By Tonya Alanez Sun Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Broward sheriff’s deputies failed in their response to a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport because they were eating cake in a balloon-festooned conference room and celebrating a detective’s retirement when shots rang out, according to a newly filed lawsuit.
The second wrongful death lawsuit in connection to the shooting Jan. 6, 2017, was filed Thursday in Broward Circuit Court on behalf of a Virginia Beach woman whose husband was “one of five people senselessly shot and killed” by Esteban Santiago, a military veteran who confessed to the killings.
Terry and Ann Andres had flown into Fort Lauderdale on their way to a cruise to celebrate their January birthdays.
Terry Andres was killed three days before his wife’s 62nd birthday and 14 days before his 63rd. The couple would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary later that year. They had two daughters and four grandchildren.
“Ann constantly lives with the violent images of Terry’s traumatic death and says ‘it will never leave [her] thoughts and nightmares,’” the lawsuit said.
Santiago, then 26, had flown one way from Alaska, checking only a handgun and ammunition in a locked case. He later retrieved his checked semiautomatic 9 mm handgun from Delta, loaded it in a restroom and started shooting, the lawsuit says.
Santiago surrendered to law enforcement immediately and admitted shooting the victims, according to the FBI.
The suit claims negligence against the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Broward County Commission, which oversees the international airport’s operations, as well as Delta Airlines and three security companies.
Fault lies with the Sheriff’s Office because its deputies were not in the baggage claim area as they should have been when the shooting began, the lawsuit said. “Rather, members of BSO were having a retirement party in a conference room,” it said.
“The reason that it’s important is that there’s a security plan at the airport with deputies assigned to specific areas and that was not adhered to at the time of the shooting,” said David DiPietro, the lawyer representing Ann Andres.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. The agency typically does not remark on pending litigation.
The suit demands a jury trial and seeks damages in an unspecified amount. “It’s seven figures,” DiPietro said.
The couple had skipped giving one another Christmas gifts in 2016, instead opting to take a cruise to celebrate their birthdays. The cruise was scheduled to set sail the next day.
While Ann Andres texted their daughters and her husband retrieved their luggage from the baggage carousel, she saw the gunman shoot and kill a man next to her. She crawled under chairs and tried to shield herself with her carry-on luggage, according to the suit.
“Ann watched in horror as the shooter stopped at the baggage carousel, raised his arm and started shooting in Terry’s direction,” the lawsuit said.
Afterward, she found her husband face down and unresponsive near the carousel. Ann Andres screamed for help until medics came and checked for her husband’s pulse. They put a plastic band on his wrist to indicate that he was one of the dead.
Ann Andres and a man whose wife had been killed were then escorted from location to location, including a room where “Ann observed cake and balloons inside the office, indicating that there had been a party in the office earlier that day,” the lawsuit said.
Investigators verified that there had been a retirement party for a detective that day, DiPietro said.
Santiago, now 28, is locked up in the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami and is taking prescription medication to treat his diagnosis of schizophrenia.
He initially said he acted under government mind control but later said he was influenced by reading online propaganda by the Islamic State group. So far, authorities have not found any links to organized terrorism.
Santiago has pleaded guilty. Federal prosecutors have agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for five life sentences and 120 years without the possibility of parole. Final say on Santiago’s punishment is up to the judge. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17.
©2018 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)