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Suspected Fort Lauderdale shooter portrayed as troubled Army vet

Believed to be shooter Esteban Santiago
Believed to be shooter Esteban Santiago via Facebook

The man suspected of shooting 13 people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday afternoon, killing five and injuring eight, is a former U.S. Army combat engineer who flew to South Florida from Alaska — where he was reportedly receiving mental-health treatment.

Federal investigators believe Esteban Santiago, 26, landed at Fort Lauderdale early Friday afternoon with a checked bag containing a firearm. He picked up his bag and walked into the men’s room, where investigators suspect Santiago loaded the weapon. Then he returned to the Terminal 2 baggage claim and pulled the trigger.

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.

Witnesses described Santiago unloading magazine after magazine of ammunition. In some cases, they feared, he was aiming straight at his victims’ heads.

Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies captured Santiago unharmed, without firing a shot of their own, Sheriff Scott Israel said, though he wouldn’t name Santiago.

Why Santiago was in Fort Lauderdale is unknown, and where his flight originated is unclear. Investigators first said they believed he’d arrived from Canada. But Air Canada, which had two flights land at around noon Friday, said in a statement it has “no record of a passenger by the name Esteban Santiago, or checked guns, on any of our flights to Fort Lauderdale.”

A spokesman for Delta Air Lines, the other carrier that operates Terminal 2 flights, declined to offer any details on whether Santiago was a passenger, perhaps from Minneapolis, citing the ongoing shooting investigation.

Regardless of the city Santiago departed from, he had been living in Anchorage, Alaska, public records show.

He was discharged this summer.

Santiago, a former Army private first class, was a 2010-11 Iraq War vet who also served from Puerto Rico to Alaska between December 2007 and August 2016, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Candis Olmestead of the Alaska National Guard.

Olmstead said Santiago served in Alaska for less than two years, starting Nov. 21, 2014, and received a “general discharge” from the Alaska Army National Guard on Aug. 16, 2016 “for unsatisfactory performance.” She did not elaborate.

He joined the Puerto Rico National Guard on Dec. 14, 2007, Olmstead told the Miami Herald by email, deployed to Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard from April 23, 2010, to February 19, 2011 and also did a stint in as in the Army Reserves before he joined the Army National Guard in Alaska. He never served in the Florida National Guard.

In January, Santiago was charged in Alaska with misdemeanor counts of property damage and assault. A spokesman for the Anchorage Police Department said the incident was related to domestic violence, according to the Daily Beast. Contacted by the Miami Herald, the department referred all questions to the FBI.

Santiago’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Santiago’s brother in Puerto Rico told the Associated Press Santiago received psychological treatment in Alaska. Bryan Santiago didn’t know why or how his brother was being treated. He knew of the help from a call his family received in recent months from Esteban Santiago’s girlfriend, the AP reported.

Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2 years old, according to the AP. Esteban Santiago grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas.

Santiago’s aunt, María Ruiz, told reporters in Union City, New Jersey, that Santiago seemed troubled when he returned from Iraq. According to the Bergen Record, Ruiz said he was “happy” after the recent birth of a child.

“I don’t know why this happened,” Ruiz told the Record.

Passengers can be seen on the Fort Lauderdale International airport's tarmac following a shooting on Jan. 6, 2017.

Miami Herald staff writers Daniel Chang, Chabeli Herrera, David Ovalle, Charles Rabin, Amy Sherman, David Smiley and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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