Amid violence and breakdown, no clear intervention for Florida shooter

FBI Special Agent Marlon Ritzman addresses reporters at a press conference at Anchorage Police Department headquarters on January 7th, 2016 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

A week after a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport, questions remain about why an Anchorage man with multiple domestic violence incidents and a documented mental breakdown was allowed to transport a handgun across the country.

Listen now

But much remains unknown about alleged shooter Esteban Santiago, and law enforcement officials caution that his brushes with the law in Anchorage bore no clear warning signs.

In a court hearing in March, Santiago gave short answers as he took a deferred sentencing agreement in a domestic violence case.

“No one’s forcing you to do this?” Judge Gregory Motyka asked in a recording of the hearing.

“No, sir,” Santiago replied.

“And you’re not under the influence of any medications, drugs or alcohol at this present time?”

“No, sir.”

Under the deal, Santiago plead to a lesser charge, agreeing to complete an anger management course and not engage in any violent behavior. The original charge was from incident two months earlier in January.

“Mr. Santiago was with his girlfriend G.P.” the municipal prosecutor said in the recording, reading from a document and referring to Santiago’s girlfriend by her initials. “Mr. Santiago forced his way into the bathroom, breaking the door in the frame in the process, and hit G.P. on the side of the head.”

Santiago had contact with police four times last year stemming from accusations of domestic violence. At a press conference in Anchorage the day after the shooting, Police Chief Chris Tolley laid out a chronology of those encounters, none of which led to any new charges.

“Officers investigated, and no probable cause was established for arrest,” Tolley said of an October 21st allegation of strangulation that bought police into contact with Santiago.

This came just weeks before Santiago went to the FBI and complained of mind control by government agencies, characterized by law enforcement as a “mental health crisis” and leading to a short stay in a psychiatric treatment facility. At that point, the police held on to a handgun Santiago had with him, although they ultimately returned it a month later. There’s speculation it was the same weapon he used when he allegedly opened fire at the airport, shooting eleven people.

And while in retrospect the domestic violence incidents and psychological episode might look like red flags, officials in Anchorage say that is a very different view from how things looked in real time.

“It’s very sad to say that what happened in this DV case is very par for the course with what we see every single day,” Anchorage Municipal Prosecutor Seneca Theno said during an interview in her office.

According to Theno, there are a lot of reasons police wouldn’t have been able to make an arrest amid accusations of strangulation or assault. For one, police aren’t able to review someone’s full record of interactions with law enforcement and courts while they’re responding to an incident, which makes it difficult to spot a pattern of abusive behavior.

Secondly, officers are trained to consult with prosecutors over whether there’s enough evidence to ultimately make a case down the line. Without probable cause, there’s no recourse available to law enforcement.

“It happens all the time with DV cases,” Theno said. “Domestic violence cases are some of the most difficult (to prosecute), in part, because they happen in the privacy of a home, most of the time. And there often times aren’t witnesses, and, frankly, that’s often times by design.”

Theno doesn’t see anything exceptional in Santiago’s police record, and described the mental health crisis as coming out of the blue. Santiago went to police to retrieve his gun on November 30th, but they didn’t hand it over, for reasons that APD has not made clear. But on December 8th he got it back. And Theno cautioned while that might look reckless in hindsight, public officials treat firearms like all other property, no different from a backpack or phone. And unless its being held as evidence, police have to return it.

“They don’t get to look back and say ‘well, you’re kind of sketchy, you’ve had some things and we’re not quite sure what’s going on, and so we’re going to hold on to your stuff because we’re not comfortable with you.’ They don’t have the legal authority to do that, regardless of what other incident they’ve had with that person,” Theno said.

Even amid a mental health crisis, there is no law that would have kept Santiago from reclaiming his firearm, unless he’d been formally declared mentally ill by a state judge, an extremely high bar to clear.

Alaska doesn’t have any its own laws when it comes to gun ownership or prohibitions, just the federal standards. Under those rules, anyone convicted of a domestic violence assault is prohibited from owning or transporting a gun. But when Santiago plead down to a delayed sentence on a lesser charge of “creating fear of injury,” that federal provision wasn’t tripped.

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

Previous articleAlaska News Nightly: Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017
Next articleAs BLM moves to protect the National Petroleum Reserve, Conoco pushes back