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The man who kept his gun on top of the fridge

Michael Santiago has been charged in the death of his son, Eian.
Michael Santiago has been charged in the death of his son, Eian.
Published Oct. 19, 2015

Michael Santiago had bought the 32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver for protection. The pizza parlor manager had once been a member of a Chicago gang, the Spanish Cobras, he told police, and he got the gun because he had snitched on another gang member in a murder trial and feared he would be targeted.

He kept the loaded gun wrapped in pajama pants on top of the refrigerator in his Chicago house. On Saturday night, his 6-year-old son took it while playing cops and robbers with his 3-year-old brother, Eian, and fired at him. The bullet struck Eian in the head, killing him.

Often, such cases are treated as tragedies and no prosecution follows — but not this time. Michael Santiago, 25, has been charged with child endangerment.

The principal reason: The gun had not been purchased legally.

"The gun was purchased off the street,'' Assistant State's Attorney Joseph DiBella said. Santiago does not have a firearm owner's identification card or concealed carry license.

According to the pro-gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety, more than 100 children were killed in accidental shootings in the United States in 2013, and prosecutors brought charges in most of the cases involving illegally purchased guns. In shootings where a legally owned weapon was involved in the accidental death of a child, charges were brought in only a handful of cases.

Gun control advocates argue research shows children often know where weapons are hidden in houses, and say weak state laws offer too little deterrent to careless storage of guns. The National Rifle Association has argued that mandatory storage laws are unnecessary.

A week or so before the shooting, Santiago showed his older son where he kept the gun. He "took the gun from on top of the refrigerator, unwrapped the pajama pants and explained to the 6-year-old that the gun was only to be used by adults," DiBella, the prosecutor, said.

On Saturday night, Santiago was at work and his girlfriend, the dead 3-year-old's mother, was getting milk from a store. Santiago's father, Hector, was at home and heard the gunshot, authorities said.

"I heard a pop, you know, like somebody had shot,'' Hector Santiago said, "so I opened the door and I look out and he was running up the stairs and he told me somebody shot his brother.''

Hector Santiago's eyes were bloodshot as he left the Chicago courtroom where his son was charged on Sunday.

"He's okay," Salgado said of his 6-year-old grandson, whose name has not been released. "He doesn't even remember. He doesn't know nothing about it. He thinks his brother is in the hospital sick."

Judge James Brown ordered Michael Santiago held on $75,000 bail. "This is the ultimate tragedy," Brown said. "I'm sure the defendant did not intend for this to happen, but it happened. And it's what happens when people have guns who shouldn't have guns. That's why we've had 2,300 people shot in Chicago so far this year."

Michael Santiago thought the refrigerator was too tall for his children to reach the gun, family friend George Rayyan told the New York Daily News. "He said in his eyes, that was the best spot, on the back of the fridge, because the kids couldn't find it."

The boys' mother, writing on Facebook, described Michael Santiago as a "great man (and) father" who wanted to protect his family. She asked people to stop posting "rude comments" online about the incident, saying they "have no right to ... judge us. For God sake we lost a child."

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Illinois and 26 other states have laws that impose varying levels of criminal liability on gun owners who fail to prevent unauthorized access to firearms by children. In charging Santiago with child endangerment, prosecutors will need to prove that he knowingly created a condition that could have resulted in harm to his children, CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said.

While prosecutors typically do not like to charge parents who have lost a child to gun violence, Chicago authorities decided "apparently, you have to draw the line," Jackson said.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, 14 states don't impose criminal penalties for "mere careless storage" of guns. On the other end of the spectrum, laws in three states — California, Minnesota and Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia hold gun owners accountable, even in cases where a child may be merely likely to gain access to a carelessly stored gun.

Hector Santiago had some thoughts about storage of guns on Sunday. "You know how kids are, they get into everything," he said. "There is not a safe place where you can put a gun where a kid can't reach it or find it."

Reporting: Chicago Tribune,

Slate.com, Washington Post.