MIAMI – An Alaska man accused of killing five people and wounding six in a shooting rampage at a major Florida airport is competent to proceed with his court case despite indications of mental illness, his attorneys told a judge Thursday.
Esteban Santiago, 26, was treated briefly before the shooting at an Anchorage, Alaska, psychiatric facility after showing up at an FBI office and telling agents he was hearing voices and was under CIA mind control. He made similar statements about mind control after he was arrested in the Jan. 6 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, authorities said.
Defense attorneys Hector Dopico and Eric Cohen, however, told U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom at a hearing that Santiago understands court proceedings, comprehends the charges against him and is able to assist in preparing a defense. They also said he is taking psychiatric medicine in jail for an undisclosed mental condition.
"We have met with him hours upon hours. We do not have a concern at this time," Dopico said. "One can be profoundly mentally ill, including schizophrenic, and be competent."
Bloom initially said she wanted to order a full psychiatric evaluation for Santiago but decided to wait after Dopico asked for time to obtain records of his previous treatment and his behavior while in a different jail following his Florida arrest. The issue of mental competence could play a key role in whether the Justice Department decides to seek the death penalty against Santiago.
"I want to ensure the court is satisfied he is competent," Bloom said.
The judge asked Santiago a series of questions about whether he understood the 22-count indictment against him, whether he knew how the death penalty decision would be made and whether he was satisfied with his lawyers. He calmly answered "yes" to each of these and said "no" when asked if he objected to delays in the case.
Trial is currently scheduled to begin Oct. 2 in Miami. Another hearing on the competency issue is set for March 15.
According to the indictment, Santiago flew from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale with a 9 mm handgun in a box in checked luggage. After landing he retrieved the weapon, authorities say, loaded it in an airport bathroom and came out firing in a baggage claim area. He was arrested after exhausting his ammunition.
The FBI has said he initially told them he acted under government mind control, then claimed he was inspired by the Islamic State extremist group. Investigators have found no links to terrorists and Santiago is not facing any terror-related charges. The FBI also says Santiago confessed fully to the shootings in video and audio recordings.
After his meeting with the FBI in November in Anchorage, Santiago was handed over to local police who took custody of his gun and had him admitted to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. He was released after five days and police returned his weapon in December.
Santiago is an Iraq war veteran with the National Guard who grew up in Puerto Rico but later moved to Alaska. His reason for choosing the Florida airport has not been disclosed.