Saturday 21 April 2018

Killer 'lost his mind' in Iraq

Relatives say gunman had mental health issues after serving in Iraq and was undergoing treatment

Runaway chaos: People stand on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last Friday after a gunman opened fire inside the terminal Photo: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Runaway chaos: People stand on the tarmac at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last Friday after a gunman opened fire inside the terminal Photo: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Harriet Alexander

US authorities were under pressure yesterday to explain how a mentally ill man, whom his family said "changed" after serving in Iraq, was able to arm himself and shoot five people dead in Fort Lauderdale airport.

New Jersey-born Esteban Santiago, 26, was last night due to be charged by the FBI over Friday's rampage, in which he shot 13 people seemingly at random - five of whom died.

Sole suspect Esteban Santiago is taken into police custodysurvived Photo: Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
Sole suspect Esteban Santiago is taken into police custodysurvived Photo: Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

The FBI said it had not ruled out the possibility of terrorist links, and believed he had planned the attack. The New York Times reported that he had viewed extremist material online.

"Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack," said George Piro, special agent in charge of Miami FBI.

He also said that, contrary to initial reports, he had not found any evidence of an "altercation" on the plane that may have caused the violence.

"We have not identified any triggers that would have prompted him. But it's still early in the investigation.

"We've interviewed all of his family that we've identified," he said. "We're looking at his social media, it's giving us a picture of the individual - but it's too early to rule out anything, including terrorism."

Santiago is known to have arrived in Florida from Alaska, legally transporting a 9mm semi-automatic hand gun. The unloaded gun must be placed inside a locked, hard-sided case inside the suitcase. Small arms ammunition, including ammunition not exceeding .75 calibre and shotgun shells of any gauge, may be carried in the same hard-sided case as the firearm.

Americans will be deeply reluctant to increase restrictions on transporting guns in checked baggage, given the number of guns that are transported for hunting and target shooting.

Santiago, a former member of the National Guard, who was presented with a medal for his service in Iraq from 2010-11, had a concealed-carry permit. As a military veteran he would easily have passed a background check - especially in Alaska, where he lived, which is a famed shooting state.

Yet questions are now being raised as to how he was allowed to retain his weapon, despite reporting himself to the FBI and "exhibiting signs of mental illness".

In November, two months after he had become a father for the first time, Santiago went to the FBI in Anchorage and said he was hearing voices, which told him to join the Islamic State terror group. He reportedly said that he believed the CIA were involved.

"It is very normal for citizens to walk into field offices," said Mr Piro. "It was during that contact that the agents themselves noted the erratic behaviour, and pushed them to call the authorities and take him for mental evaluation."

His aunt, who lives in New Jersey, and brother, who lives in Puerto Rico, said that they believed he was hallucinating, and that he had spent a fortnight in a mental health facility.

"Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn't feeling too good," his uncle said.

Asked whether the FBI should have intervened and rescinded Santiago's gun licence, Mr Piro said: "I'm not in a position to answer that. It's too early."

It was reported that Santiago's gun - believed to be the one used in the shooting - was taken away from him during his mental health evaluation, but was returned to him afterwards.

Last night two of the five victims who died in the attack were named. Olga Woltering, 84, from Georgia, was preparing to go on a cruise with her husband Ralph, who survived. The couple were to celebrate his 90th birthday.

Terry Andres, 62, who worked at the Norfolk naval shipyard in Virginia, was going on holiday with his wife, who was unharmed.

Six people remained in hospital last night; three of them recovering well, and three in intensive care.

Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, who last year dealt with the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history when 49 people were murdered at an Orlando nightclub, was reluctant to discuss gun control.

"I have a brother who suffers with mental illness," he said yesterday. "It's very hard to deal with these issues. Every family struggles with this."

Last year broke all records for gun sales in the US, with 27m firearms purchased - partly in response to fears that Hillary Clinton, if elected, would clamp down on sales. America has, in a conservative estimation, between 270m and 310m guns in circulation.

The shooting happened as Florida was preparing to consider legislation that relaxed its gun laws, and eliminate "gun-free zones" in airport terminals, schools and government buildings.

Some people argue that having more armed people in the vicinity of the airport would have saved lives - even though the sheriff said yesterday that between Santiago firing the first shot and being arrested, a total of just 80 seconds elapsed.

Telegraph.co.uk

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