By Charles Rabin
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Esteban Santiago, an Iraq War veteran who for reasons still unclear shot more than a dozen random travelers in a Florida airport 5,000 miles from his Alaska home, lived just three blocks from a popular Veterans of Foreign Wars hangout.
He never visited.
“Not one of us has ever seen him,” said Mary Felicitty, canteen manager at the Capt. James G. Lee Memorial VFW Post in Midtown. In 22 years, she’s poured beers for patrons who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq — ex-military who knew nothing of the troubled fellow vet living just up the street. “We’re all kind of shocked,” she said.
That reflected the reaction here in a city of some 300,000 that sees a steady flow of newcomers drawn by lucrative oil jobs and spectacular scenery and prides itself on a tough frontier culture that shrugs off brutal winters.
Santiago spent two years in Alaska, working as a security guard and National Guardsman and while he wasn’t exactly a ghost, he didn’t make much of a mark either — except with law enforcement for a string of domestic disputes with his girlfriend and mother of his infant son. But, increasingly, his life was falling apart.
Last January, he was arrested after roughing up his girlfriend, accused of trying to strangle her. In August, the National Guard booted him for “unsatisfactory performance” and unexplained absences. In November, he entered the FBI office reporting hearing voices in his head ordering him to watch Islamic State videos, a confession that sent him to a state-run mental health center, but only for a short for a short stay.
While his family in Puerto Rico insists that Santiago, 26, has struggled with mental problems since returning from Iraq in 2011, residents who encountered or worked with him in Alaska recall nothing threatening about the quiet young man — certainly no clues that he would open fire with a 9 mm Walther handgun at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last week, killing five and seriously wounding six others.
Before his rampage, Santiago had stayed on-and-off at the Qupqugiaq Inn near the VFW — but few people say they talked to him much, or at least were willing to say so less than a week after the airport massacre. It was similar in Fairview, a gritty but tight-knit community a couple of miles away where Santiago lived on-and-off with girlfriend Gina Peterson, 40, and their son Pierre.
Even self-appointed neighborhood watchman Rick Ford — whose bedroom window eyes the front of Peterson’s apartment — rarely spoke with Santiago at length. Ford, who lives with his 3-year-old Springer Spaniel Gilley and keeps a loaded Sig Sauer handgun nearby in a cluttered apartment filled with pictures and a roaring fireplace, has set up lasers around his home to warn him about possible intruders. The neighborhood, quieter and safer now, used to be a hotbed for prostitution and drugs, Ford said.
“He’s been staying here a couple of years on-and-off. They pretty much keep to themselves,” said Ford, who said he’s been interviewed by the FBI a couple times since last week’s shooting. “He’s totally quiet, withdrawn.”
Santiago, who served in Iraq for 11 months in 2010 and 2011 in a unit that lost two members to a roadside bomb, remains in the Broward County jail after the Friday attack. He faces murder charges that could bring the death penalty. After hours of interviews with him, investigators still don’t have a clear understanding of the motive for the 80-second shooting spree and believe he chose Fort Lauderdale at random.
Federal investigators say they have found nothing on his computer or social media feeds to suggest any links to Muslim extremists and they have dismissed an unsubstantiated internet narrative that Esteban had converted to the religion as a teen and had secretly become a radicalized terrorist.
His years in Anchorage also remain murky — including why Santiago, who grew up in sunny Puerto Rico, chose to move to Anchorage, a city with freezing temperatures and long hours of darkness in the winter. His girlfriend has refused numerous requests for interviews and has avoided cameras — only allowing her sister to read a statement expressing sadness for the victims. Peterson, who hadn’t been staying at their home since the shooting, was spotted stopping by with a friend on Tuesday but refused to speak with anyone.
After an initial news conference on Saturday, local police, prosecutors and the FBI have largely refused further comment. The National Guard and Veteran Administration also clammed up on any interactions with Santiago.
His court appearances on domestic charges also revealed little. In a tape of a January 2016 domestic violence court hearing after his arrest for fighting with his girlfriend, a prosecutor lays out the case, explaining he broke down the bathroom door at Peterson’s home, then hit her in the head. The judge tells Santiago that if he is willing to abide by the court’s orders to stay away from her, the case would be dropped when he returns to court in March.
Santiago doesn’t offer any explanations, instead just answering yes and no to a series of questions. But in March, he would be charged with violating those conditions.
Santiago, who was born in New Jersey, moved to Puerto Rico when he was 2 years old, and after high school he joined the National Guard there in 2007. He shuttled between National Guard outfits in Puerto Rico, New Jersey and Missouri until being shipped to Iraq in 2010.
During a 10-month stint in the Middle East, he saw two friends killed in an explosion. When he came back, an aunt in New Jersey and a brother in Puerto Rico say, he changed for the worse. In early 2014, he moved to Anchorage, the most remote state in the country and one that must have seemed like the moon to a man who grew up in the Caribbean. He joined the Alaska National and found work in private security.
The house he shared with Peterson is a small, square shack sitting behind a cluster of small town homes. The mailbox at the front has three names on it, Santiago’s, Peterson’s and their infant son Pierre’s. Across the street is a small park with a basketball court and swings, all covered in snow now. More recently, he also had been staying at the Qupqugiaq Inn — a small motel with a Japanese motif where rooms rent for as little as $140 a week in the winter. FBI agents raided it last week and seized material from the dumpster behind it.
It’s not clear exactly when Santiago took up residence there. It may have been last January after police took him into custody after charges of an attack on Peterson. Or it could have been since last August when the National Guard let him go after some unexplained absences. Residents at the Inn rebuffed questions as did General Manager Chris Stephens, who said he has cooperated with the FBI. Santiago’s employers at a private security firm called Signal 88 also declined comment.
James Foster, who worked with Santiago at Signal 88, said they were two of about five guards who patrolled properties. Foster said Santiago trained him and never spoke of his time in Iraq. Foster said Santiago also never mentioned his girlfriend having a child and that while they worked the midnight shift together they weren’t armed. He learned of the Fort Lauderdale shootings when his father saw it on television and called him.
“He was nice and friendly. He wasn’t out of the ordinary,” said Foster. “We respected each other’s privacy.”
Anchorage, which sits on the edge of the Kenai Peninsula, a pathway to the Pacific Ocean, is partially surrounded by gorgeous snow-peaked mountains from enormous Chugach State Park to the west. Its population is primarily oil executives and workers, military personal and — much like South Florida — refugees from other countries looking for a fresh start.
This week, the city was stuck in fog-ice. It’s a rarity, say locals, when the cold air becomes so thick with fog that visibility slinks to perhaps 50 feet or less while the temperature is near zero.
“Honestly, I hate it in the winter. It’s for tough people,” said cab driver Suat Iseni, 40, who moved from Albania to the U.S. in 2002 and made his way to Anchorage eight years ago. “My wife’s uncle, he was an engineer here, he got cuckoo. The darkness alone is going to get you.”
Though Anchorage only has 300,000 residents, it’s easy to get lost here. And that seems to be exactly what Santiago did, settling among a mix of local and outsider that make up Alaska’s most cosmopolitan venue.
Cedric Moss lived in Anchorage full-time until 2007. He was a member of the Air Force in Fairbanks. Now he only passes through here about half the year. The other half is spent in Tampa. Moss, who on Wednesday was in drilling the oil fields for British Petroleum in Prudhoe Bay to the north, said it’s tough living, but well worth it. He earns between $170,000 and $180,000 a year.
Santiago, court records show, wasn’t pocketing anything close. He was making $2,100 a month at the security firm and, at least until he was dismissed in August, $15,000 a year for his part-time National Guard post. His checking account had five to 10 dollars in it when he flew from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale, he told a federal judge during an initial hearing on Monday. His homes were modest and court records indicate his girlfriend Peterson also has suffered financially for several years.
The biggest red flag came in early November, when Santiago showed up at the Anchorage office of the FBI telling agents he was hearing voices in his head from U.S. Intelligence agencies.
“He was agitated, incoherent and made disoriented statements,” Anchorage FBI Special Agent in Charge Marlin Ritzman said during the news conference on Saturday. FBI agents determined Santiago had no terrorist ties and that he had broken no law and passed him on to local police.
His gun was taken away for a short time. He was admitted to a mental health facility for three days, then released. On Dec. 8, Santiago got his gun back. Karen Loeffler of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage said the weapon was returned because Santiago was not adjudicated mentally ill.
“We’re a country of laws,” she said during a news conference last weekend.
Pat Foster, James Foster’s father, has lived in Anchorage most of his life. He loves the outdoors and has no problem with Alaskan’s not being required to get a concealed weapons permit to own a gun.
At a local lunch place called Seward’s Folly on Abbott Road Wednesday he paused when contemplating Santiago and how he managed to travel with a weapon to Florida.
“It’s an odd set of rules, what we do with people. There are no rules against traveling with a gun and I don’t know that there should be,” he said. “But there ought to be a system in place where at least a red flag lights up and you have to go through another interview. Not a no-fly list, maybe a red flag list.”