Accused airport gunman ruled competent, clearing way for guilty plea

Esteban Santiago faces sentence of life in prison under plea agreement

By Tim Swift - Local10.com Digital Editor, Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - An Alaska man accused of killing five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has been ruled mentally competent, clearing the way for him to plead guilty.

Earlier this month, Esteban Santiago agreed to plead guilty if prosecutors did not seek the death penalty in the January 2017 shooting. He faces a sentence of life in prison.

"The defendant is able to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him and to assist properly in his defense," according to court records filed Monday.

A trial was scheduled to begin on June 11.

According to the indictment, Santiago flew on a one-way ticket from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale with a 9 mm handgun in a box he put in checked luggage. After landing, he retrieved the weapon, loaded it in a bathroom and came out firing randomly until he exhausted his ammunition.

Since his arrest, Santiago has been treated at a Miami jail for schizophrenia, but his lawyers said he is mentally fit for trial. He complained of mental problems before the shooting but was not barred from possessing a gun.

After the shooting, the FBI said, Santiago told agents in a confession that he acted under government mind control, then claimed inspiration by Islamic State extremists. No terrorism links have been found.

The FBI said numerous airport security cameras recorded the shooting on video and there are dozens of witnesses who can identify Santiago as the shooter.

Santiago, a National Guard Iraq veteran, was treated at an Anchorage psychiatric hospital a year before the shooting after he showed up at the local FBI office saying he was under CIA mind control and was hearing voices. He was released after a brief stay and given anti-anxiety medicine.

His gun, which had been confiscated by police during that time, was returned to him and was used a few weeks later in the Florida shooting.

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