MIAMI – Former US soldier Esteban Santiago, accused of killing five people in a 2017 Fort Lauderdale, Florida, airport massacre, has pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, his defense team announced before the judge hearing the case.
Santiago feels remorse for the massacre and pleads guilty, said Eric Cohen, one of the team of attorneys defending him, at a Tuesday court hearing in Miami presided over by Judge Beth Bloom.
Santiago, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, had pled not guilty to the 22 charges filed against him for the shootings, but he changed that plea after reaching a deal with prosecutors whereby he agreed to plead guilty and accept a term of life in prison, thus avoiding the death penalty if he would have gone to trial and been convicted.
The New Jersey-born former soldier, 28, who said only a few words at the Tuesday court hearing, flew to the Fort Lauderdale International Airport from Anchorage, Alaska, on Jan. 6, 2017, and in the baggage claim area retrieved a bag he had checked and entered an airport bathroom.
There, he removed a handgun and loaded it, and when he returned to the baggage claim area he opened fire indiscriminately on the people there, according to security camera videos.
Santiago, who served in the US military in Iraq, killed five people and wounded six others before being arrested – offering no resistance – a few minutes later.
The plea deal announced on Tuesday must be approved by the judge hearing the case, who before accepting it wants to determine if Santiago, who suffers from schizophrenia for which he has received treatment while in jail, is able to stand trial, according to local media.
A specialist will evaluate his mental health and produce a confidential report before the sentencing hearing set for May 23.
Although Santiago’s mental problems had been documented before the shooting, he had not been prohibited from owning or using weapons.