The Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people and wounding six others in the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting is scheduled to appear in court Monday morning under tight security.
Esteban Santiago, 26, is facing federal charges involving murder, firearms and airport violence. If convicted, Santiago could face the death penalty.
Formal charges have not yet been filed against Santiago. His first appearance in federal court in Fort Lauderdale will likely involve U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle explaining the allegations to him and appointing a lawyer to represent him.
In the federal system, Santiago would have to be charged by a grand jury indictment unless he gives up that legal right. He would not enter a plea of guilty or not guilty until formal charges are filed, which could takes days or weeks.
Given his history of mental health problems, any lawyer who represents Santiago is likely to ask for a mental competency evaluation to make sure he understands what is going on. Most federal defendants are deemed competent to stand trial if they are well enough to understand the charges against them and assist their lawyers in their defense.
If the defense can prove a suspect has serious mental health issues, that is mostly considered in the sentencing process, after conviction, or when prosecutors make their final decision on whether to actually seek the death penalty.
Airport security video shows Santiago pulling a semi-automatic handgun from his waistband and shooting at people in the baggage carousel area in Terminal 2.
Santiago confessed shortly after the Friday afternoon shooting, according to the FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office.
He told investigators that he planned the attack and bought a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale to carry it out, according to court records. His motive and reason for traveling 5,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to Fort Lauderdale before opening fire remain unclear, said George Piro the agent in charge of the FBI in South Florida.
Santiago is being detained at the Broward Main Jail on federal allegations he fatally shot people, as well as firearm and airport violence charges. If convicted of the most serious allegations, he would face the maximum punishment of execution or life in federal prison.
The charges “represent the gravity of the situation and reflect the commitment of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel to continually protect the community and prosecute those who target our residents and visitors,” U.S Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro and U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor Larry Schneider.
Santiago, a former National Guard soldier who was born in New Jersey, grew up in Puerto Rico and most recently lived in Anchorage, has a history of mental health problems since he returned from serving in Iraq, his family and federal officials said.
Agents said he legally checked a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun and two magazines of ammunition in his baggage on a Delta Airlines flight from Alaska via Minnesota.
After picking up his bag from the baggage carousel, he told investigators he unpacked the gun, loaded it inside a stall in the men’s restroom and shot the first people he saw after he walked out of the restroom.
Santiago was briefly hospitalized in November after he walked into the FBI office in Anchorage and asked for help, authorities said. He told agents the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State propaganda videos, investigators said.
He had left his 2-month-old baby son and a gun in his vehicle outside the office and brought in a magazine that contained ammunition, authorities said. The infant’s mother was called to take custody of the baby and local police seized his gun and took him to a local psychiatric hospital for treatment, they said.
Santiago’s gun was returned to him on Dec. 8, less than one month before the bloodshed in Fort Lauderdale, investigators said.
Santiago was discharged from the National Guard last year after being demoted for unsatisfactory performance.
Family members said he was hearing voices and was severely affected by seeing a bomb explode near two of his friends when he served in Iraq.
(c)2017 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.