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Anchorage police returned gun to Florida shooting suspect after his ‘mental health crisis’

The Anchorage man accused in the mass shooting at a Florida airport Friday did not have ties to a terrorist organization when he was investigated last year, the FBI said at a news conference Saturday in Anchorage.

Law enforcement said he had exhibited mental health problems during an incident at the Anchorage FBI office that led local police to take his gun.

At the same news conference, the Anchorage Police Department said it later returned the gun to Esteban Santiago, 26, after the weapon had been logged into evidence for safekeeping.

"I want to be clear, during our investigation, we found no known ties to terrorism," FBI Anchorage Field Office Special Agent in Charge Marlin Ritzman said during the short news conference. "He had broken no laws when he came into our office making disjointed comments about mind control."

FBI Special Agent Marlin Ritzman addresses the media Saturday at Anchorage Police Department headquarters about the investigation into Florida airport shooting suspect Esteban Santiago, who is an Anchorage resident. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

The U.S. Justice Department also announced Saturday that Santiago was charged with several federal crimes in connection with the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He could face the death penalty or life in prison.

At the Anchorage news conference, Ritzman said Santiago had told agents in November at the Anchorage FBI office that his "mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency," confirming assertions made by other sources the day before.

APD Chief Chris Tolley said after Santiago told the FBI about how his mind was being controlled, police took a firearm from Santiago for safekeeping.

The gun was later returned to Santiago after he was released from a mental health facility in Anchorage.

"There are speculations that this is the same gun" used in the Florida shooting, Tolley said. "I have not received confirmation that it, in fact, is that gun."

'Terroristic thoughts' and 'being influenced by ISIS'

Anchorage police had repeated contact with Santiago throughout 2016, Tolley said Saturday, including for at least four physical disturbances from January through October. Only one, in January 2016, resulted in an arrest warrant.

In February, Tolley said, Santiago violated the conditions of his release from the January domestic violence charges and was arrested again. Santiago was not arrested after any of the other physical disturbances, one in March and two in October, Tolley said.

On Nov. 7, when he showed up at the FBI field office with concerns about mind control, Ritzman said Santiago appeared "agitated, incoherent and made disjointed statements." Ritzman said Santiago told agents "he did not wish to harm anyone" but as a result of his erratic behavior, FBI agents contacted APD.

Tolley described the incident as a "mental health crisis." He said when city police officers arrived at the FBI building downtown, they were told by agents that Santiago was "asking for help" and was having "terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS."

Santiago "had a loaded magazine on him" but left his firearm in his vehicle before contacting agents, said Tolley. Police transported Santiago to a mental health facility where he was admitted, Tolley said.

Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley addresses the media Saturday. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Ritzman said the FBI had subpoenaed Santiago's mental health records. He declined to answer where Santiago was held and for how long, citing the ongoing investigation.

During the incident at the FBI office, local police logged Santiago's weapon into evidence, Tolley said. Santiago tried to retrieve his gun 23 days later on Nov. 30, but did not get it that day. The weapon was released to him Dec. 8, Tolley said.

Karen Loeffler, U.S. Attorney for Alaska, said at the press conference Saturday there was no legal basis in federal law to prevent Santiago from having the firearm.

The FBI closed its assessment of Santiago "after conducting database reviews and interagency checks," Ritzman said.

Limited information

On Friday, armed with search warrants, agents searched two places where Santiago had lived — a small house in Fairview that he shared with his girlfriend and his child, and the Qupqugiaq Inn on 36th Avenue in Midtown. On Saturday, the authorities offered no new details on what they had found — if anything — during the investigation.

As of early Saturday afternoon, Ritzman said there was no indication Santiago was working with others in the airport shooting and Anchorage isn't facing any known threat in connection with Santiago.

In response to a reporter's question about Santiago's reasons for traveling to Florida, Ritzman said law enforcement was still trying to determine that.

Santiago lived in Anchorage for at least two years.

Correction: This article originally reported that Santiago left his infant child in the car while he made contact with the FBI. The FBI said Sunday that Santiago had not left the child in the car, and "the child was in constant custody and care of the FBI" before the infant's mother arrived.

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