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Fla. Airport Shooting Suspect Appears In Court, Is Assigned A Public Defender

Esteban Santiago (third from left) is returned to jail after his first court appearance Monday in Fort Lauderdale. He is accused of a shooting rampage in which five people were killed.
Alan Diaz
Esteban Santiago (third from left) is returned to jail after his first court appearance Monday in Fort Lauderdale. He is accused of a shooting rampage in which five people were killed.

The man charged with shooting 11 people at Fort Lauderdale's airport Friday had his first court appearance Monday.

Esteban Santiago, 26, was escorted into federal court in Fort Lauderdale in manacles. He told U.S. magistrate Judge Alicia Valle he understood the seriousness of the crimes he is charged with. Federal authorities say Santiago flew to the airport from Anchorage, Alaska. Upon arrival, they say, he removed a semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage, loaded it in a bathroom, and began shooting people in the airport's baggage claim area. Five people were killed and six wounded.

Before appointing a public defender to represent him, Valle questioned Santiago on his finances and job history. Santiago said he worked at a security company in Anchorage until November. That's around the time he walked into the FBI office there telling them he believed the government was forcing him to watch ISIS videos. His gun was confiscated and he was taken to a mental health facility before being released. A month later, consulting with the FBI, local police returned Santiago's gun to him.

Santiago told Judge Valle he has only $5 or $10 in the bank. After appointing his attorney, Valle set his detention hearing for Jan. 17. He'll be formally arraigned on Jan. 23, at which time he'll enter a plea.

Santiago is charged with three counts: committing an act of violence at an airport with the intent of causing serious bodily harm, deadly use of a firearm, and using a firearm to commit a violent crime. The maximum penalty for the combined charges is death. So far none of the counts relate to terrorism, but the FBI said over the weekend it is not ruling that out. Additional charges could come later through an indictment.

So far, much of what investigators are learning about Santiago points to mental health issues. He grew up in Puerto Rico, served in the National Guard there and later in Alaska, service that included a tour of duty in Iraq. In August, he was discharged by the Alaska National Guard for poor performance, in part for episodes of being absent without leave. Army investigators at the time noted what they called "strange behavior."

In South Florida, the shooting is leading some officials to call for a re-examination of mental health and firearms laws. On Miami's WPLG-TV this weekend, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said, "People who are suffering from mental illness should not be allowed in my opinion to purchase or have firearms at any time." Federal laws already prohibit anyone who has been adjudicated mentally ill from owning a gun.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., whose district includes Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, says Congress needs to look at whether people should be allowed to travel with their firearms, even in checked baggage. Wasserman Schultz says officials also "need to take a hard look at the security around baggage claim areas."

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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