Five people were killed and eight were wounded in the shooting at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport on Friday. Thousands of travellers and others at the busy airport were kept on lockdown for more than six hours — some reliving their fears through false reports of a second shooting; others stuck on planes, or in their cars awaiting word from loved ones; and many just amassed at the tarmac hoping for a green light to head home.
In recent years, Santiago — a new dad, family said — had been living in Anchorage, Alaska, his brother, Bryan Santiago, told The Associated Press from Puerto Rico. Bryan Santiago said his brother’s girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his treatment.
In November, Esteban Santiago told FBI agents in Alaska that the government was controlling his mind and was forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos, a law enforcement official said. The official was not authorised to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke Friday on condition of anonymity.
The FBI agents notified the police after the interview with Esteban Santiago, who took him in for a mental health evaluation.
Bryan Santiago said his brother never spoke to him directly about his medical issues.
“We have not talked for the past three weeks,” Bryan Santiago said. “That’s a bit unusual … I’m in shock. He was a serious person … He was a normal person.”
Esteban Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2, his brother said. He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the Guard in 2007.
Since returning from Iraq, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Anchorage. He was serving as a combat engineer in the Guard before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance,” said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman. His military rank upon discharge was E3, private 1st class, and he worked one weekend a month with an additional 15 days of training yearly, Olmstead said.
She would not elaborate on his discharge, but the Pentagon said he went AWOL several times and was demoted and discharged.
Still, he’d had some successes during his military career, being awarded a number of medals and commendations including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
His uncle and aunt in New Jersey were trying to make sense of what they were hearing about Santiago after his arrest at the Fort Lauderdale airport. FBI agents arrived at their house to question them, and reporters swarmed around.
Maria Ruiz told The Record that her nephew had recently become a father to a son and was struggling.
“It was like he lost his mind,” she said in Spanish of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”
Santiago was flying from Anchorage on a Delta flight and had checked only one piece of luggage, which contained the gun.
Santiago was charged in a domestic violence case in January 2016, damaging a door when he forced his way into a bathroom at his girlfriend’s Anchorage home. The woman told officers he yelled at her to leave, choked her and smacked her on the side of the head, according to charging documents.
A month later municipal prosecutors said he violated the conditions of his release when officers found him at her home during a routine check. He told police he had lived there since he was released from custody the previous month. His Anchorage attorney, Max Holmquist, declined to discuss his client.
Law enforcement officers were at the girlfriend’s home Friday afternoon, and officers guarding the property outside told a reporter who approached the home to step away.
Latest findings show that Police in Alaska took a handgun from the man accused of killing five people at Fort Lauderdale’s airport on Friday, but they returned it to him last month after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill, authorities said on Saturday.
Esteban Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran, had a history of acting erratically and investigators are probing whether mental illness played a role in the latest U.S. mass shooting. According to court papers, he told agents he planned the attack and bought a one-way ticket to Florida.
Santiago was charged on Saturday in federal court and could potentially face the death penalty if convicted in the case, U.S. prosecutors said.
Marlin Ritzman, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Anchorage, told a news conference Santiago walked into the office in November and said his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency. He was turned over to local police, who took him to a medical facility for a mental evaluation.
“Santiago was having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS (the Islamic State militant group,)” Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley told the news conference.
A handgun police took from Santiago during the evaluation was returned to him early last month, Tolley told reporters. The police chief said it was not clear if it was the same weapon used on Friday.
Officials in Anchorage said the gun was returned because Santiago had not been adjudicated to be mentally ill.
“As far as I know, this is not somebody that would have been prohibited (from having a gun) based on the information they had,” U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler told the news conference.
Investigators said they have not ruled out terrorism as a motive and that the suspect’s recent travel is being reviewed.
Federal prosecutors charged Santiago with carrying out violence at an airport, causing serious bodily injury, using a firearm during a crime of violence and causing death to a person through the use of a firearm, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement.
He will appear in court in Fort Lauderdale on Monday.
Five people were killed and six wounded in the rampage, while about three dozen were taken to local hospitals with bruises or broken bones suffered in the chaos as passengers fled the crowded baggage claim area.
Authorities say Santiago arrived in Ft. Lauderdale on a connecting flight from Alaska and retrieved a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage before loading it in a bathroom and shooting indiscriminately.
According to the criminal complaint, Santiago fired the weapon 10 to 15 times, aiming it at his victims’ heads.
“He was described as walking while shooting in a methodical manner,” the complaint said.
Witnesses said the gunman, who was wearing a blue “Star Wars” T-shirt, said nothing as he fired and surrendered to police only after running out of ammunition.
The Broward County sheriff has said it took the first deputy about 70 to 80 seconds to contact the suspect after the first shots rang out and that when the deputy confronted him, he dropped the gun and was taken into custody.
Authorities said three of the six victims who suffered gunshot wounds are in intensive care. The others are in good condition. Those killed included a volunteer firefighter in his sixties and a retiree on holiday with her husband.
Santiago served from 2007 to 2016 in the Puerto Rico National Guard and Alaska National Guard, including a deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, according to the Pentagon.
A private first class and combat engineer, he received half a dozen medals before being transferred to the inactive ready reserve in August last year.
An aunt said Santiago returned from his deployment “a different person,” MSNBC reported.
Santiago’s brother Bryan, who lives in Puerto Rico, told CNN he believed authorities did not do enough to help his mentally ill sibling.
“They had him hospitalised for four days, and then they let him go. How are you going to let someone leave a psychological center after four days when he is saying that he is hearing voices?” Bryan Santiago told CNN.
The attack was the latest in a series of U.S. mass shootings, some inspired by Islamist militants, others carried out by loners or the mentally disturbed.
Florida Governor called Trump, not Obama, after the shooting.