The gunman who opened fire on Fort Lauderdale airport travelers, leaving a trail of questions about his motive for killing five people and injuring six others, told FBI agents after the violent rampage that he had been under “government mind control” and “hearing voices,” authorities said Tuesday at a federal court hearing.
Esteban Santiago also told agents that he had been “participating in jihadi chat rooms online” about planning the deadly attack carried out at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6, prosecutor Rick Del Toro said during the defendant’s detention hearing.
FBI special agent Michael Ferlazzo, who interviewed Santiago, testified that the accused shooter said he had been “in contact with like-minded individuals on the Dark Web ... planning attacks.”
But according to federal sources, investigators have found no evidence so far on Santiago’s computer, smart phone or elsewhere to support his confession-like statements to FBI agents and Broward sheriff’s deputies in the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting. Nor have they found any terror-related explanation for the attack from interviewing relatives and other witnesses, sources told the Miami Herald.
Del Toro, in arguing for Santiago’s detention before trial, said the military veteran who had “admitted all of the facts of the terrible events” is a danger to the community and a flight risk.
Santiago’s assistant public defender, Robert Berube, who questioned the FBI agent on the witness stand, agreed to his client’s detention before trial.
Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow issued the detention order, saying “much of the danger to the community is on camera” — a reference to airport video footage that captured the deadly assault.
Santiago, 26, who was born in New Jersey and raised in Puerto Rico, is set to be indicted on murder charges before his arraignment on Jan. 30. Prosecutors could file a notice seeking the death penalty along with the indictment, the first step toward a decision ultimately to be made by the U.S. attorney general.
Since the deadly rampage, FBI agents have been investigating Santiago's social media sites and questioning witnesses from South Florida to Puerto Rico and Alaska, where he most recently lived before purchasing a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale to carry out the apparently random shooting. He told agents that he planned it, checking in only one bag containing the murder weapon and ammunition.
Agents have discovered that Santiago, a former Army reservist who did a tour of duty in the Iraq War, had a recent history of domestic violence and mental health issues. He approached the FBI in Anchorage two months ago to tell them that he was hearing voices urging him to join the Islamic State terrorist group. He also told agents he was under the mind control of the CIA.
The FBI referred Santiago to the Anchorage police, which recommended a psychiatric evaluation by state mental health experts. “He was deemed to be stable,” Ferlazzo, the FBI agent in South Florida, said on Tuesday.
Anchorage police confiscated his handgun in November, but then returned it to him last month after he asked for it. The firearm was the same weapon Santiago is suspected of using in the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting.
However, so far, agents don't believe Santiago is a lone wolf, radicalized by extreme Islamist propaganda on the internet, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Instead, they are still trying to figure out what caused him to snap and why he chose the Fort Lauderdale airport as his target.
On Tuesday, the Broward Health Medical Center reported that two patients injured in the airport shooting were released. But one patient, a gunshot victim, remains hospitalized in serious condition.
In Puerto Rico, authorities said Santiago had registered at least four handguns, including a 9mm pistol, the same caliber as the suspected murder weapon. Puerto Rican police said they couldn’t rule out that Santiago had initially registered the Walther 9 mm — used in the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting — in his hometown of Peñuelas.
“We cannot confirm that it was the same weapon,” Puerto Rico police spokesman Edward Ramirez said. “But we do know he had a license to carry [a 9 mm pistol] and we understand that it’s highly probable that it was the same weapon.”
In December 2012, about four years before the deadly airport rampage, Santiago had applied for a weapon permit in Puerto Rico, saying he feared for his security, according to court records in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
According to the documents, Santiago was granted permission to carry a weapon after passing an extensive background check that involved presenting character witnesses and proving that he had a clean criminal record. At the time, the court records said “the applicant fears for his security” as one of his reasons for needing the permit, but they don't provide any additional details.
Officials have also said that an unknown number of Santiago's weapons were temporarily seized in 2012 and returned in 2014 amid an unspecified investigation. That timeline seems to conflict with the carry permit cited in the court documents.
Ramirez, the police spokesman, couldn't immediately explain the discrepancy, saying it's possible that Santiago was issued the permit to carry while the unspecified investigation was ongoing. “That would have been up to the investigators,” he said.
The courthouse in Ponce, which has jurisdiction over Peñuelas, said it did not have any records of civil or criminal cases against Santiago. The police said they could not provide details of Santiago's criminal record — if he has one — citing Puerto Rican privacy laws.
Miami Herald staff writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report from Ponce, Puerto Rico.