Florida airport shooting suspect appears in federal court

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Reuters) - The 26-year-old Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at a busy Florida airport in the latest U.S. gun rampage appeared in a federal court on Monday on charges that could bring him the death penalty.
Esteban Santiago, who had a history of erratic behavior, was escorted into the courtroom near Fort Lauderdale for the brief hearing surrounded by U.S. marshals and wearing a red jail jumpsuit and shackles.

He has admitted to investigators that he planned Friday's attack at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and bought a one-way ticket from his home in Alaska to carry it out, according to a criminal complaint.

Authorities say they have not ruled out terrorism as a motive and that they are investigating whether mental illness played a role. In November, Santiago went to a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Anchorage and told agents he believed U.S. spies were controlling his mind.

Santiago spoke little during the hearing, confirming to U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle that he understood the charges, and that he is a U.S. citizen. He said he did not have his own lawyer, and he was assigned a federal public defender.

Asked about his employment, Santiago said that for the last couple of years he had worked in Anchorage for a company called Signal 88 Security, earning about $2,000 per month. He told the court he had only $5 to $10 in his bank account.

Prosecutors called for Santiago, who is being held at the Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, to be denied bail, and Valle scheduled a Jan. 17 hearing to discuss the request. Legal experts have said it is very unlikely he would be released.

"They've then got two weeks to indict him, and then they've got to go through the whole death penalty review," said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein, a partner with Miami law firm Clarke Silverglate.

Santiago could face the death penalty if convicted on charges that include carrying out violence at an airport and killing with a firearm. But it may be months before prosecutors reveal whether they will seek the death penalty.

Executions have been on hold in Florida since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty laws a year ago. The Florida Supreme Court overturned a rewritten version in October.

Six people were wounded by gunshots in the attack, and three dozen suffered minor injuries in the chaos as passengers and airport workers fled.

Authorities say Santiago arrived on a connecting flight from Alaska and retrieved a 9mm semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage before loading it in a bathroom.

He then returned to the baggage claim area and walked "while shooting in a methodical manner" 10 to 15 times, aiming at his victims' heads, according to the criminal complaint.

Information surfaced over the weekend that police in Alaska took a handgun from Santiago in November after he told FBI agents there his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency. They returned it to him about a month later after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill.

Anchorage's police chief told reporters on Saturday that Santiago reported at the time having "terroristic thoughts" and believed he was being influenced by the Islamic State militant group.

Video published by the website TMZ on Sunday showed the gunman walking calmly past the airport's luggage carousels before pulling the handgun from his waistband and shooting at victims, who fled or dived to the floor.

Santiago served from 2007 to 2016 in the Puerto Rico and Alaska national guards, including a deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, according to the Pentagon. Relatives have said he acted erratically since returning from Iraq.

The attack was the latest in a series of mass shootings in the United States. Some were inspired by Islamist militants, while others were carried out by loners or the mentally disturbed.

© REUTERS Esteban Santiago, is shown in this booking photo provided by the Broward County Sheriff's Office in Fort Lauderdale

What we know about Fort Lauderdale airport shooting suspect Esteban Santiago

Esteban Santiago, the 26-year-old Army veteran accused of killing five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, made his first appearance in federal court on Monday.

Little is known about why Santiago chose an airport 4,000 miles away from his hometown in Anchorage, Alaska, or what led him to unload two clips from his Walther 9mm semiautomatic handgun at random passengers in the baggage area of the airport.

Santiago spoke with officials from the FBI and the Broward County Sheriff's Office for several hours after Friday's shooting, but the criminal complaint filed by the FBI following that interview said only that Santiago "planned the attack" without giving any indication about his motive. Those answers could become clearer through hearings in federal court, where he could face the death penalty.

Here is what we know about Santiago so far.

Troubles at home

Santiago was born in New Jersey in 1990 and moved to Puerto Rico two years later. He spent his childhood there, went to high school and joined the Puerto Rico National Guard. According to his family, things started changing for Santiago after a nine-month tour of Iraq.

"When he came back from Iraq, he was a different person," Hernan Rivera, 70, Santiago’s uncle, told The New York Times.

Santiago then moved to Alaska where he repeatedly confronted law enforcement. From January to October of 2016, he encountered Anchorage Police at least five times.

He was arrested and charged with criminal mischief following a "physical disturbance" with his girlfriend in January and was re-arrested for violating an order to stay away from their apartment the next month. But he was not arrested following three other calls. Police said each time that they could not establish probable cause.

Mental health problems

Santiago's erratic behavior escalated in November when he walked into the FBI office in Anchorage complaining that "his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency."

FBI officials confiscated the gun he had in his car and sent him to local police, who sent him to get a mental health evaluation. He was cleared, and the FBI closed its file on him and returned his handgun.

But even neighbors sensed that something was changing with Santiago. Many Alaskans already suffer from seasonal affective disorders due to the limited sunlight that reaches the northern state.

"Or it could be (post-traumatic stress disorder) combined with alcohol," Anchorage neighbor Brittany Adams said. "We see way too much of that up here."

Shooting spree

Just before 1 p.m. on Friday, the FBI says Santiago retrieved his checked baggage at the Fort Lauderdale airport after flying from Alaska with a connection in Minneapolis.

He then went into a bathroom and loaded his gun inside a bathroom stall. George Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami division, said he appeared to follow the correct protocol established by the Transportation Security Administration to travel with his gun.

Surveillance video shows Santiago calmly walking through the baggage claim area, pulling the handgun out of his waistband and opening fire on nearby passengers. The FBI says he then emptied one clip, reloaded, kept firing, walked outside the terminal for a moment and re-entered the baggage claim area before dropping the gun and lying down spread eagle.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said he was arrested "without incident" and taken to the Broward County Jail for questioning.

Esteban Santiago, Fort Lauderdale airport shooting suspect, makes first court appearance, is denied bond

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida - The Iraq war veteran accused of fatally shooting five people and wounding six at a crowded Florida airport baggage claim briefly appeared in federal court Monday in Fort Lauderdale.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle explained the charges 26-year-old Esteban Santiago faces and told him the death penalty could apply during a 15-minute hearing Monday morning.

Valle ordered Santiago to be temporarily detained without bond. A detention hearing has been scheduled for next week.

Security was tight outside the courthouse with more than two-dozen officers in bulletproof vests. Santiago wore a red jumpsuit and was shackled at the wrists, stomach and legs.

Santiago has been in custody since the Friday afternoon shooting. He answered the judge’s questions in a clear voice. He told the judge he worked for a security firm in Anchorage, Alaska, until November. He said he only has about $5 to $10 in the bank.

Given his finances, the judge decided he’s eligible for government lawyers at taxpayer expense.

The judge set a detention hearing for Jan. 17 and an arraignment hearing on Jan. 23.

In a press release about Santiago’s charges, the Department of Justice said Santiago is accused of being in the Terminal 2 baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“The area was crowded with newly-arrived passengers retrieving their luggage,” the press release stated. “Santiago started shooting, aiming at his victims’ heads until he was out of ammunition.”

Santiago was arrested after running out of ammunition and lying spread-eagle on the floor until a deputy took him in to custody, his 9mm handgun nearby.  

Although the charges carry a potential death sentence, the Justice Department will decide later whether to pursue that penalty assuming Santiago is convicted. Many other issues can come into play, such as whether he decides to plead guilty or go to trial. Guilty pleas usually do not result in death sentences. The airport violence charge allows a sentencing judge wide latitude in deciding how many years behind bars he might serve, all the way up to life in prison, if the death penalty is off the table.  

Santiago’s attorney can ask for a mental competency evaluation to determine if he is fit to stand trial. It’s a fairly high standard for any defendant to escape criminal charges because of mental problems because many defendants understand the difference between right and wrong. The main issue for the court is whether a defendant is too impaired to assist in his own defense. Most defendants who go this route are ultimately judged fit for trial and the mental health issue becomes a major factor at sentencing.  

Santiago, 26, apparently had trouble controlling his anger after serving in Iraq and told his brother that he felt he was being chased and controlled by the CIA through secret online messages. When he told agents at an FBI field office his paranoid thoughts in November, he was evaluated for four days, then released without any follow-up medication or therapy.

“The FBI failed there,” Bryan Santiago told The Associated Press. “We’re not talking about someone who emerged from anonymity to do something like this.”

Speaking in Spanish outside his family’s house in Penuelas, the brother said: “The federal government already knew about this for months, they had been evaluating him for a while, but they didn’t do anything.”

A law enforcement source said when Santiago -- who had been living in Anchorage, Alaska -- walked into the FBI office in November, he had a handgun in his possession, CBS News senior investigative producer Pat Milton reports. It is not known if the handgun was the 9mm handgun that authorities said Santiago used in the Florida attack on Friday.

The weapon had been taken away when he entered the FBI reception area and was held while he was interviewed by the FBI, Milton reports. When the Anchorage Police Department transported Santiago to the hospital, they took possession of the weapon. The law enforcement source said that apparently the police department returned the weapon to Santiago after he received a medical evaluation.

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