Fort Lauderdale Airport Shooting: A Man’s Mind

On Jan.6 of 2017, just a few days after the new year celebration when every visitor in Florida is ready to depart the Sunshine state and the airports were just about at their busiest, a shooting happened in Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport in the luggage claim area, causing five deaths and eight seriously injured.

The tragic happened so close to me that the moment I heard it my hair stood up: every break I fly in and out of Fort Lauderdale Airport. I am more than familiar with my way around the luggage claim area. It was so hard to place such a nationally shocking and cold-blooded crime in a place so close to home.

But this shooting is just as tragic as it is mysterious. The shooter, Estaban Santiago, flew from his hometown in Alaska, stopped at Minneapolis and then arrived at Fort Lauderdale. After As soon as the news came out, chatters and questions are rippling quickly among people: Why? What is his motive? Why Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami (Fort Lauderdale is at a smaller scale and less busy than Miami)? Why did he fly all the way from Alaska and decided to shoot in Fort Lauderdale?


Santiago is currently being held without bond in the charge of murder. Local authorities are still investigating the motive behind this attack. According to airline records, there was no incidents of alterations involving Santiago on the flight. As if this moment, the reason for Santiago to visit Fort Lauderdale in the first place is still unclear.


However, here is something we do know.

  • He was enlisted in Porto Rico National Guard and served in Iraq in 2010 for a year as a combat engineer
  • He became an Alaska Army National Guard by November 2014
  • His family said that he started to behave erratically after returning from Iraq
  • He has records of domestic abuse in Alaska
  • In 2014, Santiago walked into the FBI office in Anchorage, saying that he was hearing voices and being forced by US intelligence to watch ISIS videos
  • He was given a psychiatric evaluation, where a doctor pointed out he has schizophrenia
  • His firearms were confiscated by Anchorage police but returned to him after a court didn’t find him mentally ill
  • His only checked luggage was the firearm

The motive and the way Santiago carried out the crime are ultimately unfathomable. Thus it raises to the suspision, as it has to the FBI, that Santiago has committed this cold-blooded crime with an ill mind. The fact that he has experience serving in Iraq and “his mind was not right” according to his aunt, Maria Ruiz Rivera,  after coming back from Iraq makes it reasonable to guess that Santiago is suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Moreover, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the psychiatric evaluation given after he walked into the FBI office. By taking a deep look at his possible mental illness, we might have a better understanding of what was going on in that man’s mind when he committed such a vicious crime.

Before we start, I want to clarify that this post is not intended to exaggerate or to over diagnose every crime with a psychological disorder. A crime is a crime. The felon should be brought before justice and given punishment with due trial. There is no more pity just because he has an ill mind. This post is intended to explore some of the possibilities that might have contributed to this tragic event and what could be raised to awareness. 

  1. Since Santiago’s erratic behaviors were not really noticeable until he came back from Iraq, it is possible that the traumatic events and emotional stress caused PTSD.

What is PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)?

What it feels like to have PTSD

PTSD is triggered by witnessing or experiencing life-threatening, emotional excruciating events. Symptoms could start revealing immediately or months or even years after the event. The symptoms of PTSD includes (U.S Department of Veteran Affairs):

  • Reliving the event: More commonly known as “flashbacks”.
  • Avoiding situations that remind you of the event: patients try to stay away from events, people or objects that reminds them of the traumatic experience
  • Having more negative beliefs and feelings: The trauma could change your attitude toward others, how you think of others and the way you think of yourself. Guilt, shame, indifference, fear are all common feelings that patients could be experiencing constantly.
  • Being hyperarousal (“keyed up”) : Easily startled, agitated and having a quick temper, and even act recklessly and engage in unhealthy activities such as drinking and smoking.

His time in Iraq could give Santiago PTSD. However, there is not a strong correlation between increased violent behaviors and this disorder. It is unknown whether his military service increased his likability to engage in more violent behavior or it simply led his mind to a more chaotic dimension.

2. This leads to the most probable factor that contributed to his commitment to this shooting — schizophrenia.

What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia results in severe disruption in thought, perception, language and emotion. Most of the patients with schizophrenia are not violent, but they could have a hard time separating reality from imaginary.

Some of the core positive symptoms (excessive functioning) include hallucinations and delusions. Persecutional delusion makes the patient believe they are being hunted, under surveillance or being controlled. In Santiago’s case, it fits the description of the persecutional delusion as Santiago walked into the FBI office, claiming that he was forced by them to watch ISIS videos. Although it remains unclear wether Santiago actually has ties to ISIS, his false belief in being compelled to join the group by FBI fits the one of the symptoms. He could be also suffering from auditory hallucination as he said he has been hearing voices telling him what to do.

Another symptom manifested by him is social withdrawal. According to his aunt, she has not been able to contact him for months and he has been avoiding social interactions with people.

There could be more symptoms but it is hard to know for now as the news coverage doesn’t focus on this aspect. Because the whole crime was committed in a very irrational, erratic and senseless way, and the motive is still unclear for causing 5 deaths, Santiago could be tricked by his own falsely-wired brain into committing such a horrible crime. Even though it could simply be terrorism.

Psychological disorder symptoms could have very subtle appearance in front of people but we should pay more attention to the people around us. Santiago’s history of violence and his experience in Iraq plus the diagnosis of schizophrenia simply suggest that he is a risky factor for the welfare of the society. We don’t know wether he really has mental illness but we shouldn’t wait till the court give him a sentence before we realize the importance of mental wellness.

No, most of the mental illnesses do not have significant correlation with increased violence. And yes, Santiago is an extreme example of possible mental illness, pressured with environmental factors, leading to violence.

Santiago will be brought to court tomorrow on Tuesday the 17th. We shall wait for the verdict.





May the victims rest in peace and their family find comforts.





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