Airport shooting suspect appears in federal court

Motive a mystery for lone gunman in airport attack, FBI says

Special Agent in Charge George Piro said that investigators have found “no specific reason” why that the gunman chose Fort Lauderdale. Agents have not identified any “triggers” that spurred the attack.
Up Next
Special Agent in Charge George Piro said that investigators have found “no specific reason” why that the gunman chose Fort Lauderdale. Agents have not identified any “triggers” that spurred the attack.

Esteban Santiago, the 26-year-old military veteran charged with killing and injuring nearly a dozen travelers with a handgun at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, was ordered detained before trial on Monday by a federal magistrate judge.

Judge Alicia Valle also assigned a federal public defender to represent Santiago, a New Jersey native raised in Puerto Rico, after determining he was unable to pay for his own lawyer. His arraignment, when forcmal charges will be presented, was set for Jan. 23.

Santiago, who sat through the 20-minute hearing in Fort Lauderdale federal court in a sheriff-issued red jumpsuit, may be transferred from the Broward Sheriff's Office jail to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami.

Santiago, who served with the Army in the Iraq War, faces a possible death penalty or life imprisonment on the charges of killing five people and injuring six others with his semiautomatic weapon on Friday in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2 at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

“We’re telling you the maximum penalty under the law so you understand the seriousness of the charges filed against you,” Valle told Santiago on Monday in court.

Prosecutor Rick Del Toro said he is seeking detention based on Santiago’s danger to the community and risk of flight. A detention hearing is set for next week.

In the weeks and months leading up to Friday's deadly shooting, Santiago had shown signs of mental health problems and been involved in domestic disputes with his girlfriend in Alaska, where he had moved in 2014.

Santiago also told the FBI in Alaska two months ago that he was hearing voices urging him to join an Islamic terrorist group, but federal agents scouring his social media postings have found no evidence linking his deadly rampage to terrorism.

Special Agent in Charge George Piro said that investigators have found “no specific reason” why that the gunman chose Fort Lauderdale. Agents have not identified any “triggers” that spurred the attack.

Law enforcement sources said that since the the airport shooting, agents have discovered no information on Facebook and other online sites to suggest Santiago was radicalized by the Islamic State or any other terrorist organization. They have not found any extreme militant propaganda downloaded onto or posted to his social media sites that may have driven him to carry out the airport attack, according to sources.

Instead, a profile has emerged of a mentally disturbed man who boarded a plane on a one-way Delta ticket from Anchorage via Minneapolis to Fort Lauderdale to take deadly aim at fellow travelers in the baggage claim area. Investigators have no idea why he chose Fort Lauderdale as his target.

So far, Santiago seems to differ significantly from the “lone wolf” portrait of Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter who was beset with his own volatile mix of mental and personal issues. Mateen, a 29-year-old Fort Pierce security guard, was apparently self-radicalized. He proclaimed an affinity for Islamic extremists in June while he killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the nation’s worst mass shooting.

But Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who is working with the FBI on the airport shooting, pointed to mental health problems rather than to any terrorist connection in evaluating what set off Santiago.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel talks with the media outside of Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Jan. 6, 2017.

“Something has to change,” Israel said Sunday on Channel 10 News’ “This Week in South Florida.” “People who are suffering from mental illness should not be allowed, in my opinion, to purchase or have firearms at any time.”

Santiago was charged on Saturday with the killings. The Army veteran, who investigators say planned and carried out the attack on his own, faces a potential death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted.

In the airport shooting, Santiago used a handgun that he retrieved from Anchorage police last month. Officers confiscated it in November while he underwent a psychiatric evaluation. The FBI had referred Santiago to Anchorage authorities after he told them he was being pressured by the CIA to join the Islamic State militant organization and watch training videos.

Santiago was taken to Providence Alaska Medical Center for a psychiatric evaluation, then transferred to the state-operated Alaska Psychiatric Institute. He was treated for a few days but received no follow-up therapy or medication, according to a family member.

Despite the alarming nature of his statements to the FBI, Santiago was not placed on any law enforcement watch lists or on the federal “no-fly” list.

On Sunday, TMZ released video footage that the website says shows the initial seconds of the airport shooting. The 20-second recording posted onto TMZ’s website shows a man walking calmly through the Terminal 2 baggage claim as he pulls a handgun from his waistband, starts firing and then runs, while frightened travelers duck for cover.

After running out of ammunition, Santiago dropped his firearm and surrendered to BSO deputies, though that image is not in the TMZ video.

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said Sunday that BSO and the airport’s security team are investigating who leaked the video, which is a cell phone recording of airport surveillance footage.

“Only a select number of people had access to this video,” Sharief told the Miami Herald. “What’s troubling about this video being out there is we don’t want copycats.”

The shooting turned the Fort Lauderdale airport into a massive crime scene, leaving thousands of travelers stranded for hours as squads of BSO deputies, FBI agents and other law enforcement officers searched the facility. The violence reached far beyond South Florida to other parts of the country where the shooting victims had started their travels.

By Sunday afternoon, four of the five dead had been identified by family and friends, along with two who were seriously injured. Law enforcement officials have not publicly named any of the victims.

All four had arrived in Fort Lauderdale on their way to cruise vacations.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram