Suspect Charged In Airport Shooting Face Death Penalty
Federal prosecutors late Saturday filed charges against a man accused of going on a shooting rampage at a Florida airport that killed five people. The charges could bring the death penalty if he is convicted.
The Miami U.S. attorney's office accused Esteban Santiago of an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death. He was also charged with two firearms offenses.
Earlier Saturday, the FBI said Santiago flew to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport specifically to carry out the attack, but his motive remains unclear.
Federal authorities, who concluded their interview with Santiago early Saturday, said they have not ruled out terrorism in the attack Friday but believe he acted alone.
"Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific act," said George Piro, special agent in charge of the Miami office. "We have not identified any triggers that would've caused this attack." He also said it was unclear why the shooter would have picked the Florida airport for the rampage.Top of Form
Fla. Governor Rick Scott speaks at the Fort Lauderdale - Hollywood International Airport
Santiago, a 26-year-old Iraq veteran, was taken into custody only seconds after the melee ended at the baggage claim area of Terminal 2. Witnesses said the shooter reloaded at least twice, then dropped to the floor spread-eagle and waited to be arrested after running out of ammunition.
Broward County Sheriff Steve Israel on Saturday revised downward the number of people wounded in the incident from eight to six, including three people being treated in intensive care and three listed in good condition.
Piro said Santiago was cooperative during interviews with investigators and was booked on federal murder charges at the Broward County jail.
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale early Friday aboard a Delta flight that originated Thursday.
Piro said Santiago allegedly retrieved his 9mm automatic handgun that he had packed in checked luggage and opened fire on passengers around a baggage carousel. He said investigators were looking at video to get a clear picture of how the shooting unfolded and whether any other person might have helped the gunman.
"We are continuing to look at the terrorism angle as a potential motivation," Piro said. "At this point, it appears he acted alone." He added it appeared the suspect followed federal procedures in checking in the weapon before boarding his original flight.
Piro also said authorities have conducted more than 100 interviews in connection with the case and have confiscated evidence, including cellphones and laptops.
Authorities in Alaska who last year referred Santiago for mental evaluation said Saturday he was allowed to retrieve his gun in early December. Santiago could not be denied his weapon because he was not declared "adjudicated mentally ill," Alaska U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said during a press conference. Federal law prohibits the mentally ill from possessing weapons, but only if they've been formally declared adjudicated.
In November, the suspect appeared unannounced in the FBI offices in Anchorage, complaining that the Islamic State had gained control of his mind and was urging him to fight on its behalf, a federal law enforcement official not authorized to speak publicly about the incident told USA TODAY.
"His erratic behavior concerned FBI agents," Piro said.
The FBI conducted a background check, learning of his military record, which included service in Iraq, but found no connection to terror groups. Determining that the man apparently needed psychiatric care, the FBI alerted local law enforcement and turned him over to their custody for a medical referral. It is not clear whether Santiago received treatment following that incident.
Karen Amador, 47, of Boynton Beach, Fla., said she was just arriving to pick up her father, who was flying in from Puerto Rico, when she saw two helicopters hovering over the runway.
She described seeing large numbers of law-enforcement vehicles coming in. "It's insane; it's like a war zone," Amador said. "I saw so many SWAT cars going through."
Operations resumed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Saturday morning, although some flights are canceled or delayed.
The airport reopened at 5 a.m. Saturday after being shut down for nearly 16 hours following the attack. Terminal 2, the center of the attack, remained an active crime scene early Saturday.
Authorities had not released the names of the victims as of Saturday morning.
A Delta employee reporting to work was told by a Broward County Sheriff's deputy that no one could enter the terminal and that it was not known when it would reopen. FBI agents wearing gloves evaluated the scene inside the terminal.
Airport employees said operations were running slowly Saturday morning. Many JetBlue flights were canceled, whereas the lines to check in with Allegiant Air and American Airlines snaked out the door.
According to the Fort Lauderdale Airport Twitter account, all roadways to the airport are open again for passengers and employees. People were urged to check with their airlines before going to the airport in case of delays or cancellations.
The airport is processing more than 20,000 bags and personal items from the evacuation.
Fort Lauderdale International Airport handles about 586 commercial flights daily, according to flight-tracking website Flight Aware. As of mid-morning Saturday, about a quarter of those flights — 112 — scheduled to depart from the airport had been canceled and 17 were delayed.
Gov. Rick Scott said Saturday morning that authorities would be meeting incoming cruise ships in the area and helping direct tourists to other airports to relieve congestion at Fort Lauderdale facility.