PALM BEACH, Fla. — The FBI said Esteban Santiago broke no laws when he drove to its Anchorage field office with his infant son and his semi-automatic handgun in tow, begging for help because, he said, the CIA had put a chip in his brain that was telling him to join the terrorist group ISIS.
The FBI called Anchorage police, and they took Santiago for a two-day mental-health evaluation, where he was told he might have schizophrenia. They also took his gun. And then, with FBI leadership's consent, they gave it back.
A former FBI agent says the nation's top-law enforcement agency is playing a game of semantics in order to downplay that they may have given a suspected mass killer the weapon he used to take the lives of five travelers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last Friday.
"Their biggest problem is explaining their actions to the victims — besides the potential liability to the taxpayers," said Jeff Danik, the former agent in charge of the West Palm Beach FBI office. He also worked counter-terrorism cases in Saudi Arabia.
"This is a very unique and significant situation. It should have gotten somebody's attention."
While there's been debate about whether passengers should be allowed to travel with weapons and ammunition in their luggage and the soft target that airport baggage claim areas present, questions linger about whether the tragedy could have been prevented in Alaska by law enforcement.
Danik said no matter how the FBI explains itself, in the end citizens expected it to perform differently, considering the pattern of facts in Santiago's case. Red flags, he noted, were everywhere.
And the FBI and Anchorage Police Department may not be the only ones who slipped up. What could the Transportation Security Administration and Delta Air Lines have done to derail Santiago before he was reunited with his Walther 9mm gun and ammunition and loaded it in the bathroom of the baggage claim area?
Marlon Ritzman, special agent in charge of the FBI's Anchorage office, and Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley held a news conference Saturday to explain why the weapon was returned. Instead, they ended up listing Santiago's numerous interaction with police and how he had his infant in the car when he drove up to the FBI.
Danik described their explanation of how the gun was returned to Santiago on Dec. 8 as "B.S."
"You don't want to deprive citizens of their lawful property," he said. "However, the lack of leadership in law enforcement here really bugs me. In that situation, you have a guy who has articulated a lot of problems. He has domestic violence arrests. He has mental issues. He has a discharge from the military that is questionable."
The former FBI agent said when such a scenario presents itself, protocol takes a back seat.
"Your job is to say, 'Wait a minute. Let me think this through,'" Danik said. "It is not to say, 'What is the policy here?' You need to step back and make certain he is clear of any psychiatric problems. Ask whether you are certain about the domestic-violence accusations. You make him jump through hoops. Not to make sure you deny him his property, but just to make sure."
Researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.