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4 days after Fort Lauderdale rampage, gunman still an enigma

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.

AMY BETH BENNETT/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL/TNS

By CHARLES RABIN, MONIQUE O. MADAN AND JULIE K. BROWN | The Miami Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 11, 2017

Four days after an Army reservist shot and killed five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, federal authorities say they have thus far found no evidence that he was involved in ISIS or any form of radical Islam.

Esteban Santiago, the 26-year-old gunman, had connections to New York, Puerto Rico, Southwest Florida and Alaska, but it remains a mystery why he picked Fort Lauderdale to carry out his attack.

Family members say that Santiago, a decorated U.S. soldier, unsuccessfully sought help for his mental problems upon his return from Iraq in 2011, shortly after two of his fellow reservists were killed in a roadside bombing.

But beyond that, they have revealed very little about his upbringing, his travels or his civilian life. And his girlfriend — the person who likely knows the most about his frame of mind before the rampage — has also not spoken publicly.

Gina Peterson, the 40-year-old mother of his young child, expressed her condolences to the victims’ families in a statement read Monday by her grown daughter, Robyn.

“My warmest sincerities go out to the families, friends,” Robyn Peterson told CNN affiliate KTUU in Anchorage. Robyn Peterson said she did not know Santiago very well, but said what he did was shocking.

“No one knew this was going to happen, and we’re just completely ... It’s a tragedy, for sure. Taken aback by it, 100 percent,” she said.

The dearth of details about the investigation and of Santiago’s past has created an information void that has fueled rumors. Among them: that Santiago created an Arabic name when he was 17 and became a radicalized terrorist who posted emails, video propaganda and Muslim songs on Jihadi forums.

Federal agents, who have examined Ernesto Santiago’s computer, have not uncovered any tangible evidence that Santiago heeded the voices he claimed he heard.

The ideas were first posted by a controversial conservative blogger in California, and then spread by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that successfully sued to make Hillary Clinton’s emails public during the presidential campaign. A Fort Lauderdale businessman was roused by the incendiary posts, penning a letter to Fort Lauderdale’s mayor and others, claiming — the same as Judicial Watch — that there is a conspiracy by the mainstream media and federal, state and local authorities to cover up Santiago’s terrorist leanings.

But FBI agents scrubbing Santiago’s social media sites have found nothing to indicate he was an Islamic convert inspired by terrorist organizations, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation.

“There really has been nothing,” said a source, noting that if anything, evidence thus far shows the opposite: that Santiago planned the assault, acted on his own, flew on a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale and chose its airport as a random target.

Suggestions of Santiago’s possible connection to Jihadists stem in part from the gunman’s visit to an FBI office in Anchorage two months ago.

Authorities said Santiago, who was agitated and incoherent, claimed that he was hearing voices urging him to join ISIS and that the CIA was pressuring him to watch terrorist training videos.

Yet federal agents, who have examined Santiago’s computer, have not uncovered any tangible evidence that Santiago heeded the voices he claimed he heard.

Sources also pointed out that Santiago did not follow the pattern of other ISIS-inspired terrorists by proclaiming support of the terrorist group as other “lone wolf” radicals have done — among them, Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last year.

Despite Santiago’s rambling statement to the FBI in November, he was not placed on any federal “no-fly” lists and, following his brief stint in a psychiatric facility, his gun, which had been taken away after the FBI visit, was returned to him.

On Thursday, Santiago boarded a flight in Anchorage, bound for Fort Lauderdale. Jesse Davis, the police chief at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, said Santiago checked in for his flight four hours ahead of time and did not have any luggage.

“No carry-on and just a small pistol case,” Davis said.

Asked if his lack of luggage and one-way ticket should have been cause for concern, Davis said, “It seems to have, in hindsight. But it’s possible he could have had a wife flying with him with stuff.”

ABC News reported that Santiago may have initially planned to fly to New York City on New Year’s Eve, but canceled his flight and bought the ticket to Florida.

In the Anchorage neighborhood where Santiago lived with his girlfriend, people said little about the couple, even though police had been called to their home a number of times for domestic disturbances, including two last year in which Peterson had claimed Santiago had tried to strangle her.

Anchorage police would not release any details of the incidents, citing the open federal investigation.

Rick Ford, the informal head of the neighborhood Crime Watch in the tiny, modest Fairview neighborhood, said he and others on the block have been visited by federal agents asking questions.

From his bedroom window, Rick Ford, unofficial Crime Watch leader, can see the front of the couple’s home, a small, square, brown-and-white house with a child’s bicycle on the a cozy porch and a barbecue grill outside, covered in snow.

The feds, according to Ford, asked him if he noticed any changes in Santiago, whether strangers had been showing up and, specifically, if Santiago seemed to exhibit any kind of radical religious behavior.

“No, I have not,” Ford said he told them.

Ford, who has lived in Fairview 22 years, said Santiago had been living with Peterson “on and off’’ for the past few years.

“They pretty much keep to themselves,” he said. “He’s totally quiet, withdrawn.”

Ford recalls the couple had fights, and police were summoned. But Ford said the arguments never escalated to the point that he felt he needed to intervene.

Though there was no sign of Peterson at the home on Tuesday, one neighbor said she came by Monday in a black SUV driven by a friend, but didn’t speak to anyone.

In Midtown Anchorage at the Qupquciaq Inn, where Santiago once lived, it was more of the same: People who didn’t want to discuss Santiago. The quaint inn, 37 rooms of wood and stucco, rents units during the winter for as little as $140 a week. It sits on West 36th Avenue and Springer Street, a small warehouse district.

The site manager referred questions to General Manager Chris Stephens, who said he’s cooperating with the federal investigation and would say nothing more.


———
Miami Herald staff writers Jay Weaver, Amy Sherman, Jim Wyss and Monika Leal contributed to this report.

©2017 Miami Herald
Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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.
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