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Esteban Santiago, Fort Lauderdale airport shooting suspect, makes first court appearance, is denied bond

Florida shooting case
Florida shooting case 04:21

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida - The Iraq war veteran accused of fatally shooting five people and wounding six at a crowded Florida airport baggage claim briefly appeared in federal court Monday in Fort Lauderdale.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle explained the charges 26-year-old Esteban Santiago faces and told him the death penalty could apply during a 15-minute hearing Monday morning.

Florida Gunman 04:01

Valle ordered Santiago to be temporarily detained without bond. A detention hearing has been scheduled for next week.

Security was tight outside the courthouse with more than two-dozen officers in bulletproof vests. Santiago wore a red jumpsuit and was shackled at the wrists, stomach and legs.

Santiago has been in custody since the Friday afternoon shooting. He answered the judge’s questions in a clear voice. He told the judge he worked for a security firm in Anchorage, Alaska, until November. He said he only has about $5 to $10 in the bank.

Given his finances, the judge decided he’s eligible for government lawyers at taxpayer expense.

The judge set a detention hearing for Jan. 17 and an arraignment hearing on Jan. 23.

In a press release about Santiago’s charges, the Department of Justice said Santiago is accused of being in the Terminal 2 baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

FBI knew Fla. shooting suspect 02:12

“The area was crowded with newly-arrived passengers retrieving their luggage,” the press release stated. “Santiago started shooting, aiming at his victims’ heads until he was out of ammunition.”

Santiago was arrested after running out of ammunition and lying spread-eagle on the floor until a deputy took him in to custody, his 9mm handgun nearby.   

Although the charges carry a potential death sentence, the Justice Department will decide later whether to pursue that penalty assuming Santiago is convicted. Many other issues can come into play, such as whether he decides to plead guilty or go to trial. Guilty pleas usually do not result in death sentences. The airport violence charge allows a sentencing judge wide latitude in deciding how many years behind bars he might serve, all the way up to life in prison, if the death penalty is off the table.   

Santiago’s attorney can ask for a mental competency evaluation to determine if he is fit to stand trial. It’s a fairly high standard for any defendant to escape criminal charges because of mental problems because many defendants understand the difference between right and wrong. The main issue for the court is whether a defendant is too impaired to assist in his own defense. Most defendants who go this route are ultimately judged fit for trial and the mental health issue becomes a major factor at sentencing.   

Santiago, 26, apparently had trouble controlling his anger after serving in Iraq and told his brother that he felt he was being chased and controlled by the CIA through secret online messages. When he told agents at an FBI field office his paranoid thoughts in November, he was evaluated for four days, then released without any follow-up medication or therapy. 

“The FBI failed there,” Bryan Santiago told The Associated Press. “We’re not talking about someone who emerged from anonymity to do something like this.” 

Victims of the Ft. Lauderdale Airport attack.  CBS News

Speaking in Spanish outside his family’s house in Penuelas, the brother said: “The federal government already knew about this for months, they had been evaluating him for a while, but they didn’t do anything.” 

A law enforcement source said when Santiago -- who had been living in Anchorage, Alaska -- walked into the FBI office in November, he had a handgun in his possession, CBS News senior investigative producer Pat Milton reports. It is not known if the handgun was the 9mm handgun that authorities said Santiago used in the Florida attack on Friday. 

The weapon had been taken away when he entered the FBI reception area and was held while he was interviewed by the FBI, Milton reports. When the Anchorage Police Department transported Santiago to the hospital, they took possession of the weapon. 

Without a judge’s order to commit him, the police had no choice but to return the gun, a source tells CBS News correspondent David Begnaud. 

A law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation tells CBS News that Santiago booked a flight from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to Seattle–Tacoma International Airport to New York’s JFK Airport on to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He would have arrived in NYC on New Year’s Day.

Santiago had a habit of booking flights and then cancelling them, the source said.

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