Airport shooter taken to federal court for arraignment
Calling his mass shooting “85 seconds of evil,” a federal judge Friday sentenced Esteban Santiago to life in prison for killing five travelers and injuring six other people at a Fort Lauderdale airport last year.
U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom read off the names of all 11 victims and described their lives before imposing five consecutive life sentences for those who were murdered along with an additional 120 years in prison for those wounded in the shooting massacre at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6, 2017. Santiago, who had flown from Anchorage, Alaska, to Fort Lauderdale, carried out the attack in one minute and 25 seconds before surrendering to a Broward County deputy sheriff at the airport.
Santiago, a 28-year-old Iraq War veteran with mental health problems including schizophrenia, said nothing during his sentencing hearing. But a handful of the airport shooting’s survivors and victims’ family members spoke poignantly about the searing loss and maiming of loved ones, all of whom were elderly and traveling to go on a cruise vacation.
“We did not get a chance to say goodbye,” said Melissa Beauchamp, the daughter of Mary Louise Amzibel, 69, of Delaware, who was killed in the shooting. Her husband, Ed, who suffered gunshot wounds and was in a coma after the shooting, stood alongside his daughter in the courtroom.
“We did not get a chance to say we love you,” Beauchamp said. “Nothing is the same as before. ... Because of your poor choices, I no longer have a mother, my best friend.”
Beauchamp, a school teacher, expressed incredulity as she repeated what Santiago said at his plea hearing earlier this year when asked by the judge why he shot all those people at the airport.
“What kind of answer is that? ‘I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking,’ ” she said, repeating the shooter’s answer to the judge in May.
Santiago pleaded guilty to the airport killings and injuries in a plea agreement to avoid the possibility of the death penalty at trial. Santiago, who was born in New Jersey and raised in Puerto Rico, was convicted of 11 charges in the 22-count indictment, with the remainder of the offenses being dismissed.
Santiago’s guilty plea was a foregone conclusion after prosecutors and defense lawyers said they had reached the deal in May.
Prosecutors Ricardo Del Toro and Lawrence LaVecchio said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed off on the agreement, which was proposed by Santiago’s defense lawyers, Eric Cohen and Hector Dopico, as a deadline loomed on the death penalty issue. Prosecutors also said the shooting victims’ family members were also on board with Santiago’s plea agreement and life sentence — a point of great concern to the judge.
Santiago, a former Army reservist, underwent a psychiatric competency evaluation ordered by Bloom because she said she wanted to be certain Santiago had the “capacity” to understand the charges and consequences of pleading guilty. Miami psychologist Heather Holmes said she evaluated Santiago six times since the airport shooting, most recently in early May.
“He’s the most stable that I’ve ever seen him,” Holmes testified at Santiago’s plea hearing in late May, crediting medication that he has taken for his schizophrenia since his arrest.
At Friday’s sentencing hearing, James Steckley, the husband of Julie Steckley, who suffered gunshot wounds in the airport assault, touched on Santiago’s military service and mental health issues. “I would like to apologize for the lack of support for our returning veterans,” said Steckley, of Mississippi, who added that he was “sorry” Santiago did not receive help.
Steckley, like other victims who spoke at the hearing, also condemned the carnage and addressed Santiago. “So many families were devastated by your actions, including yours,” he said.
LaVecchio, the prosecutor, read a statement from the wife of Michael Oehme, 57, of Nebraska, who was killed in the airport shooting. His wife, Kari, who was injured in the attack, described him as her “soul mate.”
“My heart is forever broken,” she said in the statement.
Then she condemned Santiago, saying he was in the military and was supposed to protect people, not kill them.
“You are a coward and the devil’s right-hand man,” she said. “We will never forgive you for ruining our lives.”
Santiago’s mother and other family members attended the sentencing but did not speak. One of his attorneys, Cohen, said Santiago was extremely remorseful for ruining so many lives but he also said the defendant suffered from mental illness that drove him to commit the airport massacre.
Santiago was accused of flying on a one-way ticket from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to carry out the shootings of elderly travelers — one of three mass killings involving firearms in Florida since 2016.
Santiago 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 the baggage claim area, before encountering a Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy while exiting. He surrendered immediately.
While most murder cases unfold in state court, Santiago was 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.
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 was 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 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 indictment.