Florida gunman had been ‘unravelling’ over past year

Initial investigation suggests airport attacker acted alone and had no terrorist connections


Signs of Esteban Santiago’s unravelling had mounted over the past year. But it was not until early November, when he walked into an FBI office carrying an ammunition clip – leaving a pistol and his infant child in his car – to complain about a CIA plot against him, that his behaviour became disturbing enough to earn him a short stay in a hospital psychiatric unit.

In the months before that, police were called repeatedly to his home about domestic disturbances, and the National Guard kicked him out because of “unsatisfactory performance” after nearly a decade of service. Santiago, an Iraq War veteran, increasingly spoke to relatives and associates about voices in his head that were tormenting him.

Then, a little before 1 pm on Friday, Santiago, 26, turned up, far from his Alaska home, in Terminal 2 of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. There, law enforcement officials said, he retrieved his checked luggage, pulled a 9-millimetre handgun out of his suitcase and used it to kill five people and wound six others, setting off a panic that shut down the airport.

After running out of ammunition, he lay spread-eagled on the floor, waiting quietly to be arrested, witnesses said. Late Saturday afternoon, the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida announced that Santiago had been arrested and charged on a federal criminal complaint “in connection with the deadly shooting of multiple victims at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport”. His first court appearance was scheduled for Monday morning before a federal magistrate in Fort Lauderdale.

Hearing voices

Law enforcement officials said they had not determined a motive or cause for the attack. And while they said they could not exclude the possibility of terrorism, the initial investigation suggested that Santiago had acted alone and that there was no evidence that he had terrorist ties.

“It’s way too early for us to really rule out anything,” George Piro, the agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami office, said at a news conference on Saturday. But family members said they had a pretty good idea of what led to the attack. “He said he heard certain voices, that the US government wanted to enrol him in certain groups for Isis, and he was very paranoid,” Bryan Santiago Ruiz, an older brother, said in an interview on Saturday in Penuelas, the small town in Puerto Rico where they grew up.

Esteban Santiago lived in Anchorage, and Bryan Santiago said he had visited him there, most recently staying with him from August through October. “He said that the CIA controlled him through secret messages over the internet and told him the things he had to do,” he recalled. It was on November 7th that Esteban Santiago went to the FBI office in Anchorage “to report that his mind was being controlled by US intelligence agencies,” Marlin Ritzman, the agent in charge of the office, said on Saturday. “During the interview, Mr Santiago appeared agitated, incoherent and made disjointed statements.”

Elaborating, a senior law enforcement official said Santiago had claimed that the CIA put terrorist propaganda on his computer. FBI agents called the local police, who took him to a psychiatric facility. “Santiago was having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by Isis,” said Christopher Tolley, Anchorage police chief, referring to Islamic State.

When Santiago went into the FBI office, he left a pistol and his newborn son in his vehicle, Mr Tolley said, and he had an ammunition clip in his pocket. The senior law enforcement official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the case publicly, said the gun was the same weapon used in Friday’s airport shooting. Police confiscated the gun but returned it to him in December, Mr Tolley said.

Bryan Santiago said his brother was held at the hospital for just a few days before being released and, as far as he knew, did not have any follow-up treatment, such as medication or therapy.

Airport reopened

The Fort Lauderdale airport reopened on Saturday, as the FBI led an investigation that sprawled across the country and airport officials tried to reunite people with what they said were 20,000 items that had been recovered from the terminal, left behind by passengers and airport workers fleeing for their lives.

Esteban Santiago was born in New Jersey but was raised in Puerto Rico, where he joined the Puerto Rico National Guard in 2007 before he finished high school. A classmate said he had always wanted to be a soldier. In 2010, Santiago was deployed to Iraq for nine months, working with the 130th Engineer Battalion clearing roads of improvised explosives and maintaining bridges, according to the Alaska Army National Guard. His company was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation.

Guard officials said at least two members of the company were killed in insurgent attacks during the tour, but there is no record indicating Santiago was ever involved in combat. But family members said Santiago was never quite the same after his return. “After Iraq, something happened,” Hernan Rivera, 70, Santiago’s uncle, said on Saturday afternoon as he stood in his driveway in Union City, New Jersey. “When he came back from Iraq, he was a different person.”

Despite the disturbing nature of the episode with the FBI in November, it did not land Santiago on any law enforcement watch lists or on the federal government’s “no-fly” list. Neither did it impede his right to possess a gun. At a news conference in Anchorage on Saturday, officials with the FBI and local law enforcement said that although Santiago was clearly incoherent during his encounter with FBI agents, he was not deemed to be threatening.

On Thursday night, Santiago boarded a flight in Anchorage. He changed planes in Minneapolis on Friday morning, and flew into Fort Lauderdale. Law enforcement officials said he had a semi-automatic handgun in his checked suitcase and he followed all legal procedures for transporting the weapon. He went into a terminal restroom, took out the gun and loaded it, then returned to the baggage claim area and started shooting, officials said.

He apparently acted alone, the FBI’s George Piro said on Saturday, and “the early indication is that there was no specific reason that he chose Fort Lauderdale International Airport, but we’re still pursuing that and trying to really determine why he came here.

Piro said the suspect did cooperate with the interview team, which he described as a joint effort by the FBI and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. “The interview went over several hours and concluded sometime this morning.”

While people who knew Santiago recently saw anger, instability and paranoia, those who knew him earlier in his life had known someone very different. Relatives and acquaintances in Puerto Rico remembered him as being quiet and shy – so reserved that in his hometown, Penuelas, on the island’s south-west coast, few people knew anything about him.

- (New York Times Service)