May 23, 2018 / 4:12 PM / in 5 months

U.S. veteran pleads guilty to airport killings to avoid death penalty

MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. veteran of the war in Iraq on Wednesday pleaded guilty to fatally shooting five people to death at Fort Lauderdale International Airport in January 2017, in a deal approved by a federal judge that spared him the death penalty.

FILE PHOTO - Esteban Santiago is taken from the Broward County main jail as he is transported to the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. on January 9, 2017. Courtesy Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via REUTERS/File Photo

Esteban Santiago, 28, agreed in U.S. District Court in Miami to a plea deal that calls for him to serve five consecutive life sentences followed by 120 years in prison without a right to appeal. He is due to be sentenced on Aug. 17.

Santiago flew from his home in Anchorage, Alaska, to Fort Lauderdale, retrieved a Walther 9mm pistol and two clips of ammunition that he had checked on the flight and opened fire near a baggage carousel.

Six people were wounded in addition to the five he killed, according to court papers.

After running out of bullets, he placed his weapon on the ground and surrendered to police. At the end of Wednesday’s court hearing, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom asked Santiago why he committed the violent act.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time,” said Santiago, shackled in a beige jumpsuit. “There were a lot of things going on in my mind, messages.”

Santiago, who served in the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard, was deployed to Iraq from 2010 to 2011.

Prosecutors said Santiago told law enforcement agents he chose Florida to carry out an attack. Shortly after his arrest, Santiago told federal officials he participated in online jihadi chatrooms, but federal investigators said there was no evidence of that, the Miami Herald reported.

A psychologist who would meet with Santiago periodically was present at Wednesday’s hearing and told the judge that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Though he had been taking psychiatric medicine, a federal judge in March 2017 said Santiago was mentally fit to stand trial. While in custody Santiago had refused for a short time to take his medicine.

Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; writing by Gina Cherelus; editing by Scott Malone and G Crosse

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