South Florida

Fort Lauderdale airport shooter pleads guilty after being judged mentally 'competent'

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shooter Esteban Santiago, right, is transferred from Broward County Jail to the Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale for a detention hearing on January 17, 2017.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shooter Esteban Santiago, right, is transferred from Broward County Jail to the Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale for a detention hearing on January 17, 2017. Miami Herald File

In January of last year, Esteban Santiago went into a men's bathroom at Fort Lauderdale's airport, loaded a handgun, put it in his waistband and fired off 15 rounds at travelers' heads and bodies.

Emptying two magazines, Santiago killed five people and wounded six others in about two minutes. And then, after he was stopped by a police officer, he soon confessed that "he shot the first people he encountered," according to his plea agreement.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom found Santiago mentally "competent" and accepted his guilty plea in Miami federal court. And then she asked him: "Why did you do what you did?"

"Um, I don't know," said Santiago, a 28-year-old military veteran whose hair was pulled back in a pony tail. "I wasn't really thinking about it at that moment. A lot of things were going on in my mind ... messages."

Santiago, who suffers from schizophrenia and has taken medication since his arrest after the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shooting, pleaded guilty to killing five people and wounding six others. His plea agreement ensures he will receive five consecutive life sentences along with six consecutive 20-year sentences, allowing him to avoid the possibility of the death penalty at trial.

Santiago, a U.S. citizen who was born in New Jersey and raised in Puerto Rico, was convicted of 11 charges in the 22-count indictment, with the remainder of the offenses being dismissed. He will be sentenced on Aug. 17.

Top officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office, FBI and Broward Sheriff's Office condemned the mass shooting and Santiago's crime. “Today the man responsible for the horrific, devastating, and tragic attack on numerous innocent people at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport was held accountable for his crimes,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg said in a statement.

Santiago's guilty plea was a foregone conclusion after prosecutors and defense lawyers said they had reached the deal on May 1. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions approved the agreement after considering the death penalty question in the murder case.

Prosecutors Ricardo Del Toro and Lawrence LaVecchio said Sessions signed off on the agreement, which was proposed by Santiago's defense lawyers Eric Cohen and Hector Dopico as a deadline loomed on the death penalty issue. Prosecutors also said the shooting victims' family members were also on board with Santiago's plea agreement and life sentence — a point of great concern to the judge.

Santiago, a former Army reservist who suffers from mental health problems, underwent a recent psychiatric competency evaluation ordered by Bloom because she said she wanted to be certain Santiago had the "capacity" to understand the charges and consequences of pleading guilty. Miami psychologist Heather Holmes said she evaluated Santiago six times since the airport shooting, most recently in early May.

"He's the most stable that I've ever seen him," Holmes said on the witness stand on Wednesday, crediting the medication that Santiago has taken for his schizophrenia since his arrest. She also said that Santiago, who has a toddler son, speaks with his mother every two weeks and was recently visited by his sister at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. She also said he is in isolation at the detention center, but he has had the opportunity to listen to NPR for news and is reading the "Harry Potter" series.

Santiago was accused of flying on a one-way ticket from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to carry out the shootings of mostly elderly travelers — one of three mass firearm killings in Florida since 2016.

Santiago packed his gun in a case that he had declared on the Anchorage-Fort Lauderdale flight, retrieved the weapon, loaded it in an airport bathroom and then calmly opened fire in the baggage claim area before encountering a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy while exiting. He surrendered immediately.

While most murder cases unfold in state court, Santiago is charged federally because the mass shooting took place at an international airport. Federal authorities, unlike their counterparts in the state system, rarely pursue the death penalty, mainly because there are so few capital cases in the U.S. district court. And even when the Justice Department opts for death over life as punishment, an execution by lethal injection is extremely rare in the federal system.

Santiago's mental health history, along with a stint in the Iraq War, played a significant factor in the attorney general's decision on whether to seek the death penalty. Santiago was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric care in November 2016 — two months before the airport shooting — after he had gone to the FBI office in Anchorage and told agents that he was hearing voices urging him to support the Islamic State terrorist group and that the CIA was pressuring him to watch training videos. Agents referred Santiago to Anchorage police, who took his handgun from him while he underwent a psychiatric evaluation for a few days and then gave the firearm back to him that December.

Santiago was accused of using that same weapon, a Walther 9mm, in the deadly attack at the airport. After Santiago surrendered, he told FBI agents in South Florida that he had been "programmed" by the government and also was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group.

However, FBI agents and prosecutors said they found no actual links between Santiago and the Islamic State and therefore did not charge him with providing support to the terrorist organization in the indictment.

Ever since his arrest, Santiago has been taking medication to treat his diagnosis of schizophrenia. He has repeatedly told Judge Bloom that he understands what is happening in his case, and his defense lawyers have said he is legally competent to stand trial.

Federal prosecutors have only considered or sought the death penalty in a handful of Florida cases in the past decade. Getting juries to go along isn't easy.

Only one Florida federal case has resulted in the death penalty being meted out since the U.S. government reinstated the punishment 30 years ago. The defendants, Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., are now on federal Death Row for the 2006 slaying of a family, including two children, on the side of Florida Turnpike's in Palm Beach County.