BY PAULA MCMAHON
FORT LAUDERDALE – The Iraq War veteran charged with killing five people and injuring six others in a mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale’s international airport pleaded not guilty to the allegations against him on Monday.
Esteban Santiago, 26, leaned over the wooden lectern in court and appeared to read along as U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer read the entire indictment aloud to him — including the names of all five people killed in the mass shooting.
One of his lawyers then told the judge that Santiago was pleading not guilty to all of the charges.
Mental health problems
If convicted of the most serious counts, he faces life in federal prison or the possibility of the death penalty.
He is charged with five counts of causing death at an international airport, six counts of causing serious bodily injury at an international airport, five counts of causing death during a crime of violence and six counts of using a firearm during a crime of violence.
Santiago, who has a history of mental health problems, has been locked up in the Broward County main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale since he surrendered to law enforcement after firing all 15 bullets that he had at the airport.
He has been in solitary confinement and on suicide watch because of the seriousness of the allegations he faces and the potential punishment.
Transferring to Miami
He is expected to be transferred soon to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami because his case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom who usually holds court hearings in Miami. Monday’s hearing was in Fort Lauderdale.
The grand jurors who indicted Santiago found that he caused “grave risk of death to other people” and the crime involved “substantial planning and premeditation.”
The five people who died in the Jan. 6 mass shooting were Mary Louise Amzibel, 69, of Dover, Del.; Michael John Oehme, 57, of Council Bluffs, Iowa; Olga M. Woltering, 84, of Marietta, Ga.; Shirley Wells Timmons, 70, of Senecaville, Ohio; and Terry Michael Andres, 62, of Virginia Beach, Va., who are all named in the indictment.
The six people who were injured by gunfire, including Amzibel’s husband, Edward, Timmons’ husband, Steve, and Oehme’s wife, Kari, are identified only by their initials in the indictment. The other survivors have not been publicly identified.
FBI agents testified that Santiago confessed to planning the massacre and told investigators he traveled to South Florida to carry it out.
Prosecutors have said they have not yet ruled out terrorism as a possible motive but they filed no terrorism-related charges against Santiago.
Though, he told agents he had visited online jihadi chat rooms and thought he was in contact with Islamic State terrorists, investigators have not yet confirmed if that is true.
Santiago voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital for treatment in November after he went to the FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, and asked for help.
At the time, he told agents that his mind was being controlled by the U.S. government and he was having “terroristic thoughts” and being urged to watch terrorist propaganda online.
He was hospitalized for less than a week and the gun, which he used in the Fort Lauderdale shooting, was returned to him by local police in Alaska one month before the fatal attack.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Ricardo Del Toro and Lawrence LaVecchio.
Santiago is now being defended by Chief Assistant Federal Public Defender Hector Dopico and Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen.