PENUELAS, Puerto Rico (CBSMiami/AP) — The brother of the man accused of killing five people at a Ft. Lauderdale 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.
After serving in the National Guard in Iraq, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago had trouble controlling his anger and told his brother Bryan Santiago that he felt he was being chased and being controlled by the CIA through secret online messages. But 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… we’re not talking about someone who emerged from anonymity to do something like this,” Bryan Santiago told The Associated Press, speaking in Spanish outside his family’s pale yellow house nestled in the lush mountains of the southern town of Penuelas. “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, the 26-year-old Estaban Santiago — a new dad, family said — had been living in Anchorage, Alaska. But there were signs of trouble.
Esteban told FBI agents in Alaska that the government was controlling his mind and 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 on Bryan Santiago’s comments ahead of a planned 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. The only thing she said was that Esteban Santiago had been tremendously affected by seeing a bomb explode next to two of his friends when he was around 18 years old while serving 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 the AP. He was serving as a combat engineer in the Guard before his discharge for “unsatisfactory performance,” said Olmstead. 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, but the Pentagon said he went AWOL several times and was demoted and discharged.
Still, he’d been awarded a number of other medals and commendations including the Iraq Campaign Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
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, and reporters swarmed around.
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 of Esteban Santiago’s brother and mother. “They want to tell the families of the victims that they’re extremely saddened and extremely upset by what happened.”
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