Broward County

Fort Lauderdale airport gunman owned multiple weapons in Puerto Rico

In this Jan. 9, 2017, photo, Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
In this Jan. 9, 2017, photo, Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Sun Sentinel

The man accused of gunning down almost a dozen people in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport earlier this month had registered at least four handguns in Puerto Rico, including a 9mm pistol, the same caliber as the suspected murder weapon, authorities said.

Police on Monday said they couldn’t rule out that Esteban Santiago, the accused gunman, had initially registered the Walther 9 mm — used in the Jan. 6 shooting — in his hometown of Peñuelas.

“We cannot confirm that it was the same weapon,” Puerto Rico police spokesman Edward Ramirez said. “But we do know he had a license to carry [a 9 mm pistol] and we understand that it’s highly probable that it was the same weapon.”

More than a week after the shooting, new details are emerging about Santiago, the 26-year-old Iraq War veteran who is accused of killing five and wounding six others after he flew from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale with nothing but a firearm.

Santiago first received a permit to carry a weapon in Puerto Rico in July 2011, shortly after returning from an 11-month stint in Iraq. Citing the island’s firearms records, Ramirez said the limited permit gave Santiago the right to keep a gun at home and take it to a firing range. In September, Santiago was given additional permission to carry his weapon at all times.

Ramirez said that broader permit came only after an extensive background check that usually takes weeks or months.

“There is a thorough investigation to make sure you’re not going to cause problems for anyone,” Ramirez said.

At one point, Santiago had four handguns registered in his name in Puerto Rico. While make and model information wasn’t available in the documents that Ramirez has access to, “the system showed they were all pistols or revolvers — no rifles,” he said.

Weapon seizure

Then, in mid-2012, Santiago had an unspecified number of weapons confiscated from him due to an investigation. That information was first reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and Ramirez said the computerized records don’t shed light on what sparked the seizure. “It could have been a domestic violence complaint, a problem with a neighbor, a DUI — or any other serious offense,” he said.

However, in 2014, more than a year after the guns were confiscated, Santiago had all his weapons returned to him, Ramirez said.

Initially, the police in Peñuelas, a southern town of 24,000, said that Santiago had never caused trouble and was not on their radar. Over the weekend, however, a police officer speaking on the condition of anonymity told the Miami Herald that Santiago had been accused of domestic violence in Peñuelas. (Santiago was arrested in Anchorage for roughing up his girlfriend.)

Ramirez said he had no way of knowing if Santiago took his Puerto Rican-registered firearms with him when he moved to Alaska but that as long he was complying with that state’s laws, there would be no legal prohibition. Santiago’s weapons license in Puerto Rico, however, expired in June 2015.

The 2012 weapons seizure wasn’t the only time that authorities temporarily confiscated Santiago’s weapons.

Authorities said that two months ago, an agitated and incoherent Santiago visited an FBI office in Anchorage claiming he was hearing voices urging him to join ISIS. His weapon was confiscated — but returned to him after a brief stint in a psychiatric facility.

Santiago’s friends and relatives have portrayed him as a shy, easy-going man who was damaged by his experience in Iraq, where at least two members of his unit were killed by a roadside bomb.