Iraq war veteran charged over Fort Lauderdale airport shooting

Esteban Santiago charged with committing an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death – an offence that carries a maximum punishment of execution if convicted.

Esteban Santiago, the Iraq war veteran accused of killing five airline passengers and wounding six others at a Florida airport, has been charged by prosecutors.

The 26-year-old is accused of opening fire at Fort Lauderdale airport and with committing an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death – an offence that carries a maximum punishment of execution if convicted.

He is also faces weapons charges over the attack at Fort Lauderdale international airport. A federal complaint said he admitted to planning the attack and had bought a one-way ticket to the airport.

Authorities said they did not know why he chose the target and that terrorism has not been ruled out. 

“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,” said US attorney Wifredo Ferrer.

Authorities said they had interviewed roughly 175 people, including a lengthy interrogation with the co-operative suspect, a former National Guard soldier from Alaska. Flights had resumed at the Fort Lauderdale airport, though the terminal where the shooting happened was still affected.

On Saturday the FBI agent in charge of investigating the case said terrorism was being considered as a possible motive.

“We continue to look at all angles and motives and at this point we are continuing to look at the terrorism angle,” said George Piro, a special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami bureau.

“The indications are he came here to carry out this horrific attack. We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack but we have not ruled anything out.”

Piro said agents had concluded an “hours-long” interview with Santiago early on Saturday but refused to go into details, citing the ongoing investigation.

Santiago is expected to make his first court appearance on Sunday. He is a National Guard veteran who, his family said, developed psychological problems after returning in 2011 from a tour of duty in Iraq. He made no attempt to resist when he was arrested in the baggage hall of the airport’s Terminal 2 on Friday.

Investigators said he had flown to Fort Lauderdale from his home in Alaska, with a stopover in Minneapolis, and appeared to have acted alone. Piro said the suspect used a legally held 9mm semi-automatic handgun, which had been checked on to the flight in accordance with security requirements.

At an earlier briefing Piro said Santiago, who was discharged from the Alaska National Guard for “unsatisfactory service” in August, had turned up at the FBI’s office in Anchorage in November complaining that voices in his head were telling him to follow Isis.

Last November, Mr Santiago walked into an FBI office in Alaska in an agitated and incoherent state, the FBI and Anchorage police said. He was carrying a loaded magazine but had left his handgun in his car, with his newborn child.

During the later mental health evaluation, he told the FBI he was hearing voices and believed he was being controlled by a US intelligence agency.  His gun was confiscated but the authorities found no wrongdoing, and it was returned in December. It is not clear if this is the same gun that he is accused of using in the attack at the airport baggage claim area.

Authorities were yet to formally identify the victims, but the number of wounded was reduced from eight to six. Three were described as being in good condition, while three remained in intensive care.

On Saturday morning Rick Scott, Florida’s governor, said he had visited some of the victims of the “absolutely horrific day” at Broward Health Medical Center. “We all want answers. Individuals have been killed and some are fighting for their lives,” he said.

“I’m a dad and I’m a granddad, I just can’t imagine this happening to my family or any other family.”

Scott repeated a promise that the killer would be held responsible “to the fullest extent of the law” and tried to reassure tourists that Florida was safe to visit.

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