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Accused airport shooter told his maximum penalty ‘is death’

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Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse Monday, Jan. 9, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Santiago is accused of killing five people and wounding six others in the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting and faces federal charges involving murder, firearms and airport violence. (Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun SentinelTNS)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Esteban Santiago, handcuffed, shackled and wearing a red maximum-security jumpsuit, spoke in a monotone Monday as he answered questions from a federal magistrate during a hearing that lasted about 30 minutes.

Santiago, 26, who is accused of killing five people and wounding six others at Fort Lauderdale’s airport, was flanked by eight to nine deputy U.S. marshals as he answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Alicia Valle.

“The maximum penalty, if you were to be convicted, is death — it is a capital offense,” Valle told him.

Santiago, who stared down at the defense table for much of the hearing, said he understood the seriousness of the charges he is facing.

In answering a series of questions from the judge, Santiago, with visible tattoos on both arms and wearing flip-flops with no socks, said he has no assets and only about five or ten dollars in his bank account.

During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro said prosecutors are seeking to have Santiago detained without bond while the case is pending. A bond hearing was scheduled for Jan. 17 and an arraignment, during which Santiago will formally plead to the charges against him, is set for Jan. 23.

Enhanced security was apparent at the courthouse: There were metal barricades at the entrances, armed federal agents and explosives-detecting dogs.

Santiago is facing federal charges involving murder, firearms and airport violence.

Formal charges have not yet been filed against Santiago. His first appearance in federal court in Fort Lauderdale will likely involve U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle explaining the allegations to him and appointing a lawyer to represent him.

In the federal system, Santiago would have to be charged by a grand jury indictment unless he gives up that legal right. He would not enter a plea of guilty or not guilty until formal charges are filed, which could takes days or weeks.

Airport security video shows Santiago pulling a semi-automatic handgun from his waistband and shooting at people in the baggage carousel area in Terminal 2.

Santiago confessed shortly after the Friday afternoon shooting, according to the FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office.

He told investigators that he planned the attack and bought a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale to carry it out, according to court records. His motive and reason for traveling 5,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to Fort Lauderdale before opening fire remain unclear, said George Piro, the agent in charge of the FBI in South Florida.

When not appearing in court, Santiago is being detained at the Broward Main Jail on federal allegations he fatally shot people, as well as firearm and airport violence charges.

The charges “represent the gravity of the situation and reflect the commitment of federal, state and local law enforcement personnel to continually protect the community and prosecute those who target our residents and visitors,” U.S Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ricardo Del Toro and U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor Larry Schneider.

Santiago, a former National Guard soldier who was born in New Jersey, grew up in Puerto Rico and most recently lived in Anchorage, has a history of mental health problems since he returned from serving in Iraq, his family and federal officials said.

Agents said he legally checked a 9 mm Walther semi-automatic and two magazines of ammunition in his baggage on a Delta flight from Alaska via Minnesota.

After picking up his bag from the baggage carousel, he told investigators he unpacked the gun, loaded it inside a stall in the men’s restroom, and shot the first people he saw after he walked out of the restroom.

Santiago was briefly hospitalized in November after he walked into the FBI office in Anchorage and asked for help, authorities said. He told agents the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State propaganda videos, investigators said.

Authorities initially said he had left his 2-month-old baby son and a gun in his vehicle outside the office and brought in a magazine that contained ammunition. They later clarified that the infant was safely in the care of the FBI. The infant’s mother was called to take custody of the baby, and local police seized his gun and took him to a local psychiatric hospital for treatment, they said.

Santiago’s gun was returned to him on Dec. 8, less than one month before the bloodshed in Fort Lauderdale, investigators said.

Santiago was discharged from the National Guard last year after being demoted for unsatisfactory performance.

Family members said he was hearing voices and was severely affected by seeing a bomb explode near two of his friends when he served in Iraq.

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