Fort Lauderdale, FL — In the week following the January 6 shooting at Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, the reports of two witnesses describing multiple shooters have been widely shared across the internet. Their first-person accounts conflict with the events reported by law enforcement officials, who say a single suspect opened fire in a terminal baggage claim area, killing 5 people and injuring 6.
The “lone” shooter has been identified as 26-year-old Esteban Santiago, an Army veteran who is reported to have mental issues. He was arrested without injury by police at the scene and is being held pending possible federal charges. It is claimed he flew from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale on a one-way ticket, retrieved his handgun from baggage and began firing randomly at people after loading the gun in a bathroom.
Santiago had been recently sent to a hospital in November for a mental evaluation after he walked into an Alaska FBI field office and said the federal government was controlling his mind. He claimed C.I.A. agents were forcing him to watch Islamic State propaganda videos.
FBI officials confiscated a gun in his car and contacted local police, who sent him to get a mental health evaluation. Santiago was eventually released in December and the FBI and returned his handgun.
His family reported he had been having trouble, however, another report said he was having “wild” parties. Anchorage Police told reporters Santiago was investigated multiple times for various crimes including repeated domestic violence calls. According to USA Today, police received another domestic violence call on Oct. 15, but officers were told by a municipal prosecutor not to arrest him.
Santiago had recently been discharged from the Alaska National Guard in August 2016 for unsatisfactory performance, he had served since November 2014. Prior to that, Santiago was in the Army reserves following his active duty deployment in Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011. Santiago initially began his service in the Puerto Rico National Guard in December 2007.
The shooting was reported to be in Terminal 2. However, a pilot claimed to hear shooting in Terminal 1 during an interview with the Miami ABC affiliate WPLG.
“We definitely heard percussions and banging and you know I’m a shooter myself, so I would tend to think those were shootings,” the pilot said, before being briefly interrupted by a passing police car. The reporter then asked him to describe exactly what he saw.
“Well I was standing right inside the door in Terminal 1, on what would be the departures level, and I was looking down, I could see the escalators and the stairs, and I heard loud percussions, and people started running away, I could hear females screaming, and at the same time, stuff started happening behind me, some percussions, people falling down, running,” he said.
The pilot then stated he saw a man with his hands up and running from police during the incident, and then he described a conversation with another witness after the incident, saying that the other witness may have seen a different person running from police.
Another eyewitness, a construction worker at the airport, reported that after “they caught the first guy,” assumed to be Santiago, “there had to be three sleepers [three other shooters].”
He went on to describe what he saw, saying “we could see inside literally where the windows — you could see the fire coming from the barrels. There was like at least three people in there still shooting. Like it was like a high-powered rifle, like an AR or something […]. They was non-stop shooting. Like they just started hitting different people inside the crowd. We had to leave. We had to get on the roof.”
Reports of multiple shooters have been common at high profile shooting events and law enforcement authorities report only a single shooter. The June 2016 shooting at a nearby Orlando nightclub was reported as a shooting by a lone gunman who killed 50 people and wounded 50 others. Witnesses gave reasonable accounts of more than one shooter, citing gunfire coming from different directions and people holding exit doors shut from the outside. Many tactical experts have questioned whether one person could hit that many people in the conditions described, including a former NYPD officer who trained with both the handgun and rifle said to be used in the shooting.
The December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California was also reported as a lone shooter event. However, multiple witnesses reported seeing more than one shooter. The more specific reports described the shooters as three tall athletic white men. In both the cases of Orlando and San Bernardino, the reports of witnesses also corroborated the details given by other witnesses.
Last week’s Fort Lauderdale shooting comes amid discussion in Florida about individual gun rights which has been intensified since the Orlando nightclub shooting in June 2016. State Senator Greg Steube recently proposed a bill that would amend Florida’s current concealed carry law by “allowing open carry where all concealed weapons are allowed,” as reported by WSVN Miami. The bill was introduced in December 2016 and set for committee hearings in the early weeks of January. Yesterday’s Judiciary Committee meeting was cancelled, the bill was expected to be the major topic of discussion.