Prosecutors could seek death penalty in case of Iraqi war veteran turned airport gunman

FBI: Esteban Santiago planned attack at Fort Lauderdale airport

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A day after a shooting left five dead and six wounded at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, law enforcement authorities nationwide were scrambling to learn more about Esteban Santiago, the accused 26-year-old gunman. 

Santiago had connections to New York, Puerto Rico, Florida and Alaska. Authorities said they had questioned some 175 people and learned that he traveled to South Florida to carry out a planned attack with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun.

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Relatives in New York and Puerto Rico talked about Santiago's change after he served in Iraq from 2010 to 2011. His mother said in tears that he witnessed how a roadside bomb in Taji killed two fellow 130th Engineer Company soldiers. 

"The federal government already knew about this for months," Santiago's brother Bryan Santiago, who lives in Puerto Rico, told The Associated Press in Spanish. "They had been evaluating him for a while, but they didn't do anything."

After Santiago sat in Broward County jail, federal prosecutors announced they filed charges against  him: Performing an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that caused serious bodily injury, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence and causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm.

The statutory charges allow a maximum penalty, upon conviction, of death or imprisonment for life, according to Wilfredo A. Ferrer, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. 

"Today's charges represent the gravity of the situation and reflect the commitment of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel to continually protect the community and prosecute those who target our residents and visitors," Ferrer said in a statement on Saturday afternoon. 

Relatives said his mental state worsened in Alaska, where he worked for a security firm, became a father and didn't get the psychological help he requested and needed. Authorities in Alaska defended their actions on Saturday.

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The Anchorage Police Department confirmed his record of domestic violence on Saturday afternoon. He was accused of choking his girlfriend and smacking her on the side of the head in January 2016.

During a Saturday afternoon press conference, Anchorage Chief Chris Tolley listed several complaints of physical disturbances last year. Police officers said he was accused of trying to strangle someone on Oct. 21, 2016, but they decided they didn't have enough evidence to arrest him. 

An FBI agent in Anchorage said days later, Santiago walked into their office saying he was having terroristic thoughts. Agents said he displayed signs of having a mental health crisis. He had left his new born child and a firearm in the car and was in possession of a loaded magazine. 

"He was a walk-in complaint," FBI agent Marlin Ritzman said. "This is something that happens at FBI offices around the country every day."

The FBI referred him to the Anchorage Police Department to request a mental health evaluation. His girlfriend picked up the baby. Shortly after, Santiago was admitted to a psychiatric facility. After he was released, he returned to the FBI to retrieve his firearm Nov. 30. He didn't get the weapon until Dec. 8.

"I told him to go to church or to seek professional help," Bryan Santiago said. 

Residents in Anchorage told an Alaska Dispatch News reporter that Santiago had been living in Fairview. The tiny home had a small Puerto Rican flag on the window. Santiago was born in New Jersey and raised in Puerto Rico. 

Pamela Van Dyke told the Alaska Dispatch that Santiago lived there with a woman and two children. She said "there was something not right" about Santiago.

While it is unclear if Santiago had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as many as one in five veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan develop the affliction each year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

"The FBI failed there," Bryan Santiago said in Spanish. "We're not talking about someone who emerged from anonymity to do something like this."

The accused gunman was set to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia O. Valle at 11 a.m., Monday, in Fort Lauderdale. 

Local 10 News' Nicolas Rojas contributed to this report. The Associated Press' Danica Coto, Becky Bohrer, Rachel D'Oro, Mark Thiessen, Jason Dearen, Lolita C. Baldor and Eric Tucker contributed to this story. 

This story has been corrected to show Santiago is accused of wounding 6 people and not 8, per new information from the Broward Sheriff's Office. 

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