Trinidadian Gerard Johnson is living another life. He escaped the gunman’s bullets during last Friday’s shooting incident at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Johnson, 72, describes himself as a cat with nine lives.
He says he escaped tear gas in Port-of-Spain during the Black Power riots in 1970. He was walking near the Red House, Port-of-Spain, when the Jamaat Al Muslimeen staged the attempted coup in 1990.
He was shot during a robbery in San Fernando in 1991. That is when he decided to leave Trinidad and start over in the Florida.
Johnson left Trinidad in 1993 on a holiday for Florida and has never returned. In an email, Johnson says he is still waiting on “his papers” to come through to make him a United States resident.
For the time being, he dodges ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), he works underground, although when he see a police patrol, he would panic.
But Johnson thought last Friday was his last day on earth. He walked into Terminal 2 to meet a friend who was coming in on a Delta Airlines flight. That friend, according to Johnson, was heading to Trinidad.
“So after I met him, we would have gone over to Terminal 4 to catch the Caribbean Airlines flight. When I arrived there, I checked and saw that Delta was on the ground. What I did not bargain for, was rapid gunfire. It was like a nightmare. It seems I was reliving the past in Trinidad. I said, oh God, not again, and I ran.”
Johnson said he went down to the baggage claim area of the airport to meet his friend.”I heard shots and then I saw a man fall and then I saw blood. I just stood there not knowing what to do. People started to run. I turned around and I saw a man between two baggage carousels firing at people. I thought they were filming a movie. But then I guess not.”
Johnson said the man was shooting people in the head. “What the ass, I said to myself. When I saw a few people on the ground bleeding, I turned around and left the baggage area. I ran straight out of the terminal building into the car park. The airport was shut down. I did not meet my friend until hours later. By that time, I heard that CAL didn’t arrive, that it landed in Miami. I eventually found my friend and took him home by me for that night.”
Did Johnson give a statement to the police on what he saw? “Are you mad? I am here illegally, I can’t afford to do that right now. It would have been the proper thing to do, but in the circumstances, I just left after collecting my friend.”
Johnson feels that trouble keeps following him. “On Friday, I was lucky, there are others who were not.
WHAT THE SHOOTER DID
Airport shooting suspect Esteban Santiago told investigators he planned the carnage and purchased a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale to carry it out.
But it is still unclear why he came to South Florida to do it.
Federal prosecutors filed court documents Saturday detailing airport violence, gun and murder allegations against Santiago. If convicted, he could face the death penalty or life in federal prison, they said.
“Santiago fired approximately 10 to 15 rounds of ammunition from his firearm, aiming at his victims’ heads. He was described as walking while shooting in a methodical manner,” FBI Agent Michael Ferlazzo wrote in court records.
Five people died and six more suffered gunshot injuries.
“At one point, he exited the Terminal 2 baggage area [and went] onto the sidewalk and then re-entered, still carrying the handgun,” agents wrote.
He told investigators he checked baggage that contained a Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun and two magazines of ammunition. After claiming his baggage, he said he took it into a stall in the men’s restroom, removed the gun, loaded it and put it in his waistband, authorities said.
“He then left the men’s restroom and shot the first people he encountered,” agents wrote. “Santiago emptied his first magazine, then reloaded and shot until the second magazine, too, was out of bullets. He believes he shot approximately 15 rounds before his arrest.”
“Indications are he came here to carry out this horrific attack. We have not identified any triggers that would have caused this attack but again it’s very early in the investigation,” Piro said.
It could be several days, or weeks, before formal charges are filed. Prosecutors would most likely seek an indictment by presenting their evidence to a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale.
At the initial court hearing Monday in federal court, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Valle will explain the allegations to Santiago. The judge would also likely appoint the Federal Public Defender’s Office to represent Santiago, if he does not hire a private attorney.
If Santiago says he wants to try to persuade the judge to release him on bond — a request that would certainly be rejected because of the danger he would pose to the public or that he might flee from justice — the prosecution and defense would have several days to prepare for it.
Though state prosecutors in Florida quite frequently seek the death penalty, it is very uncommon for federal prosecutors to pursue it.
Federal judges and jurors in Florida have only sentenced two men to Federal Death Row since Congress reinstated the death penalty in 1988.
Broward state prosecutors could separately seek to file murder charges against Santiago because the shooting deaths occurred in Broward County.
The Broward State Attorney’s Office is cooperating with federal prosecutors and no decision on that has yet been made, a spokesman said Saturday.
“We are here to help any way that we can. A decision will be made in the next few days about how we can help,” said Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz.
Federal authorities said they are still investigating Santiago’s motive and they have not yet ruled out terrorism. They said he was acting alone.
Santiago had no obvious connection to southeast Florida but has some relatives who live in the Naples area, on the southwest coast of Florida, nearly a two-hour drive away. He took a Delta flight, with a connection in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Santiago cooperated during an interview, which lasted for several hours on Friday and into early Saturday morning, authorities said. He spoke with FBI agents and Broward sheriff’s detectives.
Santiago sought out the FBI in Anchorage in November and was hospitalized for mental health treatment after agents noticed his “erratic behavior,” authorities said.
Anchorage police and the FBI confirmed Saturday that Santiago went to the FBI office in Anchorage seeking help on Nov. 7.
He told agents he was “having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by ISIS” but said he did not intend to harm anyone, authorities said.
He was hospitalized for a mental health evaluation and a firearm he left in his vehicle outside the office was temporarily taken from him.
The gun, which investigators said may or may not be the one used in the mass shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, was returned to him by law enforcement on December 8.
PASSENGERS ASSEMBLE ON THE TARMAC
POLICE SEARCH FOR THE GUNMAN
PASSENGERS TAKE COVER
HIDING OUT FROM THE SHOOTER