Suspected Fort Lauderdale Airport gunman Esteban Santiago, 26, told FBI that CIA was forcing him to join ISIS
The 26-year-old New Jersey-born Iraq veteran accused of executing five people and wounding eight others at a Florida airport claimed just two months ago that he was hearing voices.
It was part of a difficult adjustment to civilian life after serving overseas. He sat in an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, in November, claiming the CIA was forcing him to join ISIS. He also became a father for the first time last year and was struggling to take care of himself, let alone a child.
On Friday, Esteban Santiago snapped, opening fire near the baggage claim area at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He reloaded, fired until he was out of bullets and calmly surrendered without saying a word.
Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2, relatives said.
He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the National Guard in 2007, and served with that unit in Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011.
From there, Santiago spiraled down a dark descent that included a less than honorable discharge, arrests for domestic violence and now the first mass shooting on U.S. soil in 2017.
In November, the Army vet walked into an Anchorage FBI office and unleashed a torrent of conspiracy theories.
A law enforcement official says he told the FBI that the government was controlling his mind and was forcing him to watch ISIS videos.
Santiago appeared incoherent at times, a source told ABC News.
The FBI agents notified local police after the interview, who took him for a mental health evaluation.
A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department referred all questions about Santiago to the FBI.
FBI agent George Piro, who is in charge of the Miami field office, confirmed that Santiago had come into the Anchorage office and said he clearly indicated at the time that he was not intent on hurting anyone.
On Thursday, Santiago took a red-eye flight out of Anchorage with only one piece of checked luggage — containing a 9-mm. handgun. He flew to St. Paul/Minneapolis and then took a connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale.
After landing just after noon on Friday, Santiago retrieved the gun from his checked bag and opened fire in the airport.
His uncle and aunt in Union City, N.J., were trying to make sense of what happened Friday.
FBI agents and reporters swarmed their home and they spoke briefly about their nephew.
Maria Ruiz told “Noticias Telemundo” Santiago was hospitalized for two weeks after he visited the FBI.
“They had him in an isolated room because he was a little wrong in the head and he started to like hear things,” Ruiz said. “I am not saying he had mental problems. He just didn’t seem right to me but he looked like a normal kid.”
And then after he goes to Alaska that happened. And now this, so he wasn’t alright.”
A photo from September shows Santiago peacefully gazing down at an infant cradled in his arms.
“It was like he lost his mind,” Ruiz said of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”
Upon his return, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Fairbanks.
He was serving as a combat engineer before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance,” said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman.
His military rank was E3, private 1st class, and he worked one weekend a month with an additional 15 days of training yearly, Olmstead said.
She would not elaborate on his discharge, but the Pentagon said he’d gone AWOL several times and was demoted and discharged.
Still, he’d had some successes during his military career, being awarded a number of medals and commendations, including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Santiago was charged in a domestic violence case in January 2016, damaging a door when he forced his way into a bathroom at his girlfriend’s Anchorage home. The woman told officers he strangled her and smacked her on the side of the head, according to court documents.
A month later prosecutors said he violated the conditions of his release when officers found him at the home during a routine check.
He told police he had lived there since he was released from custody the previous month.
Police on Friday blocked off access to the small one-story home, attached to what appeared to be an old motel in a rundown section of Anchorage.
Neighbors said they often saw children in the home and one described Santiago as keeping to himself.
“He was super quiet and I barely ever heard from him,” said Eric Brown.
He was also ticketed for minor traffic infractions, including allegedly driving without insurance and having a broken taillight in April 2015.
A landlord also filed eviction proceedings against him in February 2015, stating he had failed to pay his rent.
He was also investigated as part of a child porn investigation in either 2011 or 2012, law enforcement sources told CBS News. Three weapons and a computer were seized, but no charges were filed, sources said.
Santiago had moved to Anchorage two years ago to get a fresh start, his brother said.
He found a job with a security company and had been “fighting with a lot of people” while in Alaska and was having relationship issues. Still, he could not imagine his sibling unleashing the carnage that unfolded in Fort Lauderdale.
“He is a regular person, spiritual, a good person,” he told NBC News.
Santiago was doing his best to maintain a sense of normalcy, his brother said.
Bryan Santiago said his brother’s girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his psychological treatment.
He said his brother never spoke to him directly about his medical issues.
“We have not talked for the past three weeks,” Bryan Santiago said. “That’s a bit unusual ... I’m in shock. He was a serious person ... He was a normal person.”