January 6, 2017: Mass Shooting in Airport Leads to Serious Mental Health Questions

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A Brief History

On January 6, 2017, an American citizen and veteran of the War in Iraq opened fire at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport in Broward County, Southern Florida with a legally purchased and owned pistol, killing 5 people and injuring another 6 before surrendering to police.  While it is not unusual for mass shooters to either be assessed as mentally ill or to at least seem (to the general public) to be mentally ill, the convoluted path through mental illness to a tragic mass murder in this case is particularly disturbing.  While we describe the course of this troubled person’s life that led to this horrible incident, we invite you, our valued reader, to contemplate at what point this shooting and murders could have been averted and to share with your fellow readers what steps you believe could have avoided this unnecessary loss of life.

Digging Deeper

The sad, convoluted saga of Esteban Santiago-Ruiz starts in New Jersey when the future convicted killer was born in 1990.  At the age of two, Esteban’s family moved him to Puerto Rico where he was raised, attended high school, and joined the Puerto Rico National Guard in 2007, as a combat engineer.  Esteban and his unit were sent to Iraq in 2010, where the young soldier apparently found the terrors of war to be mentally disturbing, a not uncommon response by soldiers that experience combat.  After nearly a year in Iraq, Esteban returned to the United States (Puerto Rico) and later moved to Alaska where he joined the Alaska National Guard in 2014, but was dismissed from the service with a General Discharge in 2016 due to “unsatisfactory performance.”  In spite of having received at least 10 awards of various types during his military service, Esteban was only a Private First Class when discharged.  His family later claimed he had become mentally ill while serving in Iraq, something the military seems to have noticed as records indicate the young man did receive psychological attention while in the National Guard.  Prior to moving to Alaska, Esteban came to the attention of the police in Puerto Rico in 2012 due to his “errant behavior.”  Local cops confiscated his firearms at that time, but returned those guns to Esteban by 2014, apparently finding no cause to continue to hold Esteban’s guns.  Using a Florida driver’s license, Esteban applied for and received a permit to carry a concealed weapon from Puerto Rico.

Broward County Sheriff’s Office mugshot

We take a moment here to explain that for mental illness to be a deciding factor in “disability” to purchase, own, or possess firearms a person must be “adjudicated mentally ill” or have been confined in a mental institution against their will.  At this point, Esteban did not reach this legal level of mental disability and could legally buy and own firearms.  Additionally, persons convicted of certain violent felonies or drug offenses, or having been adjudicated as a drug abuser are also not allowed to buy or possess firearms, and again, Esteban did not reach this limiting factor.  The various states and territories of the United States also have laws of a similar nature defining persons under “disability” regarding firearms.  Additional factors that disqualify an American from buying or owning a firearm include having been Dishonorably Discharged from military service or having renounced his or her US citizenship.  Also, persons convicted of certain crimes pertaining to domestic violence, stalking, etc. are also not permitted to buy or possess firearms.  An excerpt of US firearms law (18 U.S. Code § 922 – Unlawful acts) follows:

“(g) It shall be unlawful for any person—

(1) who has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;

(2) who is a fugitive from justice;

(3) who is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802));

(4) who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution;

(5) who, being an alien—

(A) is illegally or unlawfully in the United States; or

(B) except as provided in subsection (y)(2), has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa (as that term is defined in section 101(a)(26) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(26)));

(6) who has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;

(7) who, having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced his citizenship;

(8) who is subject to a court order that—

(A) was issued after a hearing of which such person received actual notice, and at which such person had an opportunity to participate;

(B) restrains such person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner of such person or child of such intimate partner or person, or engaging in other conduct that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of bodily injury to the partner or child; and


(i) includes a finding that such person represents a credible threat to the physical safety of such intimate partner or child; or

(ii) by its terms explicitly prohibits the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against such intimate partner or child that would reasonably be expected to cause bodily injury; or

(9) who has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence,

to ship or transport in interstate or foreign commerce, or possess in or affecting commerce, any firearm or ammunition; or to receive any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.”

Unless the above law is changed, the bar for prohibiting a citizen from purchasing or possessing a firearm is pretty high, although in many cases law enforcement officials can temporarily confiscate firearms while a person’s background is checked for any of the above disqualifying factors.

Walther PPS, 9×19mm shown with mid-size magazine (7 round for 9×19mm, 6 round for .40 cal.). Image by Carl Walther GmbH – Germany.

Continuing with Esteban’s journey to murder and life in prison, we find him moving to Alaska in 2014 and finding work as a security guard, as well as joining the Alaska National Guard.  Fellow workers described him as “quiet and solitary.”  Esteban showed his violent side in 2016 when he broke down his girlfriend’s door and choked her.  He was arrested and given a “deferred prosecution agreement,” an agreement between the victim, prosecutor and defendant to avoid prosecution as long as certain agreed to actions are met.  Apparently such factors were met, and the temporary protection order in the case also expired.  (A TPO or temporary restraining order would have also limited Esteban’s ability to possess firearms.)  Esteban was scheduled for sentencing in the domestic violence case in April of 2017, a date that of course was preempted by the Florida shooting incident.  A conviction for violent domestic violence would have resulted in Esteban’s disability to possess firearms.  (We wonder if the pending sentencing had anything to do with spurring his violent actions.)

The sad saga of Esteban Santiago-Ruiz then took another bizarre turn when the troubled young man went to the local (Anchorage, Alaska) FBI field office to report that the US Government and the CIA were forcing him to watch internet videos by the Islamic terrorist group ISIS (or ISIL) and controlling his thoughts, urging him to commit acts of violence.  Additionally, Esteban told the FBI that he was resisting such acts of violence and was not actually going to hurt anyone because of the messages in his head.  The FBI recommended that Esteban seek mental health treatment, and they notified local police who took the disturbed man into custody for assessment.  Esteban was sent to a mental health facility for assessment, and the local police confiscated a pistol from Esteban pending mental evaluation.  Esteban was released from the mental health facility, and after 29 days his pistol was returned by the police to Esteban for lack of legal justification for continuing to hold the gun.  Meanwhile, the FBI conducted their own investigation of any possible ties between Esteban and terrorists or terrorist activity and found no such connection.  Neither the local police nor the FBI could find legal justification for seizing Esteban’s firearm(s) nor prohibiting him from possessing firearms or even flying on an airliner with a properly cased firearm.  The absence of a conviction for a limiting crime, the absence of adjudication of mental illness, and no indication of drug dependency or connection to terrorism prevented law enforcement from infringing on Esteban’s Second Amendment rights.  Thus, no dereliction of duty by law enforcement seems to have been committed.

The attack happened near the baggage claim in Terminal 2.  Map  by JayCoop.

After cancelling a planned flight to New York City, where investigators believe Esteban originally planned his attack, Esteban took an airliner to the Fort Lauderdale airport with his legally carried Walther pistol (9mm caliber, a common medium caliber compact pistol and cartridge) in a locked case complying with US laws concerning transport of firearms.  Esteban landed along with the other passengers in Fort Lauderdale and retrieved his pistol, then went into a bathroom and loaded his gun.  Exiting the bathroom, Esteban commenced firing on the first people he encountered and continued shooting people until he ran out of ammunition (2 magazines worth of ammo, a total of between 6 and 8 rounds per magazine, depending on which size magazine the shooter used).  The shooting lasted only 70 to 80 seconds in which 11 people were shot, 5 of them fatally.  An additional 36 or so people were injured while trying to escape from the shooting.  When Esteban’s ammunition was gone, he simply lay down on the floor and awaited the police.  Airport police soon arrived and took Esteban into custody without firing a shot or encountering resistance.  The airport was the scene of pandemonium as authorities closed all but emergency flights and thousands of passengers were stranded along with even more thousands of pieces of their luggage while authorities sorted things out.  Civilians in a state of panic reported additional gunshots, creating more confusion and disorder.  The 5 fatally shot victims were all on their way to a cruise ship vacation.

The tragic shooting incident got even weirder as a Sheriff’s deputy leaked video of the shooting to the media the next day and Esteban told police he had been under government sponsored mind control that forced him to conduct Islamic inspired terrorism via the “voices” placed in his head.  After initially pleading “not guilty,” Esteban was evaluated for mental condition and found to be suffering from “schizophrenia as well as schizoaffective disorder.”  After refusing to take psychotropic drugs, Esteban relented and agreed to the medication, which helped him make a distinct mental-emotional improvement and subsequently was declared fit to stand trial.  In May of 2018, Esteban pleaded guilty to the criminal charges, including the murders, and was sentenced to 5 consecutive terms of life in prison plus 120 years.  His plea avoided the death penalty to which he would have been subject to had he been convicted at trial.

Territory of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in grey, at time of greatest territorial extent (June 2015).  Map by Tan Khaerr.

Investigators never discovered the real motive for the deadly shootings, despite truly exhaustive investigation.  It certainly seems on the public information that Esteban was a mentally disturbed person and a danger to society, a danger terribly realized in January of 2017, leaving us to ask, “How could this incident have been prevented?”

Questions for Students (and others): Do you believe authorities acted responsibly and within the laws of the US in the case of Esteban Santiago-Ruiz?  If you believe any of the laws applicable to this case should be changed, tell us which laws and how the changes should be made.  What standard of mental illness should be used to determine fitness to possess firearms?  Was this incident preventable or inevitable?  Should mental health professionals be held accountable for tragically missing danger levels of people they examine?

Lamotrigine (trade name Lamictal) is a common mood stabilizer medication.  Image by ZngZng.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Gold, Liza and Robert Simon. Gun Violence and Mental Illness. Amer Psychiatric Pub, 2015.

[AMAZONPRODUCTS asin=”1585624985″]

Schildkraut, Jaclyn. Mass Shootings in America: Understanding the Debates, Causes, and Responses. ABC-CLIO, 2018.

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The featured image in this article, a map by JayCoop of Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, contains map data © OpenStreetMap contributors, made available under the terms of the Open Database License (ODbL).   ODbL does not require any particular license for maps produced from ODbL data; map tiles produced by the OpenStreetMap foundation are licensed under the CC-BY-SA-2.0 licence, but maps produced by other people may be subject to other licences.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.  You are free:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.