Man Accused In Ft. Lauderdale Airport Shooting Appears In Court

Jan 9, 2017
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to get the latest now on the investigation into the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Friday. Authorities say 26-year-old Esteban Santiago had flown to Fort Lauderdale from Anchorage, Alaska. Then they say he removed a semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage, loaded it in a bathroom and began shooting people in the airport's baggage claim area. Eleven people were shot, and five people were killed.

Today, Santiago had his first appearance in federal court. NPR's Greg Allen was there, and he joins us now. Greg, what happened in court today?

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, there was a heavier than normal security presence. Esteban Santiago was led out, escorted out, shackled and in a red jumpsuit. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle questioned him about his finances and job history to see if he qualified for a court-appointed attorney.

He told her that he worked last November most recently for a security company in Anchorage, Alaska, a company called Signal 88. That's around the time he went to an FBI office, telling them that he felt the government was forcing him to watch ISIS videos. He only has about $5 or $10 in the bank. She gave him an attorney, and he told her he did understand the seriousness of the crimes he's charged with.

MCEVERS: What are the crimes he is charged with?

ALLEN: Well, there's three counts so far, but there could be more. We could see an indictment coming later. The three crimes are an act of violence to commit serious bodily harm in an airport, deadly use of firearms and also using firearms in a violent crime.

For the first two charges there, the maximum penalty is death - and so very serious charges here - could also be life imprisonment. So far there's no signs there is anything related to international terrorism, but the FBI at least over the weekend said they have not ruled that out yet.

MCEVERS: A lot of what we're learning about Esteban Santiago indicates there were concerns about his mental health. What do we know about him?

ALLEN: Well, you know, he grew up in Puerto Rico, served in the National Guard there and then later in Alaska. In all, he served nine years with the Guard, including one tour in Iraq where he received a battle medal for being involved in a combat duty over there. Last August, he was discharged from the Alaska National Guard for poor performance. At the time, he was questioned by Army investigators who noted his strange behavior.

And then the next time he pops up on our radar is in November when he went to the FBI office and told them about the ISIS videos he felt that the CIA was forcing him to watch. They referred him to local police, who put him in a mental health facility for four days where he was held before being released. A month later, then consulted with the FBI, the police returned his gun to him.

MCEVERS: Why? I mean why was he able to get his gun back?

ALLEN: Well, federal laws prohibit anyone who's adjudicated to be mentally ill from owning a gun, but they hadn't reached that stage with Santiago. The FBI said they had - did not determine that he was a threat to anyone at that time. And after the four days of mental health assessment, clearly that assessment remained the same.

But that has led to calls to re-examine some of these laws about the mentally ill and their ability to own a gun. Here is Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, whose office responded to the shootings. He was on Miami WPLG TV yesterday.

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SCOTT ISRAEL: People who are suffering from mental illness should not be allowed, in my opinion, to purchase or have firearms at any time.

ALLEN: Over the weekend at the Fort Lauderdale airport, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was there. The airport is in her district. She said she'll be asking members of Congress to review - do a comprehensive review of the nation's laws after this shooting.

They should look at the mental health laws, she said - also look at the idea of transporting guns in checked bags, whether that's something that needs more regulation. And she also wants to improve safety in unsecured parts of the airport, places like baggage claim.

MCEVERS: What's next for Santiago?

ALLEN: Well, there'll be a detention hearing next week, which will decide whether he can be released on bond or not - very unlikely. And then his arraignment - formal arraignment will be on January 23.

MCEVERS: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami, thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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