MIAMI — An Alaska man will spend the rest of his life in prison for the January 2017 Florida airport shooting that left five people dead and six wounded, a federal judge ordered Friday.
U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom accepted a plea deal in which Esteban Santiago, 28, agreed to admit to the shooting if prosecutors would not seek the death penalty. Santiago pleaded guilty in May to 11 charges of causing death and violence at an international airport.
Santiago, of Anchorage, Alaska, admitted he opened fire with a handgun in a baggage area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after traveling there on a one-way ticket. He retrieved a box containing a Walther 9mm handgun from checked luggage, loaded it in a restroom and came out firing 15 shots.
Judge Bloom called the rampage "85 seconds of evil" and said she found it difficult to "separate the evil of the acts from the evil in the man."
"You destroyed families in this senseless attack," the judge said.
An Iraq war veteran, Santiago was diagnosed after the shooting as schizophrenic but was found competent to understand legal proceedings. Doctors say he has improved with anti-psychotic medication.
Santiago initially told the FBI after the shooting he was under government mind control, then switched to unfounded claims he acted in support of the Islamic State extremist group.
Several family members of victims — many of whom were on their way to cruise ship vacations — spoke in court Friday, describing their deep sense of loss for those who died and some discussing the health struggles of shooting survivors. Among those was Melissa Beauchamp, whose mother Mary Louise Amzibel was killed in the attack and father, Edward Amzibel, was seriously wounded.
"You don't get a chance to say one last 'I love you, mom,'" Beauchamp said. "I can no longer hug her and feel her hug me back."
James Steckley, speaking on behalf of his wounded wife Julie, said he blamed in part what he said was a "lack of concern" for military veterans once they return from combat zones. Santiago served in the National Guard in Iraq.
"I'm truly sorry for you in my heart because I truly don't believe you were a born killer," Steckley told Santiago.
Prosecutor Rick Del Toro said the family members supported the decision not to seek the death penalty for Santiago, in part to avoid what would be a lengthy, emotionally wrenching court case. Many preferred that Santiago sit in prison for decades rather than face execution, he added.
"Potential attackers need to know they will never again go free if they conduct an attack such as this," Del Toro said.
Technically, Santiago was sentenced to five consecutive life prison sentences for the five deaths and an additional 120 years for the six people he wounded.
Prior to the shooting, Santiago was briefly treated at an Anchorage mental institution after showing up at the local FBI office claiming to be hearing voices, then was released with no restrictions on owning a gun, authorities have said. Santiago later claimed in court he was getting "messages" in his head prior to the shooting.
Santiago, a native of New Jersey, has family in Puerto Rico and a young son in Alaska, court records show. He did not speak in court Friday and no family members spoke on his behalf.
Del Toro said Santiago's mental illness may have worsened because he had been regularly taking hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD and mushrooms. But he added that Santiago meticulously planned the attack.
"This isn't a situation where a person with mental illness just snaps," the prosecutor said.