FORT LAUDERDALE – The 26-year-old Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at Fort Lauderdale airport was booked into jail for murder on Saturday, as investigators probed whether mental illness played a role in America’s latest mass shooting.
The suspect in Florida’s deadly airport shooting apparently chose to travel to Fort Lauderdale to carry out the rampage, and there are no signs there was any altercation on the flight or at baggage claim prior to the attack, authorities said on Saturday.
George Piro, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s office in Miami, told reporters the suspect, Esteban Santiago, 26, cooperated with investigators during an interview that lasted several hours overnight.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said some of the victims were still in surgery fighting for their lives after Friday’s rampage in the crowded baggage claim area. The gunman, who had a history of behaving erratically, was taken into custody by police.
“People trying to live their lives and enjoy the weekend were senselessly murdered. It was an absolutely horrific day,” Scott told a news conference at the airport Saturday morning.
Asked about official statements that the suspect, Esteban Santiago, had acted oddly in the past and had undergone mental health evaluations, the governor said law enforcement were working hard to figure out what drove him to open fire.
“I have a brother who suffers with mental illness and it’s very hard to deal with some of these issues,” Scott said. “As a society, after we understand what happened, we’ll have the opportunity to have a conversation.”
A Federal Bureau of Investigation official said on Friday that investigators have not ruled out terrorism as a reason for the attack and were reviewing the suspect’s recent travel.
Authorities say Santiago arrived in Ft. Lauderdale on a connecting flight from Alaska, and that he retrieved a 9mm semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage then loaded it in a bathroom before emerging and shooting indiscriminately.
Witnesses said the gunman, who was wearing a “Star Wars” T-shirt, said nothing as he fired, and that he surrendered to police only after running out of ammunition.
In addition to the five killed, eight people were wounded and some three dozen were taken to local hospitals with bruises or broken bones suffered in the chaos as passengers fled.
Commercial flights at the airport, which were halted after the attack, were due to resume on Saturday, officials said.
Piro told reporters on Friday that Santiago had walked into an FBI office in Anchorage in November last year behaving erratically. Piro said he was turned over to local police who took him to a medical facility for a mental evaluation.
A federal law enforcement official told Reuters that Santiago told agents at the Anchorage office in November that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency, and that it was ordering him to watch videos made by the Islamic State militant group.
Santiago served from 2007 to 2016 in the Puerto Rico National Guard and Alaska National Guard including a deployment to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, according to the Pentagon.
A private first class and combat engineer, he received half a dozen medals before being transferred to the inactive ready reserve in August last year.
An aunt said he came back from his deployment “a different person,” MSNBC reported.
The attack was the latest in a series of mass shootings that have plagued the United States in recent years, some inspired by Islamist militants, others carried out by loners or the mentally disturbed.
In June last year Florida was the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, when a gunman apparently inspired by Islamic State killed 49 people and wounded 53 at the gay nightclub “Pulse” in Orlando.