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Airport shooting suspect is being treated for schizophrenia, defense team says

  • Author: Paula McMahon, Sun Sentinel (South Florida)
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 13, 2017

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Airport mass shooting suspect Esteban Santiago is being treated for two severe mental health conditions that can cause people to lose touch with reality, but he remains legally competent to stand trial, court records show.

Two teams of doctors at different jails have diagnosed Santiago with two psychotic illnesses: schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, according to his defense attorneys. Both conditions, when not treated correctly, can result in hallucinations and delusions, mania, depression and other symptoms.

Santiago, who turns 27 on Thursday, refused to take medication for a short time after his arrest Jan. 6, but he has been taking a prescription medication, Haldol, for the past month, his lawyers wrote in recently filed court records.

"As (he) is now committed to adhering to the medication regimen prescribed for him … his mental stability is unlikely to change before trial," Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen wrote in a status report for the judge.

Fort Lauderdale airport shooter Esteban Santiago is transferred from Broward County Jail to United States Federal Court in Fort Lauderdale for a detention hearing on Jan. 17. (Al Diaz / Miami Herald)

Santiago has pleaded not guilty to 22 federal charges linked to the deaths of five people and the shootings of six others at Fort Lauderdale's international airport. Several of the charges carry a maximum punishment of life in prison or execution, though prosecutors have not yet decided whether they will seek the death penalty.

Santiago's trial is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 2 in federal court in Miami.

His medical records show Santiago experienced "a few instances of delusional behavior" while he was locked up in the Broward Main Jail between Jan. 7 and 30, his lawyers wrote. Those records are not publicly available, but Santiago was mostly aware of where he was, cooperated with medical staff and appeared to be thinking logically, according to the defense team.

Santiago's condition appears to have improved since he was moved to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, the attorneys wrote.

Santiago has been "increasingly engaged" in talking with his attorneys since he resumed taking medication, and he is being visited at least three times a week by a member of the defense team, they wrote.

The attorneys said there is no need for Santiago to undergo any further evaluations at this stage, noting that a defendant can be severely mentally ill but still legally competent for trial. By law, a defendant must understand the charges against him and the potential consequences of the criminal case, and he must be able to help his attorneys prepare his defense.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom expressed concerns about Santiago's mental health at a court hearing last month and has ruled that she wants monthly updates about his condition. Santiago is next due in federal court in Miami on Wednesday.

Santiago, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Puerto Rico, has a history of mental health problems, according to his family and friends. He was hospitalized for psychiatric care in Alaska in November, two months before the mass shooting at the airport.

Santiago went to the FBI office in Anchorage in November, asked for help and told agents he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind.

Prosecutors said that after Santiago was arrested, he told agents he understood what he had done. He initially said he had been "programmed" to commit the offense but later "recanted" that explanation and said he had planned the shooting, authorities said.

Agents testified that Santiago told them he had entered "jihadi" chat rooms online and was influenced by Islamic State terrorists. But prosecutors, who have examined Santiago's phone, computers and other electronic devices, have not filed any terrorism-related charges.

Santiago, an Iraq War veteran who most recently lived in Alaska, was arrested by a Broward sheriff's deputy after investigators say he opened fire on Jan. 6 in a baggage claim area in Terminal 2. The FBI said he fired 15 shots.

He bought a one-way ticket from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale, via Minnesota, and checked just one piece of luggage: a small hard-sided case that contained a 9 mm handgun and two ammunition magazines. After picking up his gun, he unpacked and loaded it in a restroom stall, walked out to the baggage carousel and started shooting at other travelers, agents said.