FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Months after Esteban Santiago went to the FBI to complain about the government controlling his mind, the Army veteran legally checked in a semi-automatic firearm on a Delta Flight to Fort Lauderdale. When he got a hold of it at the baggage claim area, investigators said he turned it on travelers.
The special agent in charge of the FBI's Miami division said the 26-year-old war veteran had turned to the FBI for help for the shooting. Santiago was accused of killing five people and wounding eight others at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday.
"They guy must have been standing over me at one point. I could smell the gunpowder," said Bruce Hugon, who was about to start his vacation in South Florida, when he said he saw a woman get shot in the head.
With the threat of the Islamic State, FBI agent George L. Piro, who is in charge of the Miami field office, said they had not ruled out terrorism as a motive for the shooting. Piro said Santiago, who was in federal custody on Friday night, will be facing federal charges and will appear in federal court in Broward County on Monday.
Santiago was a licensed gun owner. Investigators learned that he declared his gun and ammunition. They were in a checked bag that traveled legally with Delta Airlines.
"After he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting," Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca said, after he spoke to investigators.
The attack also exposed another weak point in airport security: While travelers have to take off their shoes, put their carry-on luggage through X-ray machines and pass through metal detectors to reach the gates, many other sections of airports, such as ticket counters and baggage claim areas, are more vulnerable to attack.
Santiago was not considered a flight risk. Piro reported that the FBI had a record of Santiago's violent thoughts, which the war veteran considered threatening enough to report to authorities.
"The individual did walk into our Anchorage office in November," Piro said during a press conference held at the airport on Friday night.
Piro said the FBI agents transferred him to the custody of the Anchorage Police Department. The police officers had him hospitalized and he underwent a mental health evaluation. It was a month after relatives said he became a father.
FBI agents were also dissecting his military record and talking to relatives and affiliates in several states.
Years before the horror ensued at the airport on Friday, Santiago got weapons training after he joined the National Guard in 2007. He was sent to Iraq in 2010 and spent a year there with the 130th Engineer Battalion, according to Puerto Rico National Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen.
The Pentagon said Santiago had gone AWOL several times during his stint with the Alaska National Guard and was demoted — from specialist to private first class — and given a general discharge, which is lower than an honorable discharge.
Witnesses said Santiago didn't say a word,as he aimed at some people's heads. He went through about three magazines before he ran out of ammunition and threw the gun down. He laid spread-eagle on the ground.
"The subject was interviewed extensively by a team of FBI agents and BSO deputies," Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said. Piro described the interview as very long.
President Barack Obama was briefed by his Homeland Security adviser, the White House said. President-elect Donald Trump said that it is a "disgraceful situation that's happening in our country and throughout the world" and that it was too soon to say whether it was a terrorist attack.
"It's still too early in the investigation to truly know why he came to Florida," Piro said.