Broward County

Airport shooter had mental health problems but no apparent ties to terrorism

Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where a gunman shot and and wounded multiple people on Friday, January 6, 2017.
Scene at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where a gunman shot and and wounded multiple people on Friday, January 6, 2017. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Esteban Santiago told the FBI in Alaska two months ago that he was hearing voices urging him to join an Islamic terrorist group, but federal agents scouring the social media postings of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shooter have found no evidence linking his deadly rampage to terrorism.

Law enforcement sources said that since the 26-year-old opened fire in the airport on Friday — killing five people and injuring six others — agents have discovered no information on Facebook and other online sites to suggest the Iraq war veteran was radicalized by the Islamic State or any other terrorist organization.

Instead, a profile has emerged of a mentally disturbed military veteran who boarded a plane on a one-way Delta ticket from Anchorage via Minneapolis to Fort Lauderdale to take deadly aim at fellow travelers in a baggage claim area. Investigators have no idea why he chose Fort Lauderdale as his target.

So far, Santiago seems to differ significantly from the “lone wolf” portrait of Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter who was beset with his own volatile mix of mental and personal issues. Mateen, a 29-year-old Fort Pierce security guard, was apparently self-radicalized. He proclaimed an affinity for Islamic extremists in June while he killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in the nation’s worst mass shooting.

Esteban Santiago suspected of rampantly shooting 13 people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday afternoon, killing five and injuring eight, is a decorated U.S. Army Iraq veteran who flew to South Florida from Alaska — where

But Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who is working with the FBI on the airport shooting, pointed to mental health problems rather than to any terrorist connection in evaluating what set off Santiago.

“Something has to change,” Israel said Sunday on Channel 10 News’ This Week in South Florida. “People who are suffering from mental illness should not be allowed, in my opinion, to purchase or have firearms at any time.”

Santiago, charged on Saturday with the killings, is scheduled to appear in Fort Lauderdale federal court on Monday. The Army veteran, who investigators say planned and carried out the attack on his own, faces a potential death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted.

In the airport shooting, Santiago used a handgun that he retrieved from Anchorage police last month. Officers confiscated it in November while he underwent a psychiatric evaluation. The FBI had referred Santiago to Anchorage authorities after he told them he was being pressured by the CIA to join the Islamic State militant organization and watch training videos.

Santiago was taken to Providence Alaska Medical Center for a psychiatric evaluation, then transferred to the state-operated Alaska Psychiatric Institute. He was treated for a few days but received no follow-up therapy or medication, according to a family member.

Despite the alarming nature of his statements to the FBI, Santiago was not placed on any law enforcement watch lists or on the federal “no-fly” list.

Santiago’s semi-automatic firearm, a Walther 9mm — along with two magazines — was his only piece of checked luggage on the flight. After claiming it, he loaded the handgun in the bathroom of the baggage claim area, exited and opened fire.

Paramedics tend to bloodied victims following a shooting incident at the airport.

On Sunday, TMZ released video footage that the website says shows the initial seconds of the airport shooting. The 20-second recording posted onto TMZ’s website shows a man walking calmly through the Terminal 2 baggage claim as he pulls a handgun from his waistband, starts firing and then runs, while frightened travelers duck for cover.

After running out of ammunition, Santiago dropped his firearm and surrendered to BSO deputies, though that image is not in the TMZ video.

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said Sunday that BSO and the airport’s security team are investigating who leaked the video, which is a cell phone recording of airport surveillance footage.

“Only a select number of people had access to this video,” Sharief told the Miami Herald. “What’s troubling about this video being out there is we don’t want copycats.”

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The shooting turned the Fort Lauderdale airport into a massive crime scene, leaving thousands of travelers stranded for hours as squads of BSO deputies, FBI agents and other law enforcement officers searched the facility. The violence reached far beyond South Florida to other parts of the country where the shooting victims had started their travels.

By Sunday afternoon, four of the five dead had been identified by family and friends, along with two who were seriously injured. Law enforcement officials have not publicly named any of the victims.

All four had arrived in Fort Lauderdale on their way to cruise vacations.

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Shirley Timmons, 70, of Senecaville, Ohio, was traveling with her husband, Steve, when both were shot in the baggage-claim area. Shirley died at the airport and Steve was shot in the face and taken to a hospital, where he remained in a coma Saturday evening, according to Jim Reineccius, a relative.

Terry Andres, 62, was from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he worked at the nearby Norfolk Naval Shipyard and volunteered with a local fire department. He died at the airport.

Olga Woltering, a Marietta, Georgia, resident in her 80s, also died at the airport. Both Andres and Woltering were traveling with their spouses and planned to celebrate birthdays aboard a cruise, family and friends told local media.

Tommy Harrell, a former fire department volunteer, told the Miami Herald that he remembered Andres as “a great person and doing anything to help out.”

Michael Oehme, 57, and his wife, Kari, flew to Fort Lauderdale from Omaha, Nebraska, for their annual cruise. When the shooting started, Michael was killed and his wife was injured, according to Omaha TV station WOWT. A witness told WOWT that Kari had been shot in the shoulder.

Five people injured in the attack remain hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center, four of whom were gunshot victims.

Florida governor Rick Scott addresses the media about the shooting at Fort Lauderdale International Airport outside Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 6, 2017.

Much of the investigation into Santiago has centered on Anchorage, where he lived with his girlfriend, Gina Peterson, and their son, who was born in September, in a small apartment in the modest Fairview neighborhood. Santiago’s name was listed on the mailbox along with his girlfriend’s.

FBI and local investigators flooded the residential community to search for evidence and question neighbors, who have been rocked by the news. Marlin Ritzman, the Anchorage FBI special agent in charge, said agents searched Santiago’s home and another Anchorage location: the Qupqugiaq Inn, a long-term rental accommodation where Santiago apparently recently stayed.

After a domestic disturbance last year in which Peterson told police he tried to strangle her, Santiago was forbidden from being in contact with her, according to a domestic violence complaint. Although Santiago violated that court order by living with her again, the case was dismissed as long as he stayed out of trouble, according to the New York Times. Anchorage police responded to more domestic calls, but officers did not arrest him.

Santiago, a former Army private first class, was an Iraq War vet who also served in Puerto Rico and Alaska between December 2007 and August 2016, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead of the Alaska National Guard.

Santiago served in Alaska for less than two years, starting Nov. 21, 2014, and received a “general discharge” from the Alaska Guard on Aug. 16, 2016, “for unsatisfactory performance.” Olmstead did not elaborate.

Though he was born in New Jersey, he moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2, growing up in the southern coastal town of Peñuelas. His 11th grade Spanish teacher, Nora Torres, described him as “easy going” and a “gentleman.”

She said he had a small group of friends who seemed to be united by the fact that they spoke English.

“He was very quiet and always attentive in class,” she said on Sunday. “I don't recognize the person the media is describing.”

Torres said they remained friends on Facebook after he graduated, although she said she closed her account some time ago.

“I remember him with much fondness,” she said. “This has hurt me like he was a member of my own family.”

At Santiago’s childhood home on the outskirts of Peñuelas, his relatives appeared under siege as they blocked the driveway with two cars while fending off journalists.

“Please leave us alone. We need time,” an unidentified woman said. “You have to understand, everyone knows us here and we don’t know any of the victims.”

Even as people described Peñuelas as a close community, few acknowledged knowing the Santiago family. At the local police station, officers said Santiago had never been on their radar.

Father Orlando Rivera, the local priest, said the only things he knew about the family he’d seen on TV. But he said the news had rattled the town.

“This is a tight-knit community and very supportive,” he said. “But everybody is in shocked silence, because this is so unheard of.”

But the path he took — leaving town due to lack of employment and opportunities — is a common one in Peñuelas, many said.

“You can either work for the local government, the police, or join the army,” said Mery Alvardo, a lifelong resident of Peñuelas. “This entire area is poor and struggling.”

Alberto Feliciano, who was the town’s mayor from 1988 to 1992, said there used to be a pharmaceutical factory, a tie factory and a petro-chemical plant that provided jobs, but they’ve all closed. Now, one of the biggest local employers is a candle factory, he said.

“For kids in school here, when the National Guard comes recruiting, they see it as one of their few options,” he said. “The military gives them a chance to go to the United States — it’s an economic option.”

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks, Alex Harris, Patricia Mazzei and Carli Teproff contributed to this report. Freelancer Austin Baird contributed from Anchorage, Alaska.

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