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Citadel News Service
11 Jan 2017

Experts argue mental health played large role in Fort Lauderdale shooting

As seen on more than 170 Sinclar Broadcasting TV station websites around America

by Leandra Bernstein │ Monday, January 9th 2017

Esteban Santiago, the 26 year-old man suspected of opening fire in a baggage claim area at a Florida airport Friday, killing five people and wounding six, made his first appearance in federal court on Monday, where he faces multiple charges including murder, airport violence, and firearms offenses. If convicted, Santiago could face the death penalty.

The suspect's questionable mental stability and recent history of a psychiatric crisis has brought renewed interest in laws that prevent a person who could be a danger to himself or others from owning or obtaining a firearm.

The suspect took a one-way flight from his home in Anchorage, Alaska and caught a connecting flight before arriving at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Anchorage airport police confirmed that Santiago had only one checked bag, a hard-case which contained his gun, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. TSA regulations allow passengers to check their unloaded firearms and up to 11 pounds of ammunition in a locked, hard-case bag.

At around 1 p.m. (EST), Santiago had gotten access to his weapon, loaded it, and opened fire in the baggage claim area. The security camera footage of the incident was released over the weekend.

As of Saturday, the suspect's motive for the killing still wasn't clear. George Piro, the FBI's special agent in charge in Miami, told reporters that authorities "have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack," adding that they have not ruled out terrorism as a motive for the shooting.

Despite not being able to identify a specific trigger, those who knew the suspect and had come to know his background, saw plenty of red flags suggesting serious instability.

As recently as November 2016, Santiago walked into the FBI office in Alaska and confessed to "having terroristic thoughts." He was disoriented, according to FBI Special Agent in Charge Marlin Ritzman, and he made statements about "mind-control," claiming that the CIA was forcing him to watch propaganda videos and join the Islamic State terrorist group, ISIS.

At the time of the interview, Santiago possessed a gun. The FBI took the gun from him and held it as evidence while turning Santiago over to local authorities who ordered a psychiatric examination. According to reports from Alaskan officials, within a few weeks of walking into the FBI office, Santiago passed his psychiatric screening and had his gun returned.

"As far as I know, this is not somebody that would have been prohibited [from having a gun] based on the information they had," U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said at a news conference over the weekend.

In addition to his mental health history, Santiago was also investigated in Anchorage for alleged domestic abuse. Twice in October, police were called to his home on reports that Santiago hit and attempted to strangle his girlfriend. Neither incident led to an arrest.

Santiago served in the Army National Guard, was deployed to Iraq for ten months during 2010 and 2011 and he was discharged from the Alaska Army National Guard last August for unsatisfactory performance. After returning from Iraq, relatives noted a distinct change in his behavior. The suspect's aunt, Maria Ruiz, told reporters that Santiago "lost his mind." The suspect's brother, Bryan Santiago, told the Associated Press that his brother had changed, that he couldn't control his anger, and federal law enforcement should have acted when they had the chance.

"The FBI failed there," Bryan Santiago said. "We're not talking about someone who emerged from anonymity to do something like this."

Dr. Carl Jensen is a retired FBI special agent and director of the intelligence and security studies program at the Citadel Military College of South Carolina. He explained that during his time in the field it was "very common" for individuals with mental problems to reach out the FBI. "Very often, it involved people who heard voices, often times involving the CIA telling them to do something," he said.

According to Jensen, the FBI office in Alaska followed the correct procedure by turning Santiago over to local authorities who then conducted his mental evaluation. "FBI agents are not psychologists, they cannot diagnose mental illness."

Under federal law, Santiago could not have gotten his gun back if he was deemed mentally unstable, a danger to himself or the community. There are still outstanding questions regarding the nature of Santiago's mental health assessment, how long he spent in the medical facility, and other details regarding his mental health treatment.

"It was up to the mental health professionals to determine whether Mr. Santiago was a danger to himself or others," Jensen explained, noting that "unfortunately, many states don't do a good job reporting these individuals to the federal government."

Santiago's mental health may be a key factor in authorities determining whether to look at the incident as a case of terrorism. The suspect would have had to demonstrate an intent to commit an act of violence to further a political, social, or religious agenda. "If an individual lacks the mental capacity to make an informed decision about allegiance to ISIS or another terrorist group, I am hesitant to call it terrorism, at least in the conventional sense ," Jensen said. While thee are incidents of terrorist groups using mentally unstable persons to carry out suicide attacks, the officers in charge of the investigation in Florida, and those who interviewed Santiago in Alaska did not conclude the suspect had any ties to terrorist groups.

Jensen concluded decisively that "an individual with a history of mental illness that involves violence or the potential for violence should not be allowed to purchase or carry a firearm." Any additional determination, such as whether that person should be put on a no-fly list has to be made by a mental health specialist.

"The biggest take away for me is that, sadly, we don't do a very good job of caring for the mentally ill in this country," the former FBI agent explained. "That said, we need to fix the system to better ensure that guns and other weapons don't end up in the hands of those who, through no fault of their own, are a danger to themselves or others."

Jeff Danik, worked for nearly thirty years with the FBI and was formerly the violent crime supervisor at the FBI's Miami office. Based on the facts that have been made public, Danik argued that the FBI dropped the ball, given the suspect's mental health history, his questionable discharge from the military, and statements about joining ISIS.

"This particular incident was absolutely preventable," Danik said of the airport shooting. "Whoever gave this gun back has a big problem."

As a law enforcement official, Danik said that he is most concerned about the official who returned Santiago's gun to him, given the fact that he experienced a clear psychiatric crisis and could be a danger to the community or to himself, and given his claims about ISIS recruitment.

"You don't give that gun back, period. You make him sue you, basically," he added. "I would have delayed giving back his gun until a government lawyer told me that...his general discharge [from the National Guard] was not dishonorable, and that we are satisfied with his course of psychiatric treatment." Only after all those criterion were met, should the FBI have permitted Santiago to possess a gun.

Current reporting from local and federal law enforcement does not make clear that each of those standards were met during the time when Santiago walked into the FBI office and had his firearm confiscated in November and when he got his gun back on December 8, 2016. Some sources close to Santiago indicate that he did receive mental health treatment.

As far as potential terrorist ties, Danik agrees that the investigation should be left open. He cited a picture where Santiago appears to be mimicking the one-finger salute used by ISIS fighters. While noting that the picture could indicate a number of things, he noted, "They indict people all the time for flashing gang signals...If you are throwing gang signs, they put that in the charging document."

In his Monday court appearance, Santiago was given a public defender and mostly answered a series yes or no questions, including confirming to Judge Alicia Valle that he understands his conviction could result in the death penalty. As the FBI continues its own investigation, Valle set a detention hearing for January 17. Santiago's arraignment, where he will plead guilty or not guilty has been scheduled for January 23.

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