Christopher Brennan (NY Daily News)
The 26-year-old New Jersey-born Iraq veteran accused of executing five people and wounding eight others at a Florida airport claimed just two months ago that he was hearing voices.
It was part of a difficult adjustment to civilian life after serving overseas. He sat in an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, in November, claiming the CIA was forcing him to join ISIS. And he became a father for the first time last year and was struggling to take care of himself, let alone a child.
On Friday, Esteban Santiago snapped, opening fire near the baggage claim area at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He reloaded, fired until he was out of bullets and calmly surrendered without saying a word.
Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2 years old, relatives said.
He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the National Guard in 2007, and served with that unit in Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011.
From there, Santiago spiraled down a dark descent that included a less than honorable discharge, arrests for domestic violence and now the first mass shooting on U.S. soil in 2017.
In November, the Army vet walked into an Anchorage FBI office and unleashed a torrent of conspiracy theories.
A law enforcement official says he told the FBI that the government was controlling his mind and was forcing him to watch ISIS videos.
Santiago appeared incoherent at times, a source told ABC News.
The FBI agents notified local police after the interview, who took him for a mental health evaluation.
A spokeswoman for the Anchorage Police Department referred all questions about Santiago to the FBI.
On Thursday, Santiago took a red-eye flight out of Anchorage with only one piece of checked luggage — containing a 9-mm. handgun. He flew to St. Paul/Minneapolis and then took a connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale.
After landing just after noon on Friday, Santiago retrieved the gun from his checked bag and opened fire in the airport.
His uncle and aunt in Union City, N.J., were trying to make sense of what happened Friday.
FBI agents and reporters swarmed their home, and they spoke briefly about their nephew.
Maria Ruiz told the Record that Santiago had recently become a father and was having trouble accepting the responsibility of parenthood.
She added that Santiago came back from Iraq acting strangely, but “was happy with the kid” after the birth of his child last year.
A photo from September shows Santiago peacefully gazing down at an infant cradled in his arms.
“It was like he lost his mind,” Ruiz said of his return from Iraq. “He said he saw things.”
Upon his return, Santiago served in the Army Reserves and the Alaska National Guard in Fairbanks.
He was serving as a combat engineer before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance,” said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman.
His military rank 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, but the Pentagon said he’d gone AWOL several times and was demoted and discharged.
Still, he’d had some successes during his military career, being awarded a number of medals and commendations, including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
In Anchorage, police officers told reporters that they were interviewing people at an address for Santiago but wouldn’t give details and were keeping journalists away from the home.
Alaskan court records show Santiago was charged with two misdemeanors last year; one count was dismissed.
Calls to his lawyer in that case were not immediately returned.
He was also ticketed for minor traffic infractions, including allegedly driving without insurance and having a broken taillight in April 2015.
A landlord also filed eviction proceedings against him in February 2015, stating he had failed to pay his rent.
He was also investigated as part of a child porn investigation in either 2011 or 2012, law enforcement sources told CBS News. Three weapons and a computer were seized, but no charges were filed, sources said.
Santiago had moved to Anchorage two years ago to get a fresh start, his brother said.
He found a job with a security company and had been “fighting with a lot of people” while in Alaska and was having relationship issues. Still, he could not imagine his sibling unleashing the carnage that unfolded in Fort Lauderdale.
“He is a regular person, spiritual, a good person,” he told NBC News.
Santiago was doing his best to maintain a sense of normalcy, his brother said.
Bryan Santiago said his brother’s girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his psychological treatment, but he didn’t have further details.
He said his brother never spoke to him directly about his medical issues.
“We have not talked for the past three weeks,” Bryan Santiago said. “That’s a bit unusual … I’m in shock. He was a serious person … He was a normal person.”