Esteban Santiago: Gritty life on the Alaska streets

Accused airport shooter Esteban Santiago had gritty life on streets of Alaska

ANCHORAGE — In the months before accused shooter Esteban Santiago went on a rampage inside the Fort Lauderdale airport, he was living a life on the edge in this Alaskan town, sleeping in spartan quarters and meeting people who lived close to the street, according to several Alaskans who said they knew him.

FBI agents spent Sunday afternoon digging through the dumpster at the Qupqugiaq Inn, a motel in midtown Anchorage where Santiago appears to have been residing shortly before he flew to Fort Lauderdale.

"I thought he was a really nice guy," said Patricia Welch, 47, who was staying in a nearby Anchorage flophouse when Santiago, a former Alaska Army National Guard soldier, met her at a corner laundry. "We talked about getting a pizza together."

Complete coverage of the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting

Welch and a trio of Qupqugiaq Inn residents said that Santiago rented a $30-per-night "Japanese-styled sleeping pod" in the month before he flew to Fort Lauderdale. Secured with electronic locks but with space only for a small bunk, an Ottoman stool and a tiny desk, both Santiago's squat quarters and the entire hallway of pods remained sealed off as investigators continued to comb for evidence there.

Declining to identify themselves, they confirmed many of Welch's details, describing Santiago as a "loner" and a "recluse" who also did not appear violent.

Santiago, a combat veteran of the war in Iraq while serving with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard, told Welch that he had been a soldier and spoke vaguely but in fluent English about waiting on back pay or some other form of government help.

Alaska Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Candis A. Olmstead has said that Esteban served nearly a decade in the military, beginning with the Puerto Rico Army National Guard before later transferring to the Army Reserve. He joined the Alaska Army National Guard in late 2014.

Santiago received commendations for his service, including six medals, but was involuntarily discharged five months ago at the rank of private first class for unsatisfactory service. Olmstead has not specified why Guard leaders felt the combat engineer's service fell short of standards.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Anchorage referred all questions to the agency's Washington headquarters. They did not return messages on Sunday.

While in Iraq, two soldiers in Santiago's unit were killed by a roadside bomb. Santiago's relatives have said he returned from there a changed man, beginning a long spiral into mental illness.

But Welch said that she never saw him talking to voices or heard him complain about the government monitoring his brain waves. He never brandished his firearm in front of her but conceded that police might still have had it when she and Santiago interacted.

Authorities have not identified a motive for the shootings, but on Saturday Marlin Ritzman, the Special Agent in Charge of the Anchorage field office, said that Santiago shared "disjointed comments about mind control" by the federal government, triggering a call to city police officers and a brief stay at an undisclosed treatment center in Alaska. 

Anchorage police confiscated the gun that Santiago had left in his vehicle, but Santiago reclaimed it on Dec. 8, just one month before the Fort Lauderdale shootings. Officials said they had no choice under the law but to return the firearm. Officials initially said Santiago left his newborn in the car with the gun but on Sunday clarified that the baby was safely in FBI care.

"He seemed like he was a recluse," said Welch, leading her to suspect that he might be a criminal because the "mild-mannered" Santiago specifically mentioned that "he didn't want" a lot of people "coming and going" from his room and seemed to covet privacy in a neighborhood known for its vagabonds, prostitutes and low-level drug trade.

Santiago had lived in a trailer park up a hill from West Dimond Boulevard in Anchorage but was evicted in 2015, according to Alaska court records.

He listed Signal 88 Security as his employer on an October 2015 court document, KTUU-TV in Anchorage reported.

Alaska law requires security guards be licensed and mentally sound. The state conducts a criminal background check, and applicants are required to certify they are "free from any psychopathic condition or mental illness that may impair my powers of memory, reason, judgment, or perception."

In Florida, anyone with a history of mental illness must submit a statement from a psychiatrist or psychologist to become an armed security guard. That became an issue with mass murderer Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub in June and also worked as a security guard.

His employer certified to the state that Mateen had passed a psychological evaluation, but the psychologist whose signature was on the form no longer lived or worked in Florida. The company blamed a clerical error and said he had been evaluated by a different psychologist.

Alaska state officials could not be reached for comment Sunday on Santiago's application or even whether he was licensed.

Carl Prine, a reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune, is on assignment for the Sun Sentinel.

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