On Nov. 7, Esteban Santiago parked at an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska — leaving his newborn son and his gun in the car — and told agents the CIA was trying to control his mind, pushing him to watch Islamic State terrorist videos.
The feds called local police, who took Santiago into custody and sent him to get a psychiatric evaluation. Santiago’s girlfriend picked up the baby. The cops took the gun — and a loaded magazine Santiago carried on him.
He got the gun back 31 days later. Twenty-nine days after that, one-way plane ticket in hand, Santiago hopped on a flight that brought him to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He picked up a Walther 9mm gun he’d checked in as luggage, loaded it in a men’s room stall, and shot 11 people, five of them to death.
It was the same gun he retrieved from Anchorage police.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Santiago “shot the first people he encountered,” according to investigators who interrogated him. He emptied the two magazines, firing 10-15 bullets, “aiming at his victims’ heads.”
On Saturday, Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer charged Santiago, a 26-year-old decorated former Army private who served in Iraq, with committing an act of violence in an airport, using a firearm to commit the crime, and causing the death of a person — three federal offenses punishable by death. His first federal court appearance was set for 11 a.m. Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia O. Valle.
Santiago told FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office investigators he planned the attack and bought a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale. Public records show he was booked into Broward County Jail at around 2 a.m. Saturday, after hours of questioning following the 12:56 p.m. Friday shooting. He wounded six other people, three of whom remained in critical condition.
“He was described as walking while shooting in a methodical manner,” FBI Special Agent Michael A. Ferlazzo wrote in an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint against Santiago. “At one point, he exited the Terminal 2 baggage area onto the sidewalk and then re-entered, still carrying the handgun.”
That’s when a BSO deputy approached.
“Santiago dropped the handgun on the ground, in lock-back, meaning that all the ammunition had been fired, and dropped to the floor,” the affidavit says. He didn’t try to escape.
“Today’s charges represent the gravity of the situation and reflect the commitment of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel to continually protect the community and prosecute those who target our residents and visitors,” Ferrer, the U.S. attorney, said in a statement.
Law enforcement sources said the handgun Santiago is suspected of using in Friday’s airport rampage was the same firearm he retrieved from the Anchorage Police Department Dec. 8.
He flew to Fort Lauderdale specifically to carry out the massacre, according to federal authorities. They still don’t know why.
Anchorage U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said federal law requires someone to be “adjudicated” as mentally ill before they can be kept from flying with a firearm.
“This is not somebody that would have been prohibited, based on the information that they had,” she said of local police and federal agents. “We’re a country of laws, and they operate within them.”
The FBI has yet to rule out terrorism as a possible motive. They’re searching Santiago’s social-media postings to determine if he was inspired by online ISIS propaganda and carried out the rampage as a lone wolf, like the Pulse nightclub killer in Orlando.
“Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack,” said George Piro, the Miami FBI special agent in charge. “We have not identified any triggers.”
He added: “It appears the shooter was acting alone, but, again, it’s early in the investigation.”
The Walther 9mm — Santiago’s only piece of checked luggage — was registered as required for travel following the Transportation Security Administration procedures.
As part of their massive investigation, authorities said they interviewed about 175 witnesses. There was no indication of any altercation among Santiago and his fellow passengers aboard the Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis that originated in Anchorage.
Santiago was taken down less than 90 seconds after he began shooting, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said.
Much of the investigation into Santiago has centered on Anchorage, where he lived with his girlfriend and their son, who was born in September, and perhaps another young child, in a small apartment in the modest Fairview neighborhood. Santiago’s name was listed on the mailbox — along with his girlfriend’s and another male Santiago, possibly their son. No one answered the door when a reporter knocked Saturday afternoon.
The couple was known for throwing loud gatherings and causing a ruckus, one neighbor told the Miami Herald.
“Just a lot of parties. Very loud,” said Pamela Van Dyke, 62, who lives across from the couple’s house. “Just crazy.”
At one point several months ago, Santiago had kicked down the door, drawing police to the house, Van Dyke said. She also recalled some sort of altercation or noise on New Year’s Day.
“I was so shocked. He seemed so nice at first,” Van Dyke said. “I don’t know what happened to him. ... He seemed quiet.”
FBI and local investigators flooded the residential community Friday to search for evidence and question neighbors, who have been rocked by the news, according to Van Dyke. Marlin Ritzman, the Anchorage FBI special agent in charge, said agents searched Santiago’s home and another Anchorage location: the Qupquciaq Inn, a long-term rental accommodation where Santiago apparently recently stayed.
After a domestic disturbance last year in which Santiago’s girlfriend told police he tried to strangle her, Santiago was at least temporarily forbidden from being in contact with the woman. He was caught in their apartment shortly thereafter.
No Santiago connection to South Florida has been found.
“We can’t figure out why Fort Lauderdale,” Van Dyke said. “We feel for the families.”
In Alaska, checking firearms to fly is routine. At Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage on Friday, four men in camouflage jackets — all hunters — waited in line to check in their weapons. In addition to checking rifles, hunters and fishermen often also travel with handguns, for protection against bears. In the fall, the height of hunting season, it’s rare to board a flight that doesn’t include checked weapons.
Santiago, who previously lived in an Anchorage trailer park, reportedly worked as a guard for Signal 88, a security company. A man who answered the phone of the Anchorage office Saturday declined to comment other than to say the firm is cooperating with the investigation.
Santiago’s mother, wiping tears from her eyes, declined to comment to an Associated Press reporter in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, where Santiago grew up after moving from New Jersey as a toddler. A brother, Bryan Santiago, said his brother did not receive enough mental-health treatment after telling his family in August that he was hearing voices.
“How is it possible that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for only four days, and then give him his weapon back?” Bryan Santiago told The AP.
His mother said Esteban Santiago had been affected by seeing a bomb explode next to two friends in Iraq, where he was deployed for 10 months from 2010-11 as an Army private with the Puerto Rico National Guard. He later served with the Alaska National Guard.
Correspondents John Messick and Julia O’Malley contributed to this report from Anchorage, and Christina Veiga contributed from Union City, New Jersey.