FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CNN) — Esteban Santiago returned from a tour in Iraq a changed man, his aunt said Saturday (Jan.7). He talked about the destruction he witnessed. About the killing of children. Visions that haunted him.
“His mind was not right,” the aunt, Maria Ruiz Rivera, told CNN in a phone interview from her home in New Jersey. “He seemed normal at times, but other times he seemed lost. He changed.”
Santiago is suspected of killing five people Friday at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.
Relatives said he had been different since returning from Iraq, where he was deployed with the Puerto Rico National Guard from April 2010 to February 2011.
“He talked about all the destruction and the killing of children. He had visions all the time,” said Ruiz, speaking in Spanish during the interview.
The suspect’s brother, Bryan Santiago, said he believes the shooting rampage resulted from mental issues that appeared after the Iraq tour.
Esteban Santiago requested medical help from army and federal agencies, according to his brother. He received some treatment.
The brother said Santiago was hospitalized for a few days but apparently was not able to overcome his problems.
Bryan Santiago, in an interview in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, said he used to speak with his brother regularly but the communication ceased about a month ago.
Ruiz said she also lost contact with her nephew.
“He stopped calling,” she said. “He wouldn’t respond to my messages. I would call and text. He seemed distant.”
On Friday (Jan. 6), Ruiz said she heard her nephew’s name during a TV news report on the Fort Lauderdale shooting.
“Who would have imagined that he could do something like this?” she said. “I don’t say that because we’re family. I say it because he wasn’t like that.”
In January 2016, Santiago was arrested and charged with assault and criminal mischief after an argument with his girlfriend in Anchorage, Alaska, according to court documents that CNN obtained.
At the time, Santiago allegedly yelled at his girlfriend while she was in the bathroom, according to the complaint. He then broke down the bathroom door.
The woman told investigators that Santiago strangled her and struck her in the side of the head, the complaint said. Santiago left before police arrived.
Anchorage municipal prosecutor Seneca Theno said Santiago pleaded no contest to criminal mischief and assault charges. Under a deferred prosecution agreement, the charges would have been dismissed if he complied with the conditions. He was due back in court on March 28.
His record included two earlier minor offenses: no proof of insurance and a taillight violation in 2015.
Santiago was employed by an Anchorage security company, a law enforcement official said.
Ruiz said her nephew lived with his girlfriend and their child.
Several months ago, Santiago’s strange behavior came to the attention of agents at the FBI’s Anchorage office. The suspect allegedly told authorities at the time that an intelligence agency was telling him to watch ISIS videos, according to law enforcement officials.
The officials said Santiago’s associates, who accompanied him, were concerned because he said he was hearing voices.
Santiago was armed during the visit to FBI office, law enforcement officials told CNN. He told the FBI he was licensed to carry a gun. As is standard for anyone carrying a firearm into an FBI building, authorities took the gun and eventually gave it to local police.
The FBI looked into Santiago’s background and saw his military history but found no information to indicate radicalization, officials said. The FBI asked local police to take him to the hospital for a mental health evaluation. Santiago voluntarily checked himself in.
“His erratic behavior concerned FBI agents,” George Piro, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Miami, said Saturday.
Anchorage police returned the gun after Santiago he got out of the mental evaluation, the officials said.
Investigators believe it was the same gun that was found at the scene of Friday’s shooting.
The suspect had purchased two handguns — a 9 mm Glock and a Glock .40-caliber — in the past, according to a law enforcement source with knowledge of the investigation.
On Friday, Santiago flew to Florida on a Delta Air Lines flight from Alaska via Minnesota, officials said. He had declared his handgun in a firearms carrying case, law enforcement sources told CNN.
At the Fort Lauderdale airport, he picked up the carrying case at baggage claim, according to law enforcement sources.
A source said Santiago went to the bathroom to take the gun out of the case and emerged shooting.
Santiago likely acted alone, authorities said.
People react after the shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport. The first call about the incident came in at 12:55 p.m. ET, authorities said.
Piro said Saturday that investigators “continue to look at the terrorism angle” as a possible motive.
“We have not ruled out anything,” he said. “We continue to look at all avenues, all motives.”
Santiago was cooperating with investigators, who had interviewed him for several hours, according to Piro. The interview concluded early Saturday.
The suspect “came here specifically to carry out this horrific attack,” Piro said.
“We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack,” he said.
Santiago is in federal custody and will likely appear Monday in court in Broward County, officials said.
According to his booking information, Santiago is being held without bond on a murder charge.
Santiago joined the Puerto Rico National Guard in December 2007, said Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead of the Alaska Army National Guard.
After service in Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011, Santiago received the Iraq Campaign Medal with a campaign star, a combat-related honor, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported.
He served in the US Army Reserve before joining the Alaska Army National Guard in November 2014, Olmstead said.
The suspect was later given a general discharge from the Alaska Army National Guard in August for unsatisfactory performance.
Santiago was not on the radar for possible terrorism ties, according to a law enforcement official and a Department of Homeland Security official.
He had no significant foreign travel that was ever flagged, another official said.