Broward County

Fort Lauderdale airport shooter will plead guilty in deal to avoid death penalty

Esteban Santiago  exits the Fort Lauderdale jail accompanied by two federal marshals.
Esteban Santiago exits the Fort Lauderdale jail accompanied by two federal marshals. Miami Herald File

After a secret review of his fate, a military veteran charged with fatally shooting five people and wounding six others at the Fort Lauderdale airport last year will plead guilty in exchange for receiving a life sentence under an agreement disclosed Tuesday in Miami federal court.

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers said they reached the plea agreement as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in on the death penalty question in the murder case of 28-year-old Esteban Santiago. Sessions, who had final say, received input from both sides in South Florida as well as a panel of experts at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

Prosecutors said Sessions signed off on the plea agreement, which was proposed by Santiago's defense lawyers as a deadline loomed this week on the death penalty issue. They also said the shooting victims' family members were also on board with the proposed life sentence.

"That was something taken into account in the attorney general's decision" on whether to pursue the death penalty, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro said in court.

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

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

Santiago, a former Army reservist who suffers from mental health problems, is expected to change his plea to guilty on May 23 after undergoing a psychiatric competency evaluation ordered by U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom. She said she wanted to be certain Santiago has the "capacity" to make the decision to plead guilty.

On Tuesday, Bloom asked the defendant if he discussed the plea agreement with his lawyers in the federal public defender's office, and Santiago said: "Yes, your honor." The judge also asked Santiago, who was wearing a ponytail and full beard, if he had any other questions, and he said: "No, your honor."

One of his lawyers, Eric Cohen, told the judge that Santiago is "remorseful and willing to accept responsibility" for the mass shooting on Jan. 6, 2017.

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.

James Foster, who said he trained in Anchorage with Esteban Santiago, called the Fort Lauderdale airport shooter "just a regular guy working as a security guard."

Santiago, who grew up in Puerto Rico, 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 a baggage claim area before encountering a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy while exiting. He surrendered immediately.

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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 is 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 Del Toro and Lawrence LaVecchio 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 22-count 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.

A Miami lawyer who has served in both the federal and state attorney's offices in Miami said the resolution of Santiago's case strikes the perfect balance.

"This brings closure to the case for the victims' families, and by addressing mental competency now, there will be no issue on appeal," said lawyer David Weinstein, a former chief of the counter-terrorism section in the U.S. attorney's office.

"It also points out the stark difference between the state and federal system in death penalty cases," Weinstein added. "This case has come to a conclusion in a little over a year. In contrast, state death penalty cases take years to resolve."

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.

Esteban Santiago, indicted on murder charges in the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, is transported to federal court for his arraignment on Monday, January 30, 2017.

In 2003, prosecutors asked a jury for death against Jose Denis, a former Florida State University student accused of fatally shooting a cocaine dealer, point blank in the head, during a drug rip-off in a Hialeah motel room. But jurors, unsure if he was the one who pulled the trigger, unanimously sentenced him to life in prison instead.

U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno was not pleased with the jurors' decision and said he would have imposed death. But federal law prohibits a judge from overruling a jury.

In another high-profile case in 2007, federal prosecutors filed notice of charging the death penalty against two men who shot and killed the four-person crew of the Joe Cool charter boat, dumping their bodies overboard on the high seas. But ultimately, the attorney general did not authorize the death penalty. One defendant struck a plea deal before trial, resulting in life imprisonment. The other went to trial and was convicted, then sentenced to life.

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 the Florida Turnpike in Palm Beach County.