Fort Lauderdale shooting suspect was an Iraq war veteran with delusions of being forced to fight for Islamic State

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The young Iraq war veteran suspected of fatally shooting five people and wounding eight others at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport Friday had become mentally agitated in recent weeks, family members said, despite his happiness over the birth of a son less than four months ago. 

Esteban Santiago, 26, was in custody following the attack, being questioned by local and federal law enforcement. Eyewitnesses described an eerily calm assailant who fired bursts from a semiautomatic handgun at fellow airline passengers as they clustered around a baggage carousel – and then just as calmly tossed his weapon away and positioned himself spread-eagle on the ground, waiting for police to arrest him.  

The country’s largest mass shooting of the new year threw the busy Florida airport into chaos, with thousands of travelers and airport staff fleeing onto walkways and the tarmac as emergency responders and law enforcement officers, many heavily armed and in tactical gear, rushed to the scene.

In addition to the eight people hurt in the shooting, 37 others were injured in the chaotic aftermath, authorities said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it had grounded flights around the country destined for Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, but some flights that were landing when the shooting broke out shortly before 1 p.m. were stranded for hours on the tarmac with passengers aboard. Hundreds more people were trapped as security forces swept the airport.

As the attack unfolded, the Transportation Safety Administration said on Twitter that there was an active shooter in the airport and urged people inside to shelter in place. Later, television video showed long lines of people trudging with their luggage away from the terminals or milling around outside, with most vehicles still blocked from entering the closed airport.

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that he was following the “horrific events” at the airport – briefed by Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said he had phoned Trump rather than calling President Obama. The White House said Obama was briefed about the attack by staff.

The trajectory of Santiago’s life had taken him from balmy Puerto Rico to snowy Anchorage. Along the way, many troubling signs emerged.

A federal law enforcement official said Santiago boarded a Delta Air Lines flight in Anchorage and flew to Fort Lauderdale by way of Minneapolis. Authorities are investigating whether he got into a dispute with another passenger on the Anchorage-to-Minneapolis leg of the flight, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

After getting off the plane, the gunman retrieved his baggage and went to the bathroom, where he pulled out the gun, the official said.

Unloaded firearms can be legally checked in baggage in a secure container if declared, according to TSA regulations.

Law enforcement authorities said the suspect was taken into custody without any additional shots being fired, and no other suspects have been identified.

Authorities said the motive was unknown. But worrying details of the suspect’s life in Alaska were beginning to emerge.

George L. Piro, the special agent in charge at the FBI’s Miami field office, reported that Santiago had walked into the agency’s Anchorage field office in November. “At that time, he clearly stated that he did not intend to harm anyone,” Piro told reporters.

But the FBI agents who spoke to him were concerned about his “erratic behavior” and turned him over to local law enforcement, which in turn took him to a medical facility for evaluation.

A federal law enforcement source said Santiago had complained in his visit to the FBI of being forced to fight for the militant group Islamic State. He reported that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. spy agency, the official said. 

Last January, he was arrested and charged with assault in an incident involving his girlfriend.

According to the court complaint, police said he had been yelling at her through a locked bathroom door, then busted through the door, pulling it out of its frame. He then began striking her and strangling her, the woman told police, though they observed no apparent injuries.

The prosecutor dismissed the case in March when Santiago entered into a deferred prosecution agreement.

Santiago was formerly a member of the Alaska Army National Guard and left the organization for "unsatisfactory performance" in August 2016, a National Guard spokeswoman confirmed to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida. His rank at the time was private first class.

"He is no longer a member of our organization," said Lt. Col. Candis A. Olmstead, who added that she could not elaborate on the reason for his discharge. "Information on disciplinary actions [is] not releasable,'' she said.

A combat engineer, Santiago joined the Puerto Rico National Guard in December 2007. He was deployed to Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011, according to the Alaska Army National Guard.

In Union City, N.J., an aunt, Maria Luisa Ruiz, told reporters that Santiago had been happy upon the birth of his son, but that she and family members had feared his mental state was deteriorating. She showed reporters a photo of him wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Disturbed.”

“Like a month ago, it was like he lost his mind,” she said, according to the website NorthJersey.com. “He said he saw things.”

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told reporters the incident appeared to have been limited to the lower-level baggage claim area of Terminal 2, and there was no evidence to support unconfirmed reports of gunshots in another terminal.

“There’s no confirmation of any kind of gunshots anywhere at any time other than this horrific, horrific incident,” Israel said. 

The FBI has joined the investigation.

Santiago will face federal charges and will most likely make his first court appearance in Broward County on Monday, Piro said. He did not specify the charges and declined to speculate about a motive, saying it was too early in the investigation.

Agents have not ruled anything out, including the possibility of terrorism, he said. "It is a long-term, very difficult, complex investigation."

Hours after the shooting, most vehicles were still blocked from entering the closed airport, and authorities said it wasn’t scheduled to reopen until 5 a.m. Saturday.

For some of those caught up in the attack, Friday was to have been the start of a voyage on one of the many cruises that depart from Fort Lauderdale.

Mark Lea, a 53-year-old financial advisor, had just arrived on a flight from Minnesota with his wife to catch a cruise to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.

The couple collected their luggage and were about to leave the terminal when they heard three quick bursts of what they thought were firecrackers. They quickly realized, however, that a gunman had opened fire about 100 yards away.

“At that point, people started frantically screaming and yelling and running for the exits,” Lea said by telephone from the airport. “People were kind of tripping over each other.” He helped his wife to safety, then went back to aid others.

He described the shooter as “very calm, very quiet, no emotions.”

The gunman, who was dressed in jeans and a blue polo shirt, was carrying what appeared to Lea to be a 9-millimeter handgun. He fired off a few dozen rounds near the luggage carousels, then dropped his gun to the ground and lay spread-eagle on the floor, waiting for sheriff’s deputies to apprehend him, Lea said.

“This whole thing took place in about 45 seconds and he was done,” said Lea.

Hours later, the couple were still waiting at the airport with other passengers to retrieve their luggage.  Authorities moved passengers upstairs to the ticketing area to wait while they secured the crime scene.

Travelers described huddling inside a restaurant in Terminal 2, using tables for cover, after the gunfire erupted or ducking behind parked cars when they saw people running out the doors. Others told of surreal scenes that suddenly punctuated the tedium of a routine wait at the airport.

Bruce Wagner, 55, and his husband were on their way to New York after an 11-day Caribbean cruise. They were sitting at their gate when they suddenly saw people running and screaming.

The crowd stampeded for the exits, he said – but there was no way out except for the jetways for boarding planes. Alarms blared, and security officials struggled to open emergency exits leading down to the tarmac.

“Everybody just plowed through them, packed like sardines, shoving and pushing and screaming,” Wagner said by phone, with alarms still screeching in the background. Some of those who ran outside stayed close to the terminals, but others fled as far as the runways.

Finally passengers were let back inside, where passengers’ bags and outerwear were strewn everywhere, and iPads were left still plugged in for charging in the melee.

Only moments later, an apparently false alarm sent people fleeing again.

“It was totally inept as far as security or any kind of safety,” Wagner said. “It seems like nobody’s had any experience or training.”

Josh Marsh, 24, described airline staff just one terminal over from the attack scene as being unaware of the shooting – even after he showed an agent social media reports of the shooting.

“Nothing happened for a good 20 minutes,” Marsh said. “No lockdown, no announcements, no nothing.”

Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was one of those caught up in the incident, tweeting that shots had been fired and “everyone was running.”

The Fort Lauderdale airport, about 25 miles north of Miami, is a major travel hub, with more than 70,000 people passing through daily, according to the airport. Security was stepped up at the larger Miami airport in the wake of the shooting.

For some, the attack shattered a workday routine. Jayce Sisley, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and works as a flight attendant, said he was heading to the airport for work when worried friends and family began texting him about the shooting.

His employer told him flights were still departing and asked him to report for duty, but the pathway was blocked by emergency vehicles, he said, with officers waving off arriving cars.

Panic spread rapidly. A traveler identified only as Ben told CBS’ Miami affiliate that he was boarding a shuttle outside the terminal when he saw “everyone in a big pack just running as far as possible away from the shots.”

“It was a scene of ambulances and police cars, trucks, all kinds of people with automatic weapons blocking all the exits,” Sisley said. As he headed back from the airport, emergency vehicles roared past him, sirens blaring, he said.

That’s when the magnitude of the situation hit him. Even though he had received training for these types of incidents, Sisley said, it all seemed unreal. “I’m shocked,” he said. “And I’m worried.”

King and Wilber reported from Washington, Agrawal and Zavis from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Melissa Etehad in Los Angeles, William J. Hennigan in Washington and Sun-Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

8 p.m.: The article was updated with information on the suspect’s past encounters with the FBI and other details from a law enforcement press conference.

7:10 p.m.: The article was updated with additional witness interviews and details of an criminal complaint against the suspected shooter.

4 p.m.: The article was updated with background on the shooting suspect’s time in Alaska.

3:20 p.m.: The article was updated with additional witness accounts.

2:35 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details from a law enforcement source.

1:05 p.m.: The article was updated with details from law enforcement officials.

12:10 p.m.: The article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

10:55 a.m.: This article was updated with reports of multiple deaths.

This article was originally published at 10:30 a.m.

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