This is what happened during Fort Lauderdale airport shooter's sentencing

Local 10 News reporter Madeleine Wright documents events in federal court

By Madeleine Wright - Reporter

MIAMI - As Esteban Santiago was sentenced Friday for the shooting rampage at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Local 10 News reporter Madeleine Wright was in the courtroom.

Because it is federal court, no cameras or electronic devices are allowed.

So, Wright reported the old-fashioned way -- with pencil, paper and meticulous notes.

Below is a thorough recap of what took place in the courtroom.


KEY PLAYERS IN COURT

The legal team:
1) Beth Bloom, U.S. District Court Judge
2) Eric Cohen, public defender
3) Ricardo Del Toro, prosecutor

Families of the five deceased victims:
1) Mary Louise Amzibel, 69
2) Michael Oehme, 56
3) Olga Weltering, 84
4) Shirley Timmons, 70
5) Terry Andres, 62

Santiago had a closely shaven head and was sporting a full beard. He sat next to his public defenders, facing the judge, and didn't say anything in court.

Bloom mentioned at the beginning of the hearing that Santiago was convicted of five counts of committing violence in an airport resulting in death and six counts of committing violence in an airport resulting in serious bodily injury. He pleaded guilty to those 11 counts in exchange for the prosecution dropping the other 11 counts and not seeking the death penalty.

Del Toro introduced several victims' family members, who were invited to speak. Melissa Beauchamp was the first. She is the daughter of Mary Louise Amzibel, who was killed, and Edward Zamzibel, who was injured. 

Here is some of what she has to say: 

  •  Melissa was shattered when she found out about her mother's death and never got to say goodbye. Her life changed forever. 
  •  She has to watch her father grieve every day. Her parents were supposed to celebrate their wedding anniversaries and watch their grandchildren grow up and travel the world. Now they'll never get to do that.
  • Her father can't enjoy food anymore and his nerve endings are damaged. 
  •  "A loving home is now a suffocating tomb" for her father because everything in the home brings back memories of his deceased wife and he is scarred.
  •  "My mother was my best friend, my world, my confidante."
  • She said that her mother will no longer hug her or spend holidays with her, at which point Beauchamp started crying.
  •  "You robbed me of my mother and my life," she said, addressing Santiago.
  •  "I miss my mom every day." 
  • Beauchamp said she looks forward to when she is reunited with her mother.

James Steckley spoke on behalf of his wife Julie, who was injured. 

Here is what he had to say: 

  •  "I don't think you were born a killer," he said, addressing Santiago.
  • He said he is sorry that Santiago did not get the support system he needed, a fact that led him to this senseless attack.
  • "I only hope you realize the hurt you've caused" many families, including Santiago's own.
  • "I hope God can forgive you because I don't know if I can."

Del Toro read a statement from Julie. In it, he said:

  • Julie has a hole in her shoulder that she sees every time she gets up in the morning to take a shower.
  • She has PTSD and is constantly afraid another shooting will happen.
  • She does not feel safe anywhere she goes and her life will forever be different.
  • Some days she wants to just say in the house and never come out.

Del Toro read a statement from the wife of Michael Oehme, who was killed. 

Here is some of Sherry Oehme wrote:

Sherry Oehme leaves the federal courthouse in Miami after Esteban Santiago was sentenced to life in prison for the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting rampage. Oehme's husband was one of five killed in the January 2017 shooting.

  • "To the coward who murdered my husband," is how the letter began.
  • She was married for 31 years and her husband was her soulmate and best friend.
  • "I'm physically harmed, but emotionally broken."
  • "You were in the military. You were supposed to protect." 
  • "How could you walk into a room full of innocent people and shoot?"
  • Michael was adventurous, honest and would do anything to save a man. He adopted two disabled dogs.
  • "You are the devil's right-hand man." 
  • She and her husband were going to retire and travel, but now they never will.
  • "We will never forgive you for what you did. I hope you live a long life so you will be haunted by your actions. On the day you die, your soul will rot in eternal damnation."

Del Toro also read a statement from the Weltering family: 

  • Originally from England, she married young. 
  • "She found the courage to leave" her hometown and move to America to be with her husband, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen.
  • She was married for 65 years and had six great grandchildren.
  • She was also a devout Christian.
  • Olga's family said that if she had survived the attack, she would have woken up at the hospital confused about what just happened.
  • "We can offer forgiveness, but it's up to God" to forgive.

When the victim impact statements were done being read and the victims' families had finished speaking, Bloom offered Santiago the opportunity to speak to the victims directly. Sensing his hesitation, Cohen asked to approach the podium, a request the judge granted. 

This is what Cohen said: 

  • "There's nothing we can do to make the pain go away," he said. 
  • "He has accepted responsibility for his actions" and "has expressed remorse for his horrific actions," he said.
  • "Mr. Santiago committed a horrible act on Jan. 6. There's no denying it."
  • "It was 85 seconds of terror."
  • He understands the magnitude of his crime.
  • "Although he committed a horrible act, there are indications he's not a horrible person."
  • He's a loving father and son.
  • Cohen spoke to eight service members who served with Santiago in Iraq. All eight offered to testify on Santiago's behalf and support him.
  • Santiago is severely mentally ill. He lost his father nine months after arriving in Puerto Rico.
  • He was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. When Santiago was talking to a psychiatrist in the Broward County jail, he mentioned he was receiving messages. He was referring to orders from the FBI and the CIA. He was actively psychotic at that time.
  • "There's no justification for it, but he was hallucinating." 

Bloom again asked whether Santiago wanted to speak directly to the victims' families, since Cohen basically sidestepped her question. Santiago's other attorney replied, "No, your honor, he's not able to at this point."

Here is what Del Toro said when it was the prosecution's turn to speak:

  • "He ruined lives."
  • "There was extensive pre-meditation in this case. This wasn't a snap judgment."
  • Santiago bought a one way ticket to Fort Lauderdale, got rid of his possessions and wiped his computer clean days before the attack.
  • During the shooting, he stopped, reloaded and killed some more people. He admitted to the FBI he planned it out.
  • "This was a calculated, methodical, premeditated attack." 
  • He was sane when he did the attack and he has used mushrooms, ecstasy and a potent synthetic marijuana called spice.
  • The extensive hallucinogenic drugs he used exacerbated his schizophrenia.
  • Santiago refused to seek mental health treatment after his psychiatric hospitalization in Alaska.
  • He failed to show up for medical appointments near his hometown in Puerto Rico.
  • His colleagues in Iraq said he was a good soldier, but their "job was to protect Americans. He killed Americans."
  • "Few crimes will ever compare to the seriousness of these offenses."
  • "Potential attackers need to know they will never, ever be free if they commit such a heinous act."

When Del Toro was done talking, Bloom asked why the prosecution didn't seek the death penalty since his act was so heinous.

Del Toro said it was the attorney general's decision and that he is "not allowed to discuss internal deliberations." He did add, however, that the victims' families didn't want the death penalty because they thought a life sentence would be a harsher punishment.

The victims' families also didn't want to be dragged through years, even decades, of litigation. Their wishes weighed heavily in the attorney general's decision. 

At that point, Bloom began summarizing the biographies of the five victims who died. They were all from out of town and almost all of them had flown in for a cruise. 

Once she was done summarizing the deceased victims' biographies, the judge turned to the surviving victims. 

The judge then turned her attention on Santiago, speaking directly to him. 

She said:

  • "It is impossible to separate the evil in the acts from the evil in the man."
  • It was "85 seconds of evil." 
  • When deputies arrested Santiago, "you advised you probably would have kept shooting if you hadn't run out of ammunition."
  • When a deputy asked you how you felt, you said, "I don't feel anything."
  • When the deputy asked if you would do it again, you said, "I don't know."
  • When the deputy asked if you feel any remorse, you said, "Not really."
  • "I wish I could do more. I wish this sentence brings you closure," Bloom said to the victims.

The judge then addressed the court more generally, saying:

  • Santiago is ordered to pay restitution, but he can't. Earlier in the hearing, she mentioned that if Santiago ever appears in a movie or documentary, any money he earns from that, or any money he receives from anybody for anything, must be given over to the court for restitution.
  • A restitution hearing has to happen because his restitution is "in dispute."
  • The restitution hearing date was not set.
  • Santiago is ordered to pay $1,100 in costs.
  • The court needs to determine the assets of the victims' losses during a Nov. 2 hearing.

During the sentencing, Santiago was alert and quiet. When he did talk, he mainly just leaned over to whisper in his lawyer's ear. As Santiago stood up and walked away at the end of the proceeding, he nodded to a family member. His family was sitting in the back row.

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