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Florida shooting: US veteran ‘lost mind’ after Iraq tour, had run-ins with law

The man police say opened fire with a gun from his checked baggage at a Florida airport had a history of mental health issues — some of which followed his military service in Iraq — and was receiving psychological treatment at his home in Alaska.

world Updated: Jan 07, 2017 20:33 IST
AP
Passengers run for cover in Terminal 1 at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport in Florida on January 6, 2017.
Passengers run for cover in Terminal 1 at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport in Florida on January 6, 2017. (AP)

The gunman who opened fire at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport on Friday had a history of mental health issues — some of which followed his military service in Iraq — and was receiving psychological treatment at his home in Alaska, his relatives said after the deadly incident.

“Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn’t feeling too good,” his uncle, Hernan Rivera, told The Record newspaper.

Twenty six-year-old Esteban Santiago was deployed in 2010 as part of the Puerto Rico National Guard, spending a year with an engineering battalion, according to Guard spokesman Major Paul Dahlen.

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In recent years, Santiago had been living in Anchorage, Alaska, his brother, Bryan Santiago, told The Associated Press from Puerto Rico. Bryan Santiago said his brother’s girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his treatment.

In November, Esteban told FBI agents in Alaska that the government was controlling his mind and was forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos, a law enforcement official said. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke Friday on condition of anonymity.

The FBI agents notified the police after the interview with Esteban, who took him in for a mental health evaluation.

Passengers take cover in Terminal 1 at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport in Florida on January 6, 2017. An Army veteran who complained that the government was controlling his mind drew a gun from his checked luggage on arrival at the airport and opened fire in the baggage claim area. (AP)

Bryan said his brother never spoke to him directly about his medical issues.

“We have not talked for the past three weeks,” Bryan said. “That’s a bit unusual ... I’m in shock. He was a serious person ... He was a normal person.”

Esteban was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2, his brother said. He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the Guard in 2007.

Since returning from Iraq, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Fairbanks. He was serving as a combat engineer in the Guard before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance,” said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman. His military rank upon discharge was E3, private 1st class, and he worked one weekend a month with an additional 15 days of training yearly, Olmstead said.

She would not elaborate on his discharge, but the Pentagon said he’d gone AWOL (absent without leave) several times and was demoted and discharged.

Still, he’d had some successes during his military career, being awarded a number of medals and commendations including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

Read | Florida airport shooting: Gunman identified as discharged US veteran, claimed govt controlled his mind

His uncle and aunt in New Jersey were trying to make sense of what they were hearing about Santiago after his arrest at the Fort Lauderdale airport. FBI agents arrived at their house to question them, and reporters swarmed around.

Maria Ruiz told The Record that her nephew had recently become a father and was struggling.

“It was like he lost his mind,” she said in Spanish of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”

In Anchorage, police officers told reporters that they were interviewing people at an address for Santiago but wouldn’t give details and were keeping journalists away from the home. FBI agents were also seen at the scene by neighbours.

An injured woman is loaded into an emergency vehicle at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after a gunman opened fire inside a terminal of the airport, killing at least five people and injuring eight others. (AP)

Santiago was flying from Anchorage on a Delta flight and had checked only one piece of luggage — the one containing the gun.

He was involved in a number of minor court cases in Alaska, including fines for not having proof of insurance and a criminal mischief case that led to a deferred sentence. His attorney, Max Holmquist, declined to discuss his client with an AP reporter.

Santiago was also charged in a domestic violence case in January 2016, damaging a door when he forced his way into a bathroom at his girlfriend’s Anchorage home. The woman told officers he yelled at her to leave, strangled her and smacked her on the side of the head, according to charging documents.

A month later municipal prosecutors said he violated the conditions of his release when officers found him at her home during a routine check. He told police he had lived there since he was released from custody the previous month. His Anchorage attorney, Max Holmquist, declined to discuss his client.

Law enforcement officers were at the girlfriend’s home Friday afternoon, and officers guarding the property outside told a reporter who approached the home to step away