9th Jan 2017
Police in Alaska took a handgun from the man accused of a shooting at a Florida airport, but returned it to him last month after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill.
- Suspect told FBI about paranoid thoughts in November
- Not clear if returned gun was used in shooting
- He was evaluated for four days, then released without any follow-up medication or therapy
Esteban Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq war veteran, had a history of acting erratically and investigators are probing whether mental illness played a role in the shooting that saw five people killed and six injured in a baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport.
He has been charged with act of violence at an international airport resulting in death — a charge that has a penalty of execution or any prison sentence up to life — and two firearms offences.
Marlin Ritzman, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Anchorage office, said Santiago walked into the office in November and told agents his mind was being controlled by a US intelligence agency.
He was turned over to local police who took him to a medical facility for a mental evaluation.
Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley said a handgun that was taken from Santiago by police during the evaluation was returned to him early last month, adding that it was not clear whether it was the same weapon used in the shooting.
“Santiago was having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS [the Islamic State militant group],” he said.
However, Mr Ritzman said there was no evidence he was linked to a terrorist group but concerns have been raised about why Santiago was not placed on a no-fly list.
“During our initial investigation we found no ties to terrorism. He broke no laws when he came into our office making disjointed comments about mind control,” he said.
Officials in Anchorage said the gun was returned because Santiago had not been adjudicated to be mentally ill.
“As far as I know, this is not somebody that would have been prohibited [from having a gun] based on the information they had,” US attorney Karen Loeffler said.
Investigators have not ruled out terrorism as a motive and said the suspect’s recent travel was being reviewed.
FBI ‘failed’ Santiago after request for help, brother says
Santiago’s brother Bryan questioned why his sibling was allowed to keep his gun after US authorities knew he had become increasingly paranoid and was hearing voices.
Bryan Santiago said his brother had trouble controlling his anger after serving in Iraq and told his brother that he felt he was being chased and controlled by the CIA through secret online messages.
When Santiago told agents at an FBI field office his paranoid thoughts in November, he was evaluated for four days, then released without any follow-up medication or therapy.
“The FBI failed there,” Bryan Santiago said.
“We’re not talking about someone who emerged from anonymity to do something like this.”
Santiago had not been placed on the US no-fly list after the November evaluation and appears to have acted alone, authorities said.
Bryan Santiago said his brother had requested psychological help but barely received any.
“I told him to go to church or to seek professional help,” he said.
‘It was like he lost his mind’ after Iraq, family member says
Family members said Santiago changed after serving a year-long tour in Iraq.
He was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was two, his brother said. He grew up in Penuelas before joining the Guard in 2007.
He deployed in 2010 as part of the Puerto Rico National Guard, spending a year with an engineering battalion, according to Guard spokesman Major Paul Dahlen.
Santiago’s mother wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke about her son after the shooting, saying he had been tremendously affected by seeing a bomb explode near two friends while in Iraq.
Alaska National Guard spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Candis Olmstead told The New York Times that two soldiers in Santiago’s company had died during his stint in Iraq.
Santiago’s aunt Maria Ruiz told The Record newspaper that her nephew had recently become a father to a son and was struggling.
“It was like he lost his mind,” she said of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”