USA Justice

Fort Lauderdale shooting: Evidence of gaps in the mental health system?

The Fort Lauderdale shooting may ignite fresh debates over whether law-enforcement and mental-health authorities could have done more to protect public safety.

Investigators work in Terminal 2 at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, the day after a shooting in the baggage area.
Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP | Caption

Federal officials say that the gunman who opened fire in a Fort Lauderdale airport after retrieving the weapon from his checked luggage at baggage claim, killing five people before surrendering to police, had been treated for mental health issues in Alaska after complaining of hearing voices. 

It’s unclear whether the suspected gunman, Esteban Santiago, had ever been formally diagnosed with an illness. But in November, the former Alaska National Guardsman and Iraq war veteran walked into an FBI office in Anchorage and claimed that US intelligence agencies were controlling his mind and forcing him to watch ISIS videos.  

The shooting seems to serve as an example of a type of mass violence that is actually much rarer than most people believe: studies show that the mentally ill account for just 1 percent of gun violence against strangers, although almost two-thirds of the American public sees such incidents as a reflection of failures in the mental health system, the Pew Research Center reports. And as details emerge, the Fort Lauderdale shooting may ignite fresh debates over whether law-enforcement and mental-health authorities could have done more, or if they should be able to more freely disclose patient information for the good of public safety. 

Such questions about the mental-health system’s ability to head off such tragedies have been raised in other cases, including the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colo., by a James Holmes, who had told psychiatrists and family members about having homicidal thoughts, as well as the case of a depressed pilot in Germany who deliberately crashed a commercial liner in 2015, killing all 150 people on board.  In the case of the Germanwings pilot, doctors considered him unfit to fly, but didn't report that to his employer or aviation authorities due to privacy laws. 

In the case of the Fort Lauderdale shooter, “the early reporting seems to indicate this is someone with a significant history of mental illness,” says Liza Gold, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. “After that, we don’t really have any information about where he was in his treatment, if he was accepting his treatment, or if he was compliant or noncompliant." 

“Everyone may have been doing their job and this still happens,” Dr. Gold tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Because it does. You can’t predict this kind of event." 

After Mr. Santiago’s visit to the FBI, the agency performed a background check that turned up no evidence of ties to ISIS or other terror groups, and asked local police to take him to the hospital to undergo a mental health evaluation, according to CNN. Santiago ended up checking himself in voluntarily – meaning that a federal prohibition of gun sales would not have applied to the former serviceman, even if he’d sought to obtain weapons after symptoms of illness began. 

CNN also reported that Santiago gave up his registered gun when he checked into the hospital for evaluation but the weapon was returned to him when he left. 

"How is it possible that the federal government knows, they hospitalize him for only four days, and then give him his weapon back?" Bryan Santiago told the Associated Press, from his home in Puerto Rico, Saturday.

“We looked at his contacts, we did our interagency checks and everything and at that point we closed our assessment,”  FBI Special Agent in Charge George Piro told NBC News on Friday. 

Santiago never told FBI agents that he wanted to hurt anyone or belong to a terrorist group. In January 2016, though, he was charged in a domestic violence case after forcing his way into his girlfriend’s home. She said that he had strangled her and smacked her on the side of her head, according to the Associated Press. Santiago was charged with assault and criminal mischief, the Alaska Dispatch News reported. 

The shooter took a flight from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale on Friday for reasons that were a mystery to his immediate family. His brother, Bryan Santiago, told NBC that they had family in Florida, but that he had no idea why he had gone there. 

The Associated Press reported that Santiago was born in New Jersey but moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2, his brother said. He grew up in the southern coastal town of Penuelas before joining the Puerto Rico National Guard in 2007.

Former neighbor Ursula Candelario 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," said Candelario.

While in Iraq, Santiago cleared roads of improvised explosive devices and at least two members of his company were killed, spokesman Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead told The New York Times. He was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation.

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 Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead, a spokeswoman. 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 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 September, Santiago became a father when his son was born, according to an aunt, Maria Luisa Ruiz, a resident of Union City, New Jersey, who spoke Friday to the newspaper The Record.

"Indications are that he came here to carry out this horrific attack," FBI Agent Piro said at a news conference in Florida Saturday. "We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack. We're pursuing all angles on what prompted him to carry out this horrific attack."