Gun violence in the US

Florida shooter ‘lost his mind’ during Iraq war, family says

Gunman also said to have told FBI he was forced to watch Islamic State videos by the US government

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 11:28am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 1:45pm

The suspect in the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting that claimed five lives was a mentally troubled national guard veteran who served a year in Iraq and was later discharged from military service “for unsatisfactory performance”, officials said on Friday.

Members of Esteban Santiago’s family told reporters the 26-year-old “lost his mind” after his tour of duty, and had recently received psychological treatment following a number of incidents. In one last summer, he turned up unexpectedly at an FBI office near his home in Anchorage, Alaska, and claimed to be hearing voices in his head telling him to join Islamic State.

Something got to him. It looks like he lost his mind
Maria Ruiz Rivera, suspect’s aunt

A law enforcement official said he told the FBI in November that the government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State videos. The official said agents in Anchorage completed their interview with 26-year-old Esteban Santiago and called the police, who took him for a mental health evaluation.

The FBI’s Anchorage office said it was aware Santiago was an Anchorage resident and it was assisting in the investigation.

According to Major Paul Dahlen, spokesman for the Puerto Rico National Guard, Santiago was deployed to Iraq in 2010 with the 130th engineer battalion. He later joined the Alaska national guard as an army reservist in November 2014 and was discharged in August 2016, Lieutenant Colonel Candis Olmstead said, without giving full details.

Santiago was carrying military ID when he was arrested, law enforcement officials said.

Family members said Santiago, who was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico with his parents as a two-year-old, and then moved to Alaska after his Iraq tour, had been hospitalised or received treatment for mental issues on several occasions.

Watch: five dead in Florida airport shooting

“Something got to him. It looks like he lost his mind,” his aunt, Maria Ruiz Rivera, told in Spanish during a short interview Friday at her apartment in Union City, New Jersey. “He would say that he would see things. So he went to the hospital.”

Her husband Hernan Rivera said: “Only thing I could tell you is when he came out of Iraq he wasn’t feeling too good.”

Ruiz Rivera said the last time she saw her nephew was in 2011 when he was “in therapy”. But she said she spoke to him by phone after his baby was born in Alaska in September.

“Everything was fine. He was happy with his baby. He sent me a photo then I didn’t hear anything more,” she said.

Other family members painted a picture of a troubled young father. Bryan Santiago, the suspect’s brother, confirmed he had a girlfriend and young child in Alaska.

He said his brother’s girlfriend told him the couple had been fighting and that he had been receiving psychological counselling in Alaska, although he did not know the details. He said he had not heard from his brother “in several weeks”, which he said was unusual, and that his family was worried about him.

“He is a regular person, spiritual, a good person,” Bryan Santiago said in the phone interview, adding that he had been “fighting with a lot of people” in Alaska.

He speculated that his brother might have experienced a “flashback” to his military service, although he said the discharge was not due to PTSD or other issues related to his service in Iraq.

He also said that his brother was hospitalised with mental issues after returning from Iraq, and then spent some time in Puerto Rico caring for his sick father before moving to Alaska after his father’s death.

Esteban Santiago also reportedly had a valid Florida’s driver’s licence and had an address in Naples, Florida, although officials would not confirm any details about the suspect at a Friday afternoon press conference, citing the ongoing investigation.

Public records of Santiago’s history show that he had faced two minor criminal charges, one of operating a vehicle without bumpers, licences and insurance in 2015, and misdemeanour charge of violating conditions of release, which was dismissed by prosecutors in 2016.