Airport Gunman Makes First Court Appearance

Esteban Santiago

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – The Iraq War veteran accused of killing five people at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last week made his first court appearance Monday, appearing to shake and take a series of deep breaths as he was told he could face the death penalty.

Esteban Santiago, 26, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle, who ordered him held until his next hearings and appointed public defenders to represent him.

Valle then set a detention hearing for Santiago on Jan. 17, followed by an arraignment for entering a plea for Jan. 23.

He is accused of opening fire in a baggage area of the airport last week, an incident that also left several people injured.

Shackled in a red prison jumpsuit, Santiago answered Valle’s questions with mostly a yes or a no, doing so in a clear voice. He said he understands the federal charges against him, including causing death with a firearm, use of a firearm in a crime, and committing violence at an international airport resulting in serious bodily injury.

During the hearing, Santiago offered the first glimpses of his life prior to his alleged horrific acts on Friday afternoon.

Saying he earned about $15,000 a year in the military, Santiago noted that his expenses included about $560 a month in rent. He said he was working for a security company, Signal 88, in Anchorage, Alaska, until November, making about $2,100 a month.

Santiago also told the judge he owns no property and has only about $10 in the bank.

As he appeared before the judge, more than a dozen officers kept watch outside the courthouse, carrying rifles and wearing bulletproof vests. There were also mounted police and K-9 units.

Santiago’s appearance followed disclosures over the weekend that he had undergone a mental health evaluation two months ago after telling an FBI agent in Alaska that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency.

Santiago walked into an Anchorage FBI office last November and displayed “erratic behavior” that prompted agents to turn him over to local law enforcement, FBI agent George Piro said in a news conference.

Santiago proclaimed during the November encounter that he was a victim of government mind control, the FBI said.

“During the interview, Mr. Santiago appeared agitated and incoherent, and made disjointed statements,” Agent Marlin Ritzman of Anchorage said in a statement.

Santiago’s newborn child was with him at the time. Law enforcement confiscated the firearm Santiago had in his vehicle.

Once the FBI turned Santiago over to local police in Alaska, he was taken to a medical facility for a psychiatric evaluation.

“There have been concerns raised about why Mr. Santiago was not placed on a no-fly list,” Ritzman said. “I want to be clear … we found no known ties to terrorism. He had broken no laws when he came into our office making disjointed comments about mind control.”

Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley claimed, however, that during the November encounter Santiago had expressed “terroristic [sic] thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS,” an abbreviation for the Islamic State terrorist group.

On Dec. 8, roughly one month later, Santiago’s gun was returned to him by the Anchorage Police Department, Tolley said.

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska said that Santiago was not adjudicated as mentally ill, and that he was consequently not prohibited from retaking possession of the gun under federal law.

Tolley said he has not received confirmation on whether the gun was the one used in the Fort Lauderdale attack, though NBC News is citing unnamed sources claiming that it was indeed the same weapon.

On the heels of the November incident, the FBI did not pursue Santiago further.

“We looked at his contacts. We did our inter-agency checks and everything, and at that point, we closed our assessment [of Santiago],” Piro said.

Santiago served in Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard from 2010 to 2011, according to a service-verification document. Following a two-year stint with the Alaska National Guard, Santiago’s status has been Inactive Ready Reserve since August 2016. The document disproves initial reports that Santiago ever served in the U.S. Army Reserve.

According to NJ.com, Santiago’s aunt claimed in an interview that  Santiago was unstable after returning from the war.

He had allegedly exhibited signs of violent behavior in January 2016, when assault and criminal mischief charges were filed against him.

According to police records, Santiago’s girlfriend said she was in the bathroom,  when Santiago broke open the door, telling her to “get the fuck out, bitch.”  The girlfriend said he strangled her and smacked the side of her head.

Santiago entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in the case. He violated the terms of a no-contact order in February 2016, when police found him at the woman’s residence, court records show.

The FBI said it is retracing Santiago’s steps in the days leading up to the Fort Lauderdale massacre.

After surrendering to the Florida police, Santiago allegedly told the FBI he planned the attack, having purchased a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Florida.

Broward Commissioner Chip LaMarca made statements that Santiago arrived on a flight from Canada, but that narrative has since been discounted.

An arrest affidavit filed Saturday describes the shooting in detail.

Upon arriving in a Fort Lauderdale terminal on January 6, the affidavit states, Santiago retrieved his Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun from his bag. Piro has indicated that Santiago appears to have legally checked the gun into his luggage.

The shooter went into a bathroom stall, loaded the gun and re-entered the baggage claim area, where he opened fire shortly before 1 p.m., aiming at victims’ heads, according to the affidavit.

Witnesses said he was walking while shooting in a methodical manner, according to the affidavit.

The attack lasted roughly a minute-and-a-half.

Santiago was approached by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, at which point he surrendered. His gun was out of ammunition, the  affidavit states.

Following the incident, thousands of people were stuck at the airport, a busy hub that handles more than 20 million passengers a year. The stranded masses were bussed out of the facility Friday night.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said that as of Saturday morning, three of the six victims directly wounded in the shooting were in good condition, while the remaining three suffered more serious injuries. The direct-injury count was revised from a Friday statement from the sheriff’s office indicating that eight were wounded in the shooting.

Sheriff Israel asserted that a national conversation “needs to happen” concerning people with mental health problems owning handguns.

“If [people] are suffering from a mental illness, or if they’re on a … no fly-list, or they’re a convicted felon, they flat-out shouldn’t be allowed to own handguns or rifles,” the sheriff said.

The FBI has not yet pinpointed Santiago’s motive.

“We are looking at all avenues. We have not ruled out terrorism, and we will be pursuing every angle to try to determine the motive behind this attack,” Piro said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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