Did FBI do all it could to stop airport gunman? Ex-agent says no

Esteban Santiago broke no laws when he drove to the FBI's Anchorage, Alaska, field office with his infant son and his semi-automatic hand gun in tow and begged for help because he said the CIA had put a chip in his brain that was telling him to join the terrorist group ISIS, the FBI said.

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The FBI called Anchorage police who took Santiago for a two-day mental-health evaluation, where he was told he might have schizophrenia. They also took his gun, then, with FBI leadership’s consent, they gave it back.

A former FBI agent said the nation’s top-law enforcement agency is playing a game of semantics in order to downplay that it might have given a suspected mass killer the weapon he used to take the lives of five travelers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last Friday.

“Their biggest problem is explaining their actions to the victims, besides the potential liability to the taxpayers,” said Jeff Danik, former agent in charge of the West Palm Beach FBI office. He also worked on counterterrorism cases in Saudi Arabia.

“This is a very unique and significant situation. It should have gotten somebody’s attention.”

While there’s been debate about whether passengers should be allowed to travel with weapons and ammunition in their luggage and the soft target that airport baggage claim areas present, questions linger about whether the tragedy could have been prevented in Alaska by law enforcement.

Danik said no matter how the FBI explains itself, in the end, citizens expected it to perform differently, considering the pattern of facts in Santiago’s case. He said red flags were everywhere.

The FBI and the Anchorage Police Department might not be the only ones who slipped up. What could the Transportation Security Administration and Delta Air Lines have done to derail Santiago before he was reunited with his Walther 9mm gun and ammunition and loaded it in the bathroom of the baggage claim area?

Marlon Ritzman, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Anchorage office, and Anchorage police Chief Chris Tolley held a news conference Saturday to explain why the weapon was returned. Instead, they ended up listing Santiago’s numerous interactions with police and how he had his infant in the car when he drove up to the FBI.

Danik dismissed their explanation of how the gun was returned to Santiago on Dec. 8 as “B.S.”

“You don’t want to deprive citizens of their lawful property,” he said. “However, the lack of leadership in law enforcement here really bugs me. In that situation, you have a guy who has articulated a lot of problems. He has domestic violence arrests. He has mental issues. He has a discharge from the military that is questionable.”

The former FBI agent said that when such a scenario presents itself, protocol takes a back seat.

“Your job is to say, ‘Wait a minute. Let me think this through,’” Danik said. “It is not to say, ‘What is the policy here?’ You need to step back and make certain he is clear of any psychiatric problems. Ask whether you are certain about the domestic-violence accusations. You make him jump through hoops, not to make sure you deny him his property, but just to make sure.”


Sept. 14, 2015

Police ticket Santiago for driving a red 1995 Ford Explorer without insurance. He continues to live in south Anchorage. A charge filed by the city of Anchorage later notes that Santiago admitted to the offense.

Dec. 12, 2015

The driving without insurance charge is dismissed.

Dec. 30, 2015

Santiago signs a “notice of change of mailing address” in a city criminal case, listing his address as an Anchorage post office box. By this time, Santiago was no longer living in the mobile home, according to the current occupants.

Jan. 10, 2016

The city files a two-count criminal charge against Santiago, accusing him of property damage and domestic violence assault. The charges say Santiago either kicked or forced a door open and frightened his girlfriend, yelling at her while she was in the bathroom. The charges say Santiago forced his way into the bathroom, breaking the door and the door frame.

“(His girlfriend) stated that he continued to yell at her, ‘Get the (expletive) out, (expletive),’ while strangling her and smacking her in the side of the head,” according to an Anchorage police officer’s account. The officer wrote that he saw no physical injuries on the woman.

Feb. 17, 2016

Santiago is accused of violating the conditions of his release. Police say he had been ordered not to have any contact with the victim in the previous case, but that police found Santiago at her home.

Santiago admitted that he had been living at the home since about Jan. 17, according to the charges.

Online Alaska court records show that the assault charge was dismissed, but municipal prosecutor Seneca A. Theno said that is incorrect.

Theno said the charge of violating conditions of release was dropped in exchange for Santiago agreeing to plead no contest to the domestic violence assault and criminal mischief charges.

Feb. 23, 2016

“On Feb. 23, (there was) a violation of conditions of release," Anchorage police Chief Chris Tolley, "Mr. Santiago was restricted from the woman’s address. During a compliance check, officers found him there, arrested and remanded (him).”

March 18, 2016

Anchorage police respond to a “physical disturbance” involving Santiago, but police were not able to establish probable cause for an arrest, Tolley said.

Oct. 15, 2016

Tolley said Anchorage police responded to a domestic violence physical disturbance involving Santiago, and officers investigated. However, the municipal prosecutor did not give authorization to make an arrest.

Oct. 21, 2016

Santiago is involved in another physical disturbance, and there was an “allegation of strangulation,” Tolley said. Again, officers did not establish probable cause or make an arrest.

Source: KTUU-TV, Anchorage, Alaska

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