Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago told federal agents after carrying out his deadly rampage that he was “hearing voices,” under “government mind control” and “participating in jihadi chat rooms online” — but, at least for now, he’s not being charged with a terrorist act.
A federal grand jury on Thursday returned an indictment that includes no accusation that he was supporting a foreign terrorist group like the Islamic State, as he had suggested to FBI agents in Alaska and after the shooting. They have found no evidence on his computer, smart phone or elsewhere to support the claims he made in a confession-like statement.
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Instead, the grand jury charged the 26-year-old military veteran with killing five people and injuring six others during the Jan. 6 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The 22-count indictment is similar to the complaint filed along with his arrest three weeks ago.
The grand jury also adopted “special findings” to seek the death penalty for Santiago’s multiple murders, but that decision will ultimately rest with the U.S. attorney general. If capital punishment were dropped as an option, the New Jersey-born and Puerto Rico-raised Santiago would still face a life prison sentence.
His arraignment is scheduled for Monday in Fort Lauderdale federal court.
Santiago “committed the offense after substantial planning and premeditation to cause the death” of five elderly people who had traveled to Fort Lauderdale to go on cruises, read the indictment filed by prosecutors Rick Del Torro and Lawrence LaVecchio.
Judicial Watch, a Washington-based conservative legal group, issued a news release last week that highlighted the recent testimony of an FBI agent during Santiago’s detention hearing in Fort Lauderdale federal court. The agent said that after the shooting, Santiago said he had communicated with Islamic terrorists in “jihadi chat rooms” and committed the murders on behalf of the Islamic State.
But the Miami Herald has learned that since the attack, FBI agents have been investigating Santiago's social-media sites and questioning witnesses from South Florida to Puerto Rico and Alaska — and they have uncovered no compelling evidence to support Santiago’s statement that he carried out the assault in the name of the Islamic State or any other terrorist group.
Former federal prosecutors following the case said that while Santiago may have mental health issues that triggered the deadly assault, it made no sense for the U.S. attorney’s office to pursue terrorism charges based solely on his statements.
“If you promise too much, and you can’t deliver, you lose credibility with the jury, especially if you’re going to pursue a death penalty case,” said Miami lawyer David Weinstein, former chief of the counter-terrorism section at the U.S. attorney’s office.
Miami lawyer Allan Kaiser, a former veteran of the office, said “you have to play your strongest hand. There’s no reason to bring the terrorism charge when you already have a strong case.”
Santiago had been living in Anchorage 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 National Guardsman 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 in November to tell them that he was hearing voices urging him to join the Islamic State. 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,” FBI Speical Agent Michael Ferlazzo said at the detention hearing last week.
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 was 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.