Brother of airport shooting suspect says US gov’t failed him

PENUELAS, Puerto Rico — The brother of a man accused of killing five people at a Florida airport questioned Saturday why his brother was allowed to keep his gun after U.S. authorities knew he’d become increasingly paranoid and was hearing voices.

 

Esteban Santiago, 26, 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.”

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.”

In recent years, Esteban Santiago — a new dad — had been living in Anchorage, Alaska. But there were signs of trouble.

Esteban told FBI agents in Alaska that the government was forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos, a law enforcement official said Friday. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The FBI office in Alaska, which declined to comment ahead of a Saturday news conference, interviewed Esteban Santiago and then notified police, who took him in for a mental health evaluation.

Also, he 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 yelled at her to leave, choked her and smacked her on the side of the head, according to charging documents.

A month later, municipal prosecutors said he violated the conditions of his release when officers found him at her home during a routine check. He told police he had lived there since he was released from custody the previous month. His Anchorage attorney, Max Holmquist, declined to discuss his client.

Bryan Santiago said his brother had requested psychological help but barely received any.

“I told him to go to church or to seek professional help,” he said.

Family members have said Esteban Santiago changed after serving a yearlong tour in Iraq. He was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2, his brother said. He grew up in Penuelas before joining the Guard in 2007.

He deployed in 2010 as part of the Puerto Rico National Guard, spending a year with an engineering battalion, according to Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen.

Esteban Santiago’s mother wiped tears from her eyes as she stood inside a screen door Saturday. She said her son had been tremendously affected by seeing a bomb explode near two friends while serving in Iraq.

Alaska National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead told The New York Times that two soldiers in Santiago’s company had died during his stint in Iraq.

Former neighbor Ursula Candelario in Penuelas recalled seeing Esteban Santiago grow up and said people used to salute him after he joined the Guard. “He was very peaceful, very educated, very serious,” she said. “We’re in shock. I couldn’t believe it.”

Since returning from Iraq, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Anchorage, Olmstead told AP. He was serving as a combat engineer in the Guard before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance.” His military rank upon discharge 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. The Pentagon said he went AWOL several times and was demoted and discharged.

While it is unclear if Esteban Santiago had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as many as one in five veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan develop the affliction each year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A 2014 Veterans Affairs study found that almost 30 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who sought treatment at VA hospitals were diagnosed with PTSD symptoms.

His uncle and aunt in New Jersey were trying to make sense of what they were hearing about Santiago. FBI agents arrived at their house to question them on Friday.

Maria Ruiz told The Record newspaper that her nephew had recently become a father to a son and was struggling.

“It was like he lost his mind,” she said in Spanish of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”

Santiago was flying from Anchorage on a Delta flight and had checked only one piece of luggage, which contained the gun.

Sen.-elect Nelson Cruz, who knew the family and represents the town where they live in Puerto Rico, said he had been talking regularly with Bryan Santiago since the shooting.

“They’re very humble and very Christian people,” Cruz said. “They want to tell the families of the victims that they’re extremely saddened and extremely upset by what happened.”

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Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; Rachel D’Oro and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; Jason Dearen in Gainesville, Florida and Lolita C. Baldor and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show Santiago served in the Alaska National Guard in Anchorage, not Fairbanks, per new information from the Guard.

 

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