South Florida

Man accused of Fort Lauderdale mass shooting has mental illness but can stand trial

Esteban Santiago, accused of the shootings at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is shown being transferred from Broward County Jail to U.S. Federal Court in Fort Lauderdale in January.
Esteban Santiago, accused of the shootings at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is shown being transferred from Broward County Jail to U.S. Federal Court in Fort Lauderdale in January. The Miami Herald

The Alaskan military veteran accused of fatally shooting five travelers and wounding six others at Fort Lauderdale airport suffers from mental illness, but with the help of medication Esteban Santiago can stand trial, a federal judge said Wednesday.

After finding the defendant competent for now, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom said she wanted to monitor the 27-year-old on a monthly basis and hoped to hold his trial in October. But Bloom also recognized that it might take a year for federal prosecutors and the Justice Department to decide whether to charge him with the death penalty in the Jan. 6 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

“I would hope we have a trial date this year,” Bloom said.

Santiago, who was first held at the Broward County Jail and is now at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, has been diagnosed by doctors with two psychotic illnesses: schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, his defense attorneys disclosed in a court filing earlier this week. Without the benefit of medication, both illnesses can cause hallucination, delusions and depression.

At first, Santiago refused to take medication after his arrest, but in the past month he has been taking Haldol, a prescription drug, which has stabilized him.

“As [he] is now committed to adhering to the medication regiment prescribed for him ... his mental stability is unlikely to change before trial,” Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen wrote in a status report for the judge.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Bloom asked the defendant if he understood why he is mentally stable. He mumbled that taking his medication makes him mentally capable for trial.

Santiago has pleaded not guilty to 22 federal charges, including the murders of five people and the shootings of six others. Many of the charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison or execution, but prosecutors said it could take up to a year for the Justice Department to review a death penalty proposal before opting for that punishment.

“We expect it’s going to be lengthy, many, many months ... sometimes a year,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Del Toro told the judge.

“We’re not in a position to tell the court we’re going to seek or not seek the death penalty,” said Del Toro, who added that his office has turned over victims’ statements, interviews, recordings, video footage and Santiago’s military records to the defense team.

“There is a large amount of electronic evidence from the defendant’s home [in Alaska] and elsewhere,” he said.

Cohen, one of Santiago’s lawyers, said “there is a massive amount of discovery” that must be reviewed while his team challenges the potential death penalty case.

Santiago, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Puerto Rico, has a history of mental health problems.

In November, he went to the FBI office in Anchorage and told agents he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind. Afterward, he was hospitalized for psychiatric care, two months before the mass shooting in Fort Lauderdale.

After he was arrested, prosecutors said he’d planned the attack and bought a one-way ticket from Alaska via Minnesota to Fort Lauderdale to commit what appeared to be a random mass shooting. He’s accused of using a 9mm handgun that he checked in one piece of luggage that he claimed in Terminal 2 before opening fire on travelers, mostly elderly people who flew to South Florida for cruises.

An FBI agent later testified that Santiago, an Iraqi War veteran, told them that he entered “jihadi” chat rooms online and was motivated by Islamic State terrorists. But prosecutors did not file any terrorism-related charges because after federal agents examined Santiago’s phone, computers and other electronic devices, they could not find any evidence to support his statement.