While investigators explore the background of Esteban Santiago, the man accused of killing five people last week in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., international airport, he appeared in court Monday for his first appearance on federal charges.
Santiago was ordered held without bond until a detention hearing can be held next week, officials said.
The FBI says that Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran who had previously said he thought the government was trying to control his mind, flew from Alaska to Florida specifically to carry out the shooting. According to the FBI, Santiago’s only checked baggage for the flight was a box with three items: a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun and two magazines.
After a stop in Minneapolis, Santiagio flew to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, a bustling, palm-tree-lined hub just minutes from the beach. Santiago then claimed his luggage, took it into a bathroom and loaded the gun before he emerged “and shot the first people he encountered,” according to an FBI affidavit filed with the criminal complaint.
Santiago told investigators that he emptied both magazines, firing about 15 rounds, wounding six people in addition to the five who were slain around the baggage claim area in the airport’s Terminal 2, authorities said. Police said that dozens of people were also hurt in the chaos that followed at the airport, which was shut down amid a sprawling law enforcement response to reports of a potential second shooter in another terminal. (Authorities ultimately said there was no other shooter.)
When Santiago was approached by a Broward County sheriff’s deputy about 80 seconds after the gunfire began, Santiago dropped his now-emptied gun to the ground and surrendered to police, the FBI said.
Officials have not publicly identified the victims killed in the shooting, but at least four of the five have been named through media reports, which described some of them as vacationers from other states heading to Florida to take cruises.
Santiago is facing three counts so far and could potentially face the death penalty if he is ultimately convicted, though a decision on whether to seek such a sentence would be made at a later date. His initial appearance before a judge on Monday morning took place in a federal courtroom in Fort Lauderdale, just miles from the airport.
Shackled and wearing a red jumpsuit, Santiago answered “yes” to questions in court about whether he understood the charges, showing a strained self-composure when he addressed the judge.
“We’re telling you the maximum penalty under the law so you understand the seriousness of the charges filed against you,” federal magistrate Alicia O. Valle told Santiago.
After asking questions about Santiago’s finances, the judge determined Santiago was eligible for a public defender. Santiago, who said he has roughly $5 to $10 in a bank account and said he was last employed in November, was appointed Robert Berube, who declined to comment after the hearing.
Santiago told the judge he had worked for three years as a security guard at a company named Signal 88 in Anchorage Alaska, earning $2,100 a month. Before that, he had served in the military, earning $15,000 annually, he told the judge.
When he entered the courtroom, flanked by U.S. Marshal agents and entering the glare of waiting media, Santiago appeared frail and fidgeted on the bench, his body shaking slightly. Shortly after the hearing began, he leaned forward toward the floor, prompting the judge to interrupt the proceedings and ask if Santiago was able to understand her.
Rick Del Toro, a federal prosecutor, asked that Santiago be detained without bond pending trial due to the danger he poses to the community and the risk of flight. A detention hearing was scheduled for next week and an arraignment for the week after.
Santiago’s court appearance came as the FBI has conducted an investigation in multiple states to look into his life and a potential motivation for the shooting. Authorities have not publicly identified a motive, saying that terrorism was still a possibility.
“We have not ruled out anything,” George L. Piro, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Miami division, said during a weekend briefing. “We continue to look at all avenues, all motives for this attack. And we continue to look at the terrorism aspect as a motive.”
The bureau had encountered Santiago during an unusual encounter in an FBI field office in Anchorage last November. Officials said Santiago walked into the office to tell agents that the government was trying to control his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State videos.
Piro said that the agents, concerned about Santiago’s “erratic behavior,” contacted local police, who took him to a medical facility for a mental health evaluation. Police held Santiago’s gun for a month before giving it back. Santiago flew to Florida about a month later.
After conducting reviews, checking with other agencies and interviewing Santiago’s relatives, the FBI closed its assessment of Santiago. Iraq war vet, who had also drawn police attention for domestic violence in his Alaska hometown, had been arrested and twice within the last year.
These encounters with law enforcement make the Fort Lauderdale shooting the fourth time since 2013 that someone who had scrutinized by the FBI then carried out an attack of some kind, and the second such incident in Florida in less than a year.
Last year, the FBI said it had investigated the man who killed the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando; agents had also looked into people who would ultimately carry out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and who helped plot a 2015 attack on a Texas contest encouraging participants to draw the prophet Muhammad.
Santiago’s run-ins with law enforcement have also raised questions about how a man who had come to the attention of both the FBI and local police was able to book a one-way ticket, check only a gun and travel without any issue.
Travelers are allowed to bring guns with them to flights, as long as the guns are unloaded, locked in a hard-sided container and packed into checked baggage, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Ammunition can generally be placed in checked baggage, but it is prohibited in carry-on luggage, and some airlines do not allow any ammo to be transported. Passengers are also required to tell airline employees at the ticket counter that they have a weapon in their checked bag.
On a local radio interview Monday, Democratic congresswoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz, whose jurisdiction includes the airport, told WLRN radio she planned to focus on raising questions about changing security at airports regarding allowing people to travel with guns. But she would likely face resistance from state lawmakers who want to expand Florida’s gun laws. Recently, State Senator Greg Steube, R, introduced a bill that would allow concealed handguns in venues including college campuses, local government meetings and airport passenger terminals. Since the shooting, Steube has defended the bill, telling the Miami New Times that potential terrorists seek out “gun-free zones.”
Since the shooting, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has urged a change in the system that allowed Santiago to have his gun returned to him. On a local television panel, Israel said, “People who are suffering from mental illness should not be allowed. . .to purchase or have firearms at any time.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Mark Berman, Tal Abbady