Florida airport shooting suspect had mental health issues – relatives

Esteban Santiago (26) apparently chose to travel to Florida to carry out rampage

Officials say 26-year-old Iraq war veteran, Esteban Santiago, is suspected of fatally shooting at least five people and wounding eight at a baggage carousel at Fort Lauderdale's international airport.


The Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at Fort Lauderdale airport apparently chose to travel to Florida to carry out the rampage, and there are no signs any altercation triggered the attack, authorities said on Saturday.

The 26-year-old suspect, Esteban Santiago, had a history of acting erratically and investigators are probing whether mental illness played a role in America’s latest mass shooting.

He co-operated with investigators during an interview that lasted several hours overnight, George Piro, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) office in Miami, said on Saturday. “Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack,” Mr Piro told reporters at the airport.

“We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this.” Mr Piro said terrorism has not been ruled out as a motive and that the suspect’s recent travel is being reviewed. He stressed it was still very early in the investigation. Federal charges against Santiago are due to be announced later on Saturday.

Killed and wounded

Five people were killed and six wounded in the attack, while some three dozen were taken to local hospitals with bruises or broken bones suffered in the chaos as passengers fled Friday’s rampage in the crowded baggage claim area. Authorities say Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale on a connecting flight from Alaska, and that he retrieved a 9mm semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage before loading it in a bathroom and then shooting indiscriminately. Witnesses said the gunman, who was wearing a blue “Star Wars” T-shirt, said nothing as he fired, and that he surrendered to police only after running out of ammunition.

Broward county sheriff Scott Israel told the news conference it took the first deputy about 70 to 80 seconds to contact the suspect after the first shots rang out.

Mental helath problems

Santiago’s relatives said on Saturday that he had a history of mental health problems — some of which followed his military service in Iraq — and was receiving psychological treatment at his home in Alaska,

“Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn’t feeling too good,” his uncle, Hernan Rivera, told The Record newspaper.

Santiago deployed in 2010 as part of the Puerto Rico National Guard, spending a year with an engineering battalion, according to Guard spokesman Major Paul Dahlen.

In recent years, Santiago — a new father, his family said — had been living in Anchorage, Alaska, his brother, Bryan Santiago, told the Associated Press from Puerto Rico.

Bryan Santiago said his brother’s girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his treatment.

‘Government was controlling his mind’

In November, Esteban told FBI agents in Alaska that the government was controlling his mind and was forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos, a law enforcement official said.

The FBI agents notified the police after the interview with Esteban Santiago, who took him in for a mental health evaluation.

Bryan Santiago said his brother never spoke to him directly about his medical issues.

“We have not talked for the past three weeks,” Bryan Santiago said. “That’s a bit unusual ... I’m in shock. He was a serious person ... He was a normal person.”

Esteban Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was two, his brother said. He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the Guard in 2007.

Former neighbour Ursula Candelario recalled seeing Esteban Santiago grow up and said people used to salute him after he joined the Guard.

“He was very peaceful, very educated, very serious,” she said. “We’re in shock. I couldn’t believe it,” said Ms Candelario.

While in Iraq, Santiago cleared roads of improvised explosive devices and at least two members of his company were killed, spokeswoman Lt Col Candis Olmstead told The New York Times. He was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation.

Return from Iraq

Since returning from Iraq, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Anchorage, Lt Col Olmstead told the AP.

He was serving as a combat engineer in the Guard before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance”, said Lt Col Olmstead. She would not elaborate on his discharge, but the Pentagon said he went Awol several times and was demoted and discharged.

He had had some successes during his military career, being awarded a number of medals and commendations including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

His uncle and aunt in New Jersey were trying to make sense of what they were hearing about Santiago after his arrest at the Fort Lauderdale airport. FBI agents arrived at their house to question them, and reporters swarmed around.

Maria Ruiz told The Record that her nephew had recently become a father to a son and was struggling.

“It was like he lost his mind,” she said in Spanish of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”

Domestic violence

Santiago was charged in a domestic violence case in January 2016, damaging a door when he forced his way into a bathroom at his girlfriend’s Anchorage home. The woman told officers he yelled at her to leave, choked her and smacked her on the side of the head, according to charging documents.

A month later municipal prosecutors said he violated the conditions of his release when officers found him at her home during a routine check.