Esteban Santiago, the suspect in Friday’s shooting that resulted in the death of five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, made his first court appearance Monday at the U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale.
Judge Alicia O. Valle read Santiago’s charges before questioning him about his finances. Santiago is charged with three criminal counts: performing an act of violence against a person at an airport causing 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. Two of the charges carry a maximum penalty of death.
Santiago was appointed a public defender, Robert Berube, after Valle determined he could not afford his own attorney. Santiago, who is 26 years old, said he has less than $10 in his bank account.
Santiago’s arraignment was tentatively set for January 23, pending indictment by a grand jury.
FBI Agent George Piro said Santiago spoke to investigators for several hours after he opened fire with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun that he appears to have legally checked on a flight from Alaska.
"Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack," Piro said. "We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack. We're pursuing all angles on what prompted him to carry out this horrific attack."
Investigators are combing through social media and other information to determine Santiago's motive, and it's too early to say whether terrorism played a role, Piro said. In November, Santiago had walked into an FBI field office in Alaska saying the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos, authorities said.
"He was a walk-in complaint. This is something that happens at FBI offices around the country every day," FBI agent Marlin Ritzman said.
Santiago had a loaded magazine on him, but had left a gun in his vehicle, along with his newborn child, authorities said. Officers seized the weapon and local officers took him to get a mental health evaluation. His girlfriend picked up the child.
On Dec. 8, the gun was returned to Santiago. Authorities wouldn't say if it was the same gun used in the airport attack.
U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said Santiago would have been able to legally possess a gun because he had not been judged mentally ill, which is a higher standard than having an evaluation.
Santiago had not been placed on the U.S. no-fly list and appears to have acted alone, authorities said.
The attack sent panicked witnesses running out of the terminal and spilling onto the tarmac, baggage in hand. Others hid in bathroom stalls or crouched behind cars or anything else they could find as police and paramedics rushed in to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.
It is legal for airline passengers to travel with guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag — not a carry-on — and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in.
Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage aboard a Delta flight Thursday night, checking only one piece of luggage — his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
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