National News

Lawyers: Airport shooting suspect off meds but mentally fit

Posted September 28

— An Alaska man charged with killing five people and wounding six in a Florida airport mass shooting has stopped taking anti-psychotic medication to treat schizophrenia but remains mentally competent to stand trial, his lawyers told a judge Thursday.

Esteban Santiago, 27, stopped taking the drug Haldol about three weeks ago because of side effects including painful muscle contractions, public defender Eric Cohen said. But he said Santiago's mental condition is good and he's actively taking part in preparations for his case, even seeming sharper and more focused than before.

"You have not noticed any change in his behavior?" asked U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom during a hearing in Miami federal court.

"I have no concerns whatsoever," Cohen replied. "He's certainly willing to try new medication."

Santiago, a National Guard Iraq war veteran from Anchorage, Alaska, has pleaded not guilty to a 22-count indictment in the Jan. 6 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The Justice Department may seek the death penalty in a trial currently set for January 2018.

After the shooting, the FBI says Santiago initially told agents he acted under government mind control, but then claimed inspiration by the Islamic State extremist group. No terrorism links have been found. He had been briefly hospitalized in Alaska about two months before the shootings after complaining of mental problems but was released without any restrictions preventing him from possessing a gun.

According to the indictment, Santiago flew from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale with a 9 mm handgun in a box he put in checked luggage. After landing he retrieved the weapon, loaded it in a bathroom and came out firing randomly in a crowded baggage claim area until he exhausted his ammunition.

The FBI says several video cameras captured the shooting and that Santiago admitted committing the crime in recorded interviews with agents after his arrest.

The Justice Department decision on whether to seek the death penalty could be delayed by Hurricane Maria. Many of Santiago's relatives live in storm-slammed Puerto Rico, where he grew up, and there are also records on the island the defense seeks to bolster its case against the death penalty, Cohen said. The hurricane's severe damage is a major roadblock to doing interviews and obtaining documents.

"There are still significant gaps in what we are hoping to provide to the government," Cohen said. "We are trying to get that done as quickly as possible."

For now, Bloom said she would keep in place the current Jan. 22 trial date but set another status hearing for early November to gauge progress in the case.

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Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt

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