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In January of last year, Esteban Santiago went into a men’s bathroom at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, loaded a handgun, put it in his waistband and fired off 15 rounds at travelers’ heads and bodies.
After emptying two magazines, Santiago killed five people and wounded six others in about two minutes. And then, after he was stopped by a police officer, he soon confessed “he shot the first people he encountered.”
Santiago also admitted to investigators that he “was able to appreciate the nature and quality and the wrongfulness of his acts,” in a critical passage of his plea agreement filed this week in Miami federal court..
In other words, the 28-year-old military veteran was of sound mind when he shot all those people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in the baggage claim area on Jan. 6, 2017. That acknowledgment, coupled with a psychologist’s conclusion that Santiago was mentally “competent,” paved the way for him to plead guilty on Wednesday before a Miami federal judge.
In doing so, Santiago was convicted of 11 charges in the 22-count indictment, with the remainder being dismissed. He will be sentenced to life in prison, avoiding a possible death penalty at trial under the agreement between the U.S. attorney’s office and defense lawyers that was accepted by U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom.
Santiago’s guilty plea was a foregone conclusion after prosecutors and defense lawyers said they reached the deal on May 1. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions approved the agreement after considering the death penalty question in the murder case.
Prosecutors Ricardo Del Toro and Lawrence LaVecchio said Sessions signed off on the agreement, which was proposed by Santiago’s defense lawyers Eric Cohen and Hector Dopico as a deadline loomed on the death penalty issue. They also said the shooting victims’ family members were also on board with Santiago’s proposed life sentence.
Santiago, a former Army reservist who suffers from mental health problems, underwent a recent psychiatric competency evaluation ordered by Bloom because she said she wanted to be certain Santiago had the “capacity” to make the decision to plead guilty.
Santiago was accused of flying on a one-way ticket from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to carry out the shootings of mostly elderly travelers — one of three mass firearm killings in Florida since 2016.
Santiago, who grew up in Puerto Rico, packed his gun in a case that he had declared on the Anchorage-Fort Lauderdale flight, retrieved the weapon, loaded it in an airport bathroom and then calmly opened fire in the baggage claim area before encountering a Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy while exiting. He surrendered immediately.
While most murder cases unfold in state court, Santiago is charged federally because the mass shooting took place at an international airport. Federal authorities, unlike their counterparts in the state system, rarely pursue the death penalty, mainly because there are so few capital cases in the U.S. district court. And even when the Justice Department opts for death over life as punishment, an execution by lethal injection is extremely rare in the federal system.
Santiago’s mental health history, along with a stint in the Iraq War, played a significant factor in the attorney general’s decision on whether to seek the death penalty. Santiago was briefly hospitalized for psychiatric care in November 2016 — two months before the airport shooting — after he had gone to the FBI office in Anchorage and told agents that he was hearing voices urging him to support the Islamic State terrorist group and that the CIA was pressuring him to watch training videos. Agents referred Santiago to Anchorage police, who took his handgun from him while he underwent a psychiatric evaluation for a few days and then gave the firearm back to him that December.
Santiago was accused of using that same weapon, a Walther 9mm, in the deadly attack at the airport. After Santiago surrendered, he told FBI agents in South Florida that he had been “programmed” by the government and also was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group.
However, FBI agents and prosecutors said they found no actual links between Santiago and the Islamic State and therefore did not charge him with providing support to the terrorist organization in the indictment.
Ever since his arrest, Santiago has been taking medication to treat his diagnosis of schizophrenia. He has repeatedly told Judge Bloom that he understands what is happening in his case, and his defense lawyers have said he is legally competent to stand trial.
Federal prosecutors have only considered or sought the death penalty in a handful of Florida cases in the past decade. Getting juries to go along isn’t easy.
Only one Florida federal case has resulted in the death penalty being meted out since the U.S. government reinstated the punishment 30 years ago. The defendants, Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., are now on federal Death Row for the 2006 slaying of a family, including two children, on the side of the Florida Turnpike in Palm Beach County.