FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – The Iraq war veteran accused of murdering five people at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport earlier this month stood hunched over a courtroom lectern Monday morning before entering an initial plea of not guilty to 22 federal counts.
Esteban Santiago Ruiz, shackled and wearing a red prison jumpsuit, appeared at his arraignment Monday in federal court and pleaded not guilty to a slew of charges arising from the Jan. 6 airport massacre.
Santiago’s attorney Eric Cohen offered to waive a formal reading of the indictment, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer insisted on reciting it, along with the names of those who Santiago allegedly murdered: Mary Louise Amzibel, Michael Oehme, Olga Woltering, Shirley Timmons and Terry Andres.
Judge Seltzer read aloud the charges one-by-one for the better part of a half-hour, while Santiago leaned over the indictment, appearing to examine it alongside Cohen.
According to prosecutors, upon arriving on a flight to Florida on Jan. 6, Santiago retrieved a Walther 9mm pistol from his checked bag and began gunning people down in a baggage claim area. He aimed at victims’ heads and kept shooting until he was out of ammunition, prosecutors allege.
Five people died and six others were seriously injured.
During the arraignment, Judge Seltzer reminded Santiago that he was facing the death penalty and asked him if he understood the charges against him, to which Santiago replied, “Yes.”
After the not-guilty plea was submitted, the largely expressionless Santiago shook Cohen’s hand and was removed from the courtroom.
Santiago, a military veteran who served in Iraq and was a member of the National Guard, allegedly admitted to the FBI that he had planned the attack, having purchased a one-way ticket to Florida from Alaska, his state of residence.
An FBI agent testified during a bond hearing that Santiago claimed he had been inspired by websites associated with the Islamic State terrorist group, according to an Associated Press report.
Months before the attack, in Nov. 2016, Santiago had come onto the FBI’s radar when he walked into an agency office in Anchorage and displayed “erratic behavior,” professing to be a victim of government mind control, the bureau said.
He also expressed that he was having “terroristic [sic] thoughts” and believed he was being influenced by the Islamic State, according to Anchorage’s police chief.
Following the November encounter with the FBI, Santiago was turned over to local law enforcement. His gun, reportedly the same gun that he would later use in the Florida airport attack, was confiscated. He was then treated at a mental health facility but was released shortly thereafter with no further action from the FBI.
He was able to reclaim his gun from the Anchorage Police Department because he was not adjudicated as mentally ill, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska said.
Santiago’s attorneys did not comment on whether they plan on using his purported history of psychiatric issues as a defense in the criminal case.
Under current federal standards, if a defendant is to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, the defense must prove through “clear and convincing evidence” that the perpetrator was “unable to appreciate the nature and quality of the wrongfulness of his acts” due to a severe mental disease or mental defect at the time the acts were committed.
The indictment maintains that Santiago “intentionally and specifically engaged in an act of violence,” and that he carried out “substantial planning and premeditation.”
The attack was executed “willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation and malice aforethought,” counts 12 through 16 read.