An Iraq war vet accused of killing five people in a shooting spree at a Florida airport appeared in court Monday to face federal charges that carry the death penalty.
Esteban Santiago, 26, who had told the FBI two months before the shooting that he was hearing voices, was brought before federal judge Alicia Valle in Fort Lauderdale in handcuffs and wearing a red prison jumpsuit.
He mumbled “morning” to the judge who then read him his rights, explained the next steps in the process and appointed a defense lawyer to represent him.
“You committed various offenses, which are performing an act of violence at an airport causing bodily injury; using and carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence; and causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm,” Valle said.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of death or life in prison.
The FBI said it had not ruled out a terrorist link in the shooting spree at the Fort Lauderdale airport but that Santiago had approached them in November acting so erratically he was taken for a mental health evaluation.
– ‘Something has to change’ –
Santiago flew to Fort Lauderdale on Friday and retrieved a 9mm handgun and ammunition that he had declared and packed in his checked luggage.
He opened fire in the busy airport until he ran out of ammunition, then dropped to the ground and peacefully surrendered to a sheriff’s deputy, authorities said.
Video released Sunday by the TMZ website showed Santiago, bearded and wearing a blue shirt, walking calmly through the baggage claim area.
He strolled past some passengers before removing a gun from his waistband and firing it, then ran off-screen.
One woman hid behind a luggage cart as others ducked for cover following a brief moment of stunned confusion.
Five people were killed and six were wounded.
“Something has to change,” Broward County Sheriff Israel Scott told ABC’s Miami affiliate on Sunday. “People who are suffering from mental illness should not be allowed, in my opinion, to purchase or have firearms at any time.”
The suspect, who traveled from Alaska on a one-way ticket, told investigators he had planned the attack, FBI agent Michael Ferlazzo said in court documents.
Ferlazzo said Santiago fired approximately 10 to 15 rounds, shooting methodically while “aiming at his victims’ heads.”
FBI special agent George Piro said agents were looking into motives for the attack, including “continuing to look at the terrorism angle.”
But the Miami Herald reported Monday that federal agents had turned up no evidence on social media of a terrorism connection.
– Broke and unemployed –
During Monday’s hearing, Santiago said he had “five or 10 dollars” in a checking account and has been unemployed since November when he left a job in Anchorage, Alaska as a security officer at a firm called Signal 88.
Taking into account Santiago’s financial situation, Valle appointed public attorney Robert Berube to represent him and set a detention hearing for January 17 and an arraignment on January 23.
A former member of the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard, Santiago served in Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011. He ended his service in August.
On November 7, he walked into the FBI’s office in Anchorage, Alaska and complained that his mind was being controlled by national intelligence agencies, which were forcing him to watch Islamic State jihadist videos, authorities said.
This “erratic behavior” led agents to contact local police, who took him for a mental health evaluation, Piro said.
According to several witnesses, including his brother and an aunt, Santiago was suffering from mental health problems.
Two of the wounded victims remained in intensive care while the other four had been released or were recovering in the hospital, Israel, the Broward County sheriff, told CNN.
Authorities have not identified any of the victims, but three named in media reports were all getting ready to set off on cruises.