Fort Lauderdale airport shooting suspect an Iraq war vet with history of mental health problems

Federal investigators will on Saturday pursue all angles in determining the motives behind a mass shooting in which an attacker opened fire in a crowded baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, killing five people.

Authorities said they had taken decorated Iraq war veteran Esteban Santiago, 26, into custody following the shooting and questioned him at length. He was expected to face federal charges, said George Piro, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Miami.

Piro said FBI investigators had not ruled out terrorism as a reason for the attack and were reviewing the suspect’s recent movements.

“We will be pursuing every angle to try to determine the motive behind this attack,” he said.

Authorities said the attacker retrieved a 9mm semiautomatic handgun from his checked luggage and began firing indiscriminately.

In addition to the five killed, eight people were wounded by gunfire and some three dozen were taken to hospital with bruises or broken bones.

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is the second largest in South Florida, serving as an intercontinental gateway. It resumed cargo flights and general aviation for private small planes at midnight local time. Commercial flights resumed on Saturday, the airport said on Twitter.


Passengers take cover Friday at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport, which reopened on Saturday morning. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Who is Esteban Santiago?

Authorities said Santiago, 26, arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shortly before 1 p.m. local time on Friday on a connecting flight from Alaska.

Piro said Santiago had turned up at an FBI office in Anchorage in November of last year behaving erratically and was turned over to local police, who took him to a medical facility for a mental health evaluation.

Santiago served from 2007 to 2016 in the Puerto Rico National Guard and Alaska National Guard including a deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, according to the Pentagon.

 Esteban Santiago

Police arrested Iraq war vet Esteban Santiago, 26, after a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport left five people dead. His friends and family said he had a history of mental instability. (Broward Sheriff’s Office)

A private first class and combat engineer, he received half a dozen medals before being transferred to the inactive ready reserve in August last year.

His brother, Bryan Santiago, told The Associated Press from Puerto Rico that Bryan had been living in Anchorage in recent years. He said his brother’s girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his treatment.

Bryan Santiago said his brother never spoke to him directly about his medical issues.

“We have not talked for the past three weeks,” Bryan Santiago said. “That’s a bit unusual … I’m in shock. He was a serious person … He was a normal person.”

Esteban Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was two, his brother said. He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the Guard in 2007.

Discharged from the military 

Since returning from Iraq, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Anchorage. He was serving as a combat engineer in the Guard before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance,” said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman. His military rank upon discharge was E3, private 1st class, and he worked one weekend a month with an additional 15 days of training yearly, Olmstead said.

She would not elaborate on his discharge, but the Pentagon said he went AWOL several times and was demoted and discharged.


A police officer works to secure the Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport on Friday, where a gunman killed five people. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Still, he’d had some successes during his military career, being awarded a number of medals and commendations including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

His uncle and aunt in New Jersey were trying to make sense of what they were hearing about Santiago after his arrest at the Fort Lauderdale airport. FBI agents arrived at their house to question them, and reporters swarmed around.

“Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn’t feeling too good,” his uncle, Hernan Rivera, told The Record newspaper.

Maria Ruiz told The Record that her nephew had recently become a father and was struggling.

“It was like he lost his mind,” she said in Spanish of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”


People wait at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport Friday after a shooting that killed five people. A suspect has since been arrested and police are working to determine the motive behind the attack. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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