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Anchorage man pleads not guilty in Florida airport attack

  • Author: Paula McMahon, Sun Sentinel (South Florida)
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 30, 2017

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Iraq War veteran charged with killing five people and injuring six others in a mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale's international airport pleaded not guilty to the allegations against him on Monday.

Esteban Santiago, 26, leaned over the wooden lectern in court and appeared to read along as U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer read the entire indictment aloud to him — including the names of all five people killed in the mass shooting. He wore shackles and a red jail jumpsuit. "Yes," said Santiago, acknowledging the charges.

One of his lawyers then told the judge that Santiago was pleading not guilty to all of the charges.

If convicted of the most serious counts, he faces life in federal prison or the possibility of the death penalty.

He is charged with five counts of causing death at an international airport, six counts of causing serious bodily injury at an international airport, five counts of causing death during a crime of violence and six counts of using a firearm during a crime of violence.

Esteban Santiago exits the Ft. Lauderdale jail accompanied by two federal marshals Monday morning, Jan. 30, 2017, as he is taken to federal court. (C.M. Guerrero / Miami Herald)

Santiago, an Anchorage resident with a history of mental health problems, has been locked up in the Broward County main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale since he surrendered to law enforcement after firing all 15 bullets that he had at the airport. He has been in solitary confinement and on suicide watch because of the seriousness of the allegations he faces and the potential punishment.

He is expected to be transferred soon to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami because his case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom who usually holds court hearings in Miami. Monday's hearing was in Fort Lauderdale.

The grand jurors who indicted Santiago found that he caused "grave risk of death to other people" and the crime involved "substantial planning and premeditation."

[As his life unraveled, Esteban Santiago slipped through all the cracks]

The five people who died in the Jan. 6 mass shooting were Mary Louise Amzibel, 69, of Dover, Del.; Michael John Oehme, 57, of Council Bluffs, Iowa; Olga M. Woltering, 84, of Marietta, Ga.; Shirley Wells Timmons, 70, of Senecaville, Ohio; and Terry Michael Andres, 62, of Virginia Beach, Va., who are all named in the indictment.

The six people who were injured by gunfire, including Amzibel's husband, Edward, Timmons' husband, Steve, and Oehme's wife, Kari, are identified only by their initials in the indictment. The other survivors have not been publicly identified.

FBI agents testified that Santiago confessed to planning the massacre and told investigators he traveled to South Florida to carry it out.

Santiago traveled from Alaska to Florida on a one-way airline ticket with a handgun and ammunition in his checked luggage, a criminal complaint said. Upon arrival, he claimed his gun case and loaded the weapon in a men's bathroom, then opened fire on the first people he encountered after exiting, it noted.

Prosecutors have said they have not yet ruled out terrorism as a possible motive but they filed no terrorism-related charges against Santiago.

Though he told agents he had visited online jihadi chat rooms and thought he was in contact with Islamic State terrorists, investigators have not yet confirmed if that is true.

Santiago voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital for treatment in November after he went to the FBI office in Anchorage and asked for help.

At the time, he told agents that his mind was being controlled by the U.S. government and he was having "terroristic thoughts" and being urged to watch terrorist propaganda online. He was hospitalized for less than a week and the gun, which he used in the Fort Lauderdale shooting, was returned to him by local police in Alaska one month before the fatal attack.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ricardo Del Toro and Lawrence LaVecchio. Santiago is now being defended by Chief Assistant Federal Public Defender Hector Dopico and Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen.

Material from Reuters is included in this article.