The man suspected of shooting 13 people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday afternoon, killing five and injuring eight, is a former U.S. Army combat engineer who flew to South Florida from Alaska — where he had received mental-health treatment after disclosing he felt forced to fight for the terrorist group ISIS.
Federal investigators believe Esteban Santiago, 26, landed at Fort Lauderdale early Friday afternoon with a checked bag containing a firearm. He picked up his bag at the carousel and walked into the men’s room, where investigators suspect Santiago loaded the weapon. Then he returned to the Terminal 2 baggage claim and pulled the trigger.
Witnesses described Santiago unloading magazine after magazine of ammunition. In some cases, they feared, he was aiming straight at his victims’ heads.
Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies captured Santiago unharmed, without firing a shot of their own, Sheriff Scott Israel said, though he wouldn’t name Santiago.
“If I had to give a hypothesis based on the knowledge I have at this time, it would be a home-grown violent extremist,” Israel told reporters about the shooter, who is believed to have acted alone.
Law enforcement sources confirmed to the Miami Herald that Santiago went to an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, in November to confess he felt compelled to fight for ISIS. The feds sent Santiago to get psychiatric help. They are expected to comb through Santiago’s social-media profiles and possessions to try to understand his possible motives.
Federal investigators began interviewing Santiago and airport witnesses Friday. A Facebook profile thought to belong to Santiago quickly vanished from the site. So did an Instagram account that appeared to show three photographs of Santiago — in an Army uniform, with cohorts and with a Puerto Rican flag. Other snapshots showed him in London, with a cousin in Southwest Florida and showing off several tattoos. Whether Santiago owned either or both accounts was unverified by authorities.
Why Santiago was in Fort Lauderdale is unknown, and where his flight originated is unclear. Investigators first said they believed he’d arrived from Canada. But Air Canada, which had two flights land at around noon Friday, said in a statement it has “no record of a passenger by the name Esteban Santiago, or checked guns, on any of our flights to Fort Lauderdale.”
A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, the other carrier that operates Terminal 2 flights, declined to offer any details on whether Santiago was one of its passengers, citing the ongoing shooting investigation.
Regardless of the city Santiago departed from, he had been living in Anchorage, public records show.
He was discharged last summer. Santiago, a former Army private first class, was an Iraq War vet who also served from Puerto Rico to Alaska between December 2007 and August 2016, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Candis Olmestead of the Alaska National Guard.
Olmstead said Santiago served in Alaska for less than two years, starting Nov. 21, 2014, and received a “general discharge” from the Alaska Army National Guard on Aug. 16, 2016 “for unsatisfactory performance.” She did not elaborate.
He joined the Puerto Rico National Guard on Dec. 14, 2007, Olmstead told the Miami Herald by email, deployed to Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard from April 23, 2010, to February 19, 2011 and also did a stint in as in the Army Reserves before he joined the Army National Guard in Alaska. He never served in the Florida National Guard.
The U.S. Army issued a nearly 10-year military record that described Santiago as released from the Alaska National Guard in August to the Inactive Ready Reserve, meaning he could be available for future service.
His assignments included a short stint at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, likely for training, and a single deployment — to Iraqi from April 2010 to February 2011.
He received 10 medals and ribbons for his service, notably the Army Commendation and Good Conduct medals as well as the Iraq Campaign Medal with a campaign star.
In January, Santiago was charged in Alaska with misdemeanor counts of property damage and assault.
The charges stemmed from an alleged assault on his girlfriend at her Anchorage home, according to court records obtained by Alaska Dispatch News. The girlfriend told police that Santiago smashed in her bathroom door and tried to strangle her, although an officer said she did not appear to be injured, the newspaper reported. Santiago was later accused of returning to his girlfriend’s house, which he had been ordered to avoid.
A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department referred all questions to the FBI. Santiago’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Santiago’s brother in Puerto Rico told the Associated Press Santiago received psychological treatment in Alaska. Bryan Santiago didn’t know why or how his brother was being treated. He knew of the help from a call his family received in recent months from Esteban Santiago’s girlfriend, the AP reported.
Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2 years old, according to the AP. Esteban Santiago grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas.
Santiago’s aunt, María Ruiz, told reporters in Union City, New Jersey, that Santiago seemed troubled when he returned from Iraq. According to the Bergen Record, Ruiz said he was “happy” after the recent birth of a child.
“I don’t know why this happened,” Ruiz told the Record.