The 26-year-old Iraq war veteran accused of killing five people at a busy Florida airport in the latest US gun rampage appeared in a federal court on Monday on charges that could bring him the death penalty.
Esteban Santiago was escorted into the courtroom near Fort Lauderdale for the brief hearing surrounded by US marshals.
He has admitted to investigators that he planned Friday’s attack at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and bought a one-way ticket from his home in Alaska to carry it out.
Authorities say they have not ruled out terrorism as a motive and are investigating whether mental illness played a role.
Santiago spoke little during the hearing, confirming to US Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle that he understood the charges, and that he is a US citizen.
He said he did not have his own lawyer, and he was assigned a federal public defender.
Prosecutors called for Santiago, who is being held at the Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, to be denied bail, and Valle scheduled a January 17 hearing to discuss the request.
“They’ve then got two weeks to indict him, and then they’ve got to go through the whole death penalty review,” said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein.
Santiago could face the death penalty if convicted on charges that include carrying out violence at an airport and killing with a firearm.
Executions have been on hold in Florida since the US Supreme Court struck down the state’s death penalty laws a year ago but the Florida Supreme Court overturned a rewritten version in October.
Authorities say Santiago arrived on a connecting flight from Alaska and retrieved a 9mm semi-automatic handgun from his checked luggage before loading it in a bathroom.
He then returned to the baggage claim area and walked “while shooting in a methodical manner” 10 to 15 times, aiming at his victims’ heads, according to the criminal complaint.
Information surfaced over the weekend that police in Alaska took a handgun from Santiago in November after he told FBI agents there his mind was being controlled by a US intelligence agency.
They returned it to him about a month later after a medical evaluation found he was not mentally ill.
Anchorage’s police chief told reporters on Saturday that Santiago reported at the time having “terroristic thoughts” and believed he was being influenced by the Islamic State militant group.
Video published by TMZ on Sunday showed the gunman walking calmly past the airport’s luggage carousels before pulling the handgun from his waistband and shooting at victims.