FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) - The Iraq War veteran charged with killing five elderly visitors to a South Florida airport last year pleaded guilty today to multiple federal counts as part of a long-anticipated deal with prosecutors.
During a Wednesday hearing in Miami federal court, Esteban Santiago Ruiz pleaded guilty to eleven counts of inflicting violence at an international airport in connection with the Ft. Lauderdale massacre.
Santiago traveled from his home state of Alaska to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Jan. 2017, and upon his arrival, retrieved a legally checked pistol from a gun case. He fired at travelers in a baggage claim area, aiming at their heads until he ran out of ammunition, after which point he surrendered to police.
Under the plea deal, Santiago will receive a life sentence on each of the five counts for the deaths of Mary Louise Amzibel, 69, Michael John Oehme, 56, Olga Woltering, 84, Shirley Wells Timmons, 70, and Terry Michael Andres, 62.
He is set to receive another 120 years on counts arising from the six surviving victims. Among other severe injuries, one of the survivors lost an eye and had to have part of his skull excised due to a gunshot wound to the head. Another survivor required reconstructive surgery on his jaw and sinuses.
As restitution for the victims, the plea agreement requires Santiago to forfeit any money he may collect from documentary or book deals, along with proceeds from the sale of any artwork, "artifact or memorabilia."
The court allowed Santiago to execute the plea agreement after a mental competency evaluation earlier this month found that he was able to understand the terms of the deal. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom had noted that the competency evaluation was necessary because Santiago's behavior and sealed medical records submitted to the court raised a "bona fide doubt regarding [his] competence."
Santiago was briefly committed to an Alaska healthcare facility for psychiatric treatment in Nov. 2016, a few months before carrying out the attack. Police placed him under mental health treatment after he visited an Anchorage FBI office with his infant son, professing that he was being subjected to government mind control, the FBI revealed. He also expressed that he was having "terroristic [sic] thoughts," according to a post-shooting statement by an Anchorage police chief.
Santiago's Walther 9mm pistol was confiscated from him when he was committed to the mental health facility, but once he was released, Anchorage police returned the gun to him, roughly a month before he used it in the airport massacre. Alaska's then-Attorney General ultimately stated that the police's decision to return the gun was justified since Santiago was not adjudicated as mentally ill.
A stipulation of facts filed by Florida prosecutors alongside the plea deal included new allegations that Santiago had engaged in significant planning in the days leading up to the massacre.
He bought his gun case on Dec. 29, 2016 at a sporting goods store in Alaska, and in early Jan. 2017 threw out personal documents and clothing, which were recovered by law enforcement from a dumpster outside the motel where he had been staying, prosecutors said. One piece of paper "appeared to be a checklist, which included a notation to 'clean' [his] laptop," prosecutors said. Allegedly, he also reviewed a map of Los Angeles International Airport, though that airport ultimately was not included in his travel plans.
On Jan. 5, 2017, prosecutors said, Santiago bought a blank hard drive, installed it in his laptop and threw out the laptop's existing hard drive before starting his trek to Florida that day.
Courthouse News reached out to the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami to clear the record on why Santiago chose Ft. Lauderdale as his target, and what was gleaned from the search of his personal effects and electronic devices.
"The U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners cannot comment on this case, beyond what is in the court (public) record," the office said via email.
Santiago was prescribed anti-psychotic medications including Haldol as the criminal case proceeded. In the latest filings, however, federal prosecutors maintain that "Santiago is able to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him."
"At the time of the offenses charged in the Indictment, [he] was able to appreciate the nature and quality and the wrongfulness of his acts," prosecutors say.
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