Broward County

Airport shooting suspect faces death penalty charges in federal court

Motive a mystery for lone gunman in airport attack, FBI says

Special Agent in Charge George Piro said that investigators have found “no specific reason” why that the gunman chose Fort Lauderdale. Agents have not identified any “triggers” that spurred the attack.
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Special Agent in Charge George Piro said that investigators have found “no specific reason” why that the gunman chose Fort Lauderdale. Agents have not identified any “triggers” that spurred the attack.

The security surrounding Esteban Santiago was intense.

During his first federal court appearance on Monday, at least a dozen deputy U.S. marshals hovered over Santiago, the 26-year-old charged with killing and injuring nearly a dozen travelers with a handgun at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle detained the military veteran. She also assigned a federal public defender to represent Santiago, a New Jersey native raised in Puerto Rico, after determining he was unable to pay for his own lawyer. His arraignment, when formal charges will be presented, was set for Jan. 23.

During the 20-minute hearing in Fort Lauderdale federal court, Santiago sat in in a sheriff-issued red jumpsuit as a group of deputy marshals stood over him. Cuffed at the ankles and wrists, he answered “yes” or “no” to a series of questions posed by the judge about his criminal charges and personal finances.

Until recently, Santiago said he had been working as a security guard in Anchorage, Alaska, making $2,100 a month, but had only $5 to $10 in his checking account and no other property. He also had worked as a National Guardsman in Alaska and Puerto Rico, including a tour of duty with the Army during the Iraq war.

Santiago faces a possible death penalty or life imprisonment on three charges accusing him of fatally shooting five people and injuring six others on Friday in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2 at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

“We’re telling you the maximum penalty under the law so you understand the seriousness of the charges filed against you,” Valle told Santiago on Monday in court.

Prosecutor Rick Del Toro said he is seeking detention based on Santiago’s danger to the community and risk of flight. A detention hearing is set for next Tuesday.

After Monday’s hearing, Santiago was brought back to the Broward County Jail amid heavy security.

In the weeks and months leading up to Friday's deadly shooting, Santiago had shown signs of mental health problems and been involved in domestic disputes with his girlfriend in Alaska, where he had moved in 2014.

In Anchorage, the Daily News reported that the city’s only mosque found itself fielding calls in recent days from people wondering if Santiago had ties to the mosque, after unsubstantiated reports surfaced online linking him to radical Islam.

Youssef Barbour, a spokesman for Anchorage's Islamic Community Center of Alaska, said the answer is no.

“We have no connection with this guy whatsoever,” said Barbour, who works as a physician. “We are hearing the news for the first time just like everyone else.”

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