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Fort Lauderdale airport shooting suspect was Iraq vet with mental health issues, says brother

Esteban Santiago told FBI agents in Alaska that the government was controlling his mind and was forcing him to watch Islamic State group videos.

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    Fort Lauderdale, Fla. airport shooting suspect Esteban Ruiz Santiago, 26, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017. Relatives of the man who police say opened fire Friday killing several people and wounding others at a Florida airport report he had a history of mental health issues.
    (Broward Sheriff's Office via AP)
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The man police say opened fire with a gun from his checked baggage at a Florida airport had a history of mental health problems — some of which followed his military service in Iraq — and was receiving psychological treatment at his home in Alaska, his relatives said Friday after the deadly shooting.

"Only thing I could tell you was when he came out of Iraq, he wasn't feeling too good," his uncle, Hernan Rivera, told The Record newspaper.

Esteban Santiago, 26, 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.

In recent years, Santiago had been living in Anchorage, Alaska, his brother, Bryan Santiago, told The Associated Press from Puerto Rico. Bryan Santiago said his brother's girlfriend had recently called the family to alert them to his treatment.

In November, Santiago 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. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation by name and spoke Friday on condition of anonymity.

The FBI agents notified the police after the interview with Esteban Santiago, who took him in for a mental health evaluation.

Bryan Santiago 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."

Esteban 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 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.

His uncle and aunt in New Jersey were trying to make sense of what they were hearing about Santiago after his arrest at the Fort Lauderdale airport. FBI agents arrived at their house to question them, and reporters swarmed around.

Maria Ruiz told The Record 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 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, strangled 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.

Law enforcement officers were at the girlfriend's home Friday afternoon, and officers guarding the property outside told a reporter who approached the home to step away.

Agents questioned an agitated and disjointed-sounding Santiago and then called police, who took him for a mental health evaluation, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and spoke on condition of anonymity.

FBI agent George Piro, who is in charge of the Miami field office, said authorities are looking at leads in several states and have not ruled out terrorism. "We're looking at every angle, including the terrorism angle," he said

Santiago, who is in federal custody, will face federal charges and is expected to appear in court Monday, Piro said.

It is legal for airline passengers to travel with guns and ammunition as long as the firearms are put in a checked bag — not a carry-on — and are unloaded and locked in a hard-sided container. Guns must be declared to the airline at check-in.

Santiago arrived in Fort Lauderdale after taking off from Anchorage aboard a Delta flight Thursday night, checking only one piece of luggage — his gun, said Jesse Davis, police chief at the Anchorage airport.

At Fort Lauderdale, "after he claimed his bag, he went into the bathroom and loaded the gun and started shooting. We don't know why," said Chip LaMarca, a Broward County commissioner who was briefed by investigators.

The gunman was taken into custody after throwing his empty weapon down and lying spread-eagle on the ground, one witness said.

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Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska; Rachel D'Oro and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska; and Lolita C. Baldor and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.

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