Esteban Santiago was accused twice of strangulation — an offense that studies show often foreshadows future violence.
By: Melissa Jeltsen
In the year before Esteban Santiago allegedly opened fire on unsuspecting travelers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday, killing five and injuring six others, he had at least five run-ins with police in Anchorage, Alaska.
Many involved allegations of domestic violence, including two reports of strangulation that don’t appear to have been taken seriously.
In January 2016, Santiago was arrested after his girlfriend told Anchorage police he attacked her while she was in the bathroom. He broke the door, forced his way in and began to strangle her, she said.
“She stated that he continued to yell at her to ‘get the fuck out bitch’ while strangling her and smacking her in the side of the head,” the responding police officer wrote.
Strangling his girlfriend ― impeding her ability to breathe ― shows a capacity to kill, experts say. Years of research has established that the act of strangulation is an important predictor of future lethal violence: If a woman has been choked by an intimate partner, she is seven times more likely to become a homicide victim in the future.
Strangulation, defined as cutting off air supply or blood circulation by applying pressure to the neck, can lead to neurological damage within seconds and death in under five minutes. Despite its danger, strangulation often leaves no visible injuries, making it particularly difficult to prosecute. Because of that, experts say, the offense has historically been treated as minor, akin to a slap or a punch.
But over the past 10 years, most states, including Alaska, have passed laws to treat strangulation as a serious, felony-level offense ― even in cases where there are no observable injuries.
That didn’t happen to Santiago. He was charged with criminal mischief for damaging the bathroom door, and fourth-degree assault ― both misdemeanors ― and ordered to stay away from his girlfriend.
A month later, he was rearrested for violating the conditions of the no-contact order when cops spotted him with his girlfriend. Prosecutors gave him a second chance. In March, they offered to drop the domestic violence charges if he attended anger-management classes and stayed out of trouble for a year ― a process called deferred prosecution.
Experts contacted by The Huffington Post questioned the decision to defer prosecution in a case involving strangulation, and said Santiago’s history of domestic violence allegations should have been a red flag that he was a potential danger to others.
“I don’t believe any case involving strangulation should be deferred, ever,” said Gael Strack, a former domestic violence prosecutor and one of the country’s leading experts on strangulation. “We now know that strangulation involves a high level of violence and lethal violence. Much like when someone points a gun or holds a knife to a victim’s neck ― those cases also don’t have visible injury, but they are life-threatening acts of violence.”
Casey Gwinn, who headed the prosecutor’s office in San Diego, California, and now runs trainings across the country on strangulation with Strack, noted that if Santiago had been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense, he would have been barred under federal law from owning or purchasing firearms.
“The handling of this case has all the earmarks of poorly investigating a strangulation case and minimizing its significance at every turn,” Gwinn said. “Where was the follow-up investigation? Where was the forensic exam?”
Gwinn added that Alaska has a manual on how to investigate and prosecute strangulation cases. “There is no indication that the prosecutors followed any of the best practices guidance of their manual,” he said.
It’s unclear if Santiago attended anger-management classes, as he was required to do. Police responded to his residence on three occasions for “physical disturbances” from March to October, according to Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley, including for a second allegation of strangulation. Police wouldn’t release details on those disturbance calls.
In a press conference on Sunday, Tolley said there was no probable cause for an arrest in any of the three calls.
Anchorage municipal prosecutor Seneca Theno told The Huffington Post her office takes allegations of strangulation very seriously, but a successful prosecution requires evidence.
Theno said that in her experience, it was rare for a strangulation to occur without injuries. “Usually, you are going to see something,” she said. “Those things tend to be observable and would serve as corroboration of the report.”
The handling of Santiago’s domestic violence case raises questions, experts say.
“Why was this even a deferred prosecution? Why did they charge it as the lesser crime?” said Dawn Dalton, executive director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project. “When you look at the escalation of violence in the research that has been done, strangulation is one of the final acts before homicide takes place in intimate-partner relationships.”
Dalton said she was especially concerned about the decision to offer deferred prosecution after Santiago broke the no-contact order barring him from seeing his girlfriend, and wondered why authorities didn’t regard the domestic disturbances in October as violations of the deferred-prosecution conditions.
“To me, that is a system failure,” Dalton said.
Santiago’s alleged history of domestic violence adds him to the long list of suspected mass shooters who physically assaulted those close to them before going on to attack the public. As The Huffington Post has previously reported:
This story is tragically familiar. In the past few years, many of the men who have committed heinous, unthinkable acts of violence against the public have had a history of abusing the women in their lives. Prior to unleashing their deranged violence onto the world, they practiced it against the most vulnerable and accessible targets ― those living inside their homes.
Micah Johnson. Omar Mateen. Robert Dear. Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Cedric Ford. Man Haron Monis. And others.
Domestic violence and mass shootings are intricately linked in the United States. Many mass shootings actually target intimate partners or family members, though those incidents rarely make the news.
According to data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety, of the 16 mass shooting incidents in 2016, seven ― 43 percent ― involved a male shooter targeting a family member or intimate partner. In those shootings, women and children made up 81 percent of the victims.
“As a practical policy matter, society needs to recognize that by intervening in family violence, we are protecting the larger society as well,” said Joan Meier, a law professor at George Washington University. “The same people who attack members of their family are people who attack total strangers.”
This article has been updated to include a comment from the Anchorage municipal prosecutor.