encountered," agents wrote. "Santiago emptied his first magazine, then reloaded and shot until the second magazine, too, was out of bullets. He believes he shot approximately 15 rounds before his arrest."
The shootings were apparently recorded by security video, which agents said corroborated Santiago's confession and witnesses' statements.
Santiago, 26, of Anchorage, is due to make his first appearance at 11 a.m. Monday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
He traveled nearly 5,000 miles from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale. But after interviewing Santiago for hours, investigators said they had no clear answer to the question: Why did he come to Fort Lauderdale?
"The early indication is that there was no specific reason why he chose Fort Lauderdale International Airport," said George L. Piro, the special agent in charge of the FBI in South Florida.
"Indications are he came here to carry out this horrific attack. We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack, but again it's very early in the investigation," Piro said.
It could be several days, or weeks, before formal charges are filed. Prosecutors will most likely seek an indictment by presenting their evidence to a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale.
At the initial hearing Monday in federal court, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle will explain the allegations to Santiago. She will probably also appoint the Federal Public Defender's Office to represent Santiago, if he does not hire a private attorney.
If Santiago says he wants to try to persuade the judge to release him on bond — a request that would certainly be rejected because of his flight risk and the danger he could pose to the public — the prosecution and defense will have several days to prepare for it.
Though state prosecutors in Florida frequently seek the death penalty, it is uncommon for federal prosecutors to pursue it.
Federal judges and jurors in Florida have only sentenced two men to federal death row since Congress reinstated the death penalty in 1988.
State prosecutors in Broward County could seek to file murder charges against Santiago separately because the shooting deaths occurred there.
The Broward State Attorney's Office is cooperating with federal prosecutors, and no decision on that has yet been made, a spokesman said Saturday.
"We are here to help any way that we can. A decision will be made in the next few days about how we can help," said Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for Broward State Atty. Mike Satz.
Federal authorities say they are still investigating the motive for the attack and have not yet ruled out terrorism. They say Santiago was acting alone.
Santiago has no obvious connection to southeast Florida but has some relatives who live in the Naples area, on the southwest coast of Florida, nearly a two-hour drive away. He took a Delta flight with a connection in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Santiago cooperated during an interview, which lasted for several hours on Friday and into early Saturday morning, authorities said. He spoke with FBI agents and Broward sheriff's detectives.
An Iraqi war veteran, Santiago sought out the FBI in Anchorage in November and was hospitalized for mental health treatment after what agents said was “erratic behavior," authorities said.
Anchorage police and the FBI confirmed Saturday that Santiago went to the FBI office in Anchorage seeking help Nov. 7. He was hospitalized for a mental health evaluation and a firearm he had left in his vehicle outside the office was temporarily taken from him.
The gun, which investigators said may or may not be the one used in the mass shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, was returned to him by law enforcement on Dec. 8.
Despite reportedly being disturbed and delusional and having had incidents of reported domestic violence, Santiago was not on the government list of people prohibited from flying that was set up after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"During our initial investigation we found no ties to terrorism," said Marlin Ritzman, the agent in charge of the FBI's office in Anchorage. "He broke no laws when he came into our office making comments about mind control."
The FBI contacted the Anchorage Police Department, which transported Santiago to a mental health facility. The department took his weapon and "logged it into evidence for safekeeping," Police Chief Christopher Tolley said.
"Mr. Santiago had arrived at the FBI building asking for help," Tolley said. "Santiago was having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS,” an acronym for the Islamic State extremist group in the Middle East.
The FBI closed its assessment of Santiago after conducting database reviews and interagency checks.
"He was a walk-in complaint," Ritzman said. "This is something that happens at FBI offices around the country every day."
Suspect charged in airport shooting; could face death penalty
Federal prosecutors late Saturday filed charges against a man accused of going on a shooting rampage at a Florida airport that killed five people. The charges could bring the death penalty if he is convicted.
The Miami U.S. attorney's office accused Esteban Santiago of an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death. He was also charged with two firearms offenses.
Earlier Saturday, the FBI said Santiago flew to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport specifically to carry out the attack, but his motive remains unclear.
Federal authorities, who concluded their interview with Santiago early Saturday, said they have not ruled out terrorism in the attack Friday but believe he acted alone.
"Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific act," said George Piro, special agent in charge of the Miami office. "We have not identified any triggers that would've caused this attack." He also said it was unclear why the shooter would have picked the Florida airport for the rampage.
Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq veteran, was taken into custody only seconds after the melee ended at the baggage claim area of Terminal 2. Witnesses said the shooter reloaded at least twice, then dropped to the floor spread-eagle and waited to be arrested after running out of ammunition.
Broward County Sheriff Steve Israel on Saturday revised downward the number of people wounded in the incident from eight to six, including three people being treated in intensive care and three listed in good condition.
Piro said Santiago was cooperative during interviews with investigators and was booked on federal murder charges at the Broward County jail.
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale early Friday aboard a Delta flight that originated Thursday.
Piro said Santiago allegedly retrieved his 9mm automatic handgun that he had packed in checked luggage and opened fire on passengers around a baggage carousel. He said investigators were looking at video to get a clear picture of how the shooting unfolded and whether any other person might have helped the gunman.
"We are continuing to look at the terrorism angle as a potential motivation," Piro said. "At this point, it appears he acted alone." He added it appeared the suspect followed federal procedures in checking in the weapon before boarding his original flight.
Piro also said authorities have conducted more than 100 interviews in connection with the case and have confiscated evidence, including cellphones and laptops.
Authorities in Alaska who last year referred Santiago for mental evaluation said Saturday he was allowed to retrieve his gun in early December. Santiago could not be denied his weapon because he was not declared "adjudicated mentally ill," Alaska U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said during a press conference. Federal law prohibits the mentally ill from possessing weapons, but only if they've been formally declared adjudicated.
In November, the suspect appeared unannounced in the FBI offices in Anchorage, complaining that the Islamic State had gained control of his mind and was urging him to fight on its behalf, a federal law enforcement official not authorized to speak publicly about the incident told USA TODAY.
"His erratic behavior concerned FBI agents," Piro said.
The FBI conducted a background check, learning of his military record, which included service in Iraq, but found no connection to terror groups. Determining that the man apparently needed psychiatric care, the FBI alerted local law enforcement and turned him over to their custody for a medical referral. It is not clear whether Santiago received treatment following that incident.
Passengers and their relatives described screams and horror as shots rang out in the baggage area.
Karen Amador, 47, of Boynton Beach, Fla., said she was just arriving to pick up her father, who was flying in from Puerto Rico, when she saw two helicopters hovering over the runway.
She described seeing large numbers of law-enforcement vehicles coming in. "It's insane; it's like a war zone," Amador said. "I saw so many SWAT cars going through."
Operations resumed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Saturday morning, although some flights are canceled or delayed.
The airport reopened at 5 a.m. Saturday after being shut down for nearly 16 hours following the attack. Terminal 2, the center of the attack, remained an active crime scene early Saturday.
Authorities had not released the names of the victims as of Saturday morning.
A Delta employee reporting to work was told by a Broward County Sheriff's deputy that no one could enter the terminal and that it was not known when it would reopen. FBI agents wearing gloves evaluated the scene inside the terminal.
Airport employees said operations were running slowly Saturday morning. Many JetBlue flights were canceled, whereas the lines to check in with Allegiant Air and American Airlines snaked out the door.
According to the Fort Lauderdale Airport Twitter account, all roadways to the airport are open again for passengers and employees. People were urged to check with their airlines before going to the airport in case of delays or cancellations.
The airport is processing more than 20,000 bags and personal items from the evacuation.
Fort Lauderdale International Airport handles about 586 commercial flights daily, according to flight-tracking website Flight Aware. As of mid-morning Saturday, about a quarter of those flights — 112 — scheduled to depart from the airport had been canceled and 17 were delayed.
Gov. Rick Scott said Saturday morning that authorities would be meeting incoming cruise ships in the area and helping direct tourists to other airports to relieve congestion at Fort Lauderdale facility.