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Fort Lauderdale shooter traveled to Florida for massacre, FBI says

Fort Lauderdale terror possibility

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Iraq war veteran accused of killing five travelers and wounding six others at a busy international airport in Florida appears to have traveled there specifically to carry out the attack, authorities said Saturday, but they don’t know yet why he chose his target and have not yet ruled out terrorism.

Esteban Santiago was federally charged on Saturday with an act of violence at an international airport resulting in death - which carries a maximum punishment of execution - and weapons charges.

According to the charging documents, Santiago confessed to investigators that he planned the attack. He said he claimed his bag, took it to bathroom, loaded it, and put in his waistband.

Florida airport shooting suspect was known by FBI agents

Authorities said during a news conference that they had interviewed roughly 175 people, including a lengthy interrogation with the cooperative suspect, 26-year-old Santiago, a former National Guard soldier from Alaska. Flights had resumed at the Fort Lauderdale airport after the bloodshed, though the terminal where the shooting happened remained closed.

FBI Agent George Piro said Santiago spoke to investigators for several hours after he opened fire with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun that he appears to have legally checked on a flight from Alaska.

“Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack,” Piro said. “We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack. We’re pursuing all angles on what prompted him to carry out this horrific attack.” 

Investigators are combing through social media and other information to determine Santiago’s motive, and it’s too early to say whether terrorism played a role, Piro said. In November, Santiago had walked into an FBI field office in Alaska saying the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, videos, a U.S. law enforcement official briefed on the investigation told CBS News.

He was sent to a mental health facility after police were called, the official said.

Piro, who is in charge of the Miami field office, said Santiago clearly indicated at the time that he was not intent on hurting anyone. 

A law enforcement source said Santiago had a handgun in his possession when he walked into the Alaska FBI office, 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. 

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. The law enforcement source said that apparently the police department returned the weapon to Santiago after he received a medical evaluation.

Santiago had not been placed on the U.S. no-fly list and appears to have acted alone, Piro said. 

The attack sent panicked witnesses running out of the terminal and spilling onto the tarmac, baggage in hand. Others hid in bathroom stalls or crouched behind cars or anything else they could find as police and paramedics rushed in Friday to help the wounded and establish whether there were any other gunmen.

Bruce Hugon, who had flown in from Indianapolis for a vacation, was at the baggage carousel when he heard four or five pops and saw everyone drop to the ground. He said a woman next to him tried to get up and was shot in the head.

“The guy must have been standing over me at one point. I could smell the gunpowder,” he said. “I thought I was about to feel a piercing pain or nothing at all because I would have been dead.”

Santiago had been discharged from the National Guard last year after being demoted for unsatisfactory performance. His brother, Bryan Santiago, said Saturday that his brother had requested psychological help but received little assistance. Esteban Santiago said in August that he was hearing voices, Bryan Santiago said in Spanish on Saturday as he stood outside his family’s home. He said he told his brother then to seek help.

“How is it possible that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for only four days, and then give him his weapon back?” Bryan Santiago said.

His mother declined to comment as she stood inside the screen door, wiping tears from her eyes. The only thing she said was that Esteban Santiago had been tremendously affected by seeing a bomb explode next to two of his friends when he was around 18 years old while serving in Iraq.

Search for motive in Fort Lauderdale airport shooting rampage

Santiago is in federal custody and will face federal charges. He is expected to appear in court Monday, Piro said. 

It is legal for airline passengers to travel with guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag - not a carry-on - and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in. 

Law enforcement officials told CBS News’ Jeff Pegues that Santiago was traveling from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale and got in an argument on one leg of the trip. Milton reported that the suspect was flying the red-eye flight out of Anchorage on Delta Air Lines and landed in Minneapolis Friday morning. He then connected to a flight to Fort Lauderdale. 

He checked only one piece of luggage: his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.

At Fort Lauderdale, “after he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting. We don’t know why,” said Chip LaMarca, a Broward County commissioner who was briefed by investigators. 

The gunman was taken into custody after throwing his empty weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, one witness said.     

The witness, Mark Lea, told CBSN “people were yelling and screaming and frantically trying to get out of any door that they could or hide under chairs, hide behind their luggage or anything else to get out of the line of fire.” 

Lea said the shooter was “calm as can be. He just walked in. He just started shooting. He wasn’t frantic, wasn’t psychotic.” 

Lea said he was about 50 feet away from the gunman. Lea estimated that the suspect shot about 24 rounds.