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The Elian grab

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A turbulent Good Friday gives way to a dramatic and surgical invasion of the Gonzalez home--and a long-awaited reunion between Elian and his dad

April 24, 2000
Web posted at: 2:31 p.m. EDT (1831 GMT)

Elian was having trouble sleeping. He kept climbing out of his little race-car bed and going into the living room, where his great-uncle Lazaro lay on the white leather couch. The boy had been watching his relatives fight over him all this time; he had seen the news reports. It had been another long day. He snuggled next to Lazaro, who stroked the boy's hair. "I'm afraid. Are they coming for me?" Elian asked again and again. Lazaro tried to comfort him, explaining in a calm voice that everything would be O.K. "Relax," Lazaro said in Spanish. "Relax, Eliancito."

Donato Dalrymple was dozing on another couch nearby, still dressed in his jeans and polo shirt. One of the fishermen who rescued Elian on Thanksgiving Day, the former missionary had practically moved into the Gonzalez house these past few days, convinced that he had a calling to protect this kid, no matter what. When he heard the pounding and the screaming, he thought it was a dream.

As Dalrymple tells it, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service agents stormed into the house just after 5 a.m., he grabbed Elian and fled to a bedroom, locking the door and then trying to duck into a closet. But the closet was crammed too full of clothes, and they could not close the folding doors. "Help me!" Elian cried. "Help me!"

The INS agents, armed with 9-mm MP5 submachine guns, looked first for Elian's cousin Marisleysis, assuming she would be the one to lead them to Elian. "Where the f------- is the damn boy?" Marisleysis says they shouted at her. She begged them to hold off, she says. "I will give you the boy; just put the guns down!" As they raced through the rest of the house, the agents knocked over a statue of the Virgin Mary and a huge picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the living room. Finally, they kicked their way into the bedroom, breaking the door in half.

They found Dalrymple and Elian clinging to each other. "No, no no!" Elian screamed. They gave him to Betty Mills, an eight-year INS veteran who spoke to Elian in Spanish as she covered him with a blanket and raced out to a waiting white minivan. As the pepper spray wafted outside the house, bystanders could hear the agents shouting the code meaning that they had Elian in their possession: "Bingo! Bingo! Bingo!" Mills told Elian that it was O.K., that he was going to see his "papa" and take his first ever airplane ride--not, she kept promising, a boat back to Cuba, the stuff of his worst nightmares.

Lazaro Gonzalez ran into the front yard and collapsed. Dalrymple screamed, "Bastards!" as he, too, ran to the front yard and hurled plastic milk crates at the agents. "It was a horror show," he says. As the motorcade drove off, agent Jim Goldman called INS headquarters to report that Elian was scared and shaken, but safe. Goldman said he was stroking Elian's back, while Mills told him of his coming reunion with Papa. "This is one tough little kid," Goldman marveled. "I was shaking. He was not."

But Elian was crying again as the U.S. Marshals plane took off from Homestead Air Force Base. Hoping to ease his fear, INS officials handed Elian a toy plane and explained that they were flying to Washington; agents showed him a map of the plane's route, then gave him a watch and showed him how much time would pass before he would see his father. They raised the window shades and showed him the dawn sky. "He became completely enthralled in the pretty colors," said an INS official. Elian spent most of the flight sitting in Mills' lap; for a while, he even slept.

When the plane landed in Washington, Juan Miguel Gonzalez left his entourage and climbed aboard to be alone with his son. Five minutes later and teary eyed, he came down the plane steps with Elian in his arms, the boy's legs wrapped tight around his waist, and headed into a residence at Andrews Air Force Base. Later Juan Miguel invited agents Mills and Goldman to join him and his family for a while, to thank them for taking care of his son. Elian, they said, was playing on the floor--"like any six-year-old boy."

For the residents of Little Havana, this has been, from the start, a passion play. Elian was the Miracle Child, delivered from the sea for a sacred purpose, and so it was no surprise that when they awoke Saturday morning to news of his seizure, the exiles arrived in force, one man carrying a crucifix with a bloody doll nailed to it, and accused Janet Reno of playing Pontius Pilate. For Elian's Miami relatives, the morning was a kind of death, after five months of hope and power and fame and the satisfactions of righteous rage.

For Juan Miguel and his allies in Washington, the pain of Saturday morning was an awful means to a joyous end. The reunion of father and son would, as Juan Miguel's lawyer Greg Craig said, "revive" Elian. For those who had come to view the Miami Cubans as well-meaning kidnappers, the raid by INS agents was nothing more or less than a rescue mission--unavoidable, long overdue and mercifully quick. The images were wrenching, but the outcome was a relief.

By the end of the day, both sides had the picture they wanted. An intrepid AP photographer captured a federal agent holding a submachine gun as the fisherman held the terrified child. Within hours came the counterrevolution, the image of a grateful father holding his smiling son. In the end, what you made of the passion play depended on which picture stayed with you longer, and whose version of the story had the ring of truth.

For months Janet Reno had been trying to solve the crisis in her own lonesome way. She tried to play every role herself: Attorney General, family shrink, hostage negotiator and grandmother manque. It meant assuming that everybody involved would behave rationally and put the child's interest first. And she believed above all that she could wait out her rivals in Miami and absorb hit after hit about her go-slow approach, certain that the law was on her side, even if nobody else was.

Then even the law seemed to abandon her. When a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled last week that Elian might be able to decide his future for himself, Reno found herself, as a lawyer on the case put it, "in a deep, dark hole." Having promised Juan Miguel two weeks earlier that she would return his son quickly, Reno was now looking at months of legal wrangling and no guarantee that Elian would ever be reunited with his father, much less his homeland. By Thursday, White House dismay with Reno's bottomless patience was quietly rising, and so that afternoon, returning on Air Force One from a memorial marking the fifth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Reno huddled for 45 minutes with Bill Clinton and two aides to change course.

As she reviewed the ruling and her options for taking Elian from the Miami house, Reno said she had to prepare for the worst: that there might be guns in the house, or in the crowds outside; that old women would throw themselves in front of federal vehicles; that dump trucks filled with gravel would block intersections. The INS team wanted to go in before dawn, but Reno worried about the image of a nighttime raid. So grim was the picture the Attorney General was painting, it appeared to the aides that she would prefer to wait some more.

"Then it turned," said a participant, who listened as Reno began to lay out for the President the reasons for an immediate rescue: Juan Miguel had promised to stay in the country through the appeals; the court order made that promise stick, so the relatives had no reason to worry about Elian suddenly disappearing; and, most of all, Elian needed to be with his father, and away from Little Havana's media circus. Normally dry as talc, Reno at one point waxed nostalgic about the Miami of her childhood. She said she wanted to make a move soon. "Her feeling was the boy needs to get out of there and get to his father," said a participant.

Clinton had come to the same conclusion the night before, aides said, but was pleased that Reno got there on her own. "Janet," he said, "I think you're right." And a few hours later in the Rose Garden, he began to prepare the nation. "I think [Elian] should be reunited," Clinton said, "and in as prompt and as orderly a way as possible."

Reno was not completely tone deaf. It was a week of harrowing anniversaries: Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City, the Bay of Pigs. She was not about to go in on Good Friday or on Easter Sunday. But she told INS officials that Saturday or Monday were both possibilities if negotiations stalled, and they in turn said whatever happened had to occur before 6 a.m., when the traffic lights in the neighborhood switch from blinking yellow to red, yellow and green, and the streets start filling with cars, and the sidewalks with anxious, angry people.

Thanks to widespread leaking, just about everybody in Washington and Miami woke up Friday morning confident that Reno was ready to move. But instead, in a last-minute twist, the Attorney General was in her cavernous fifth-floor office at Main Justice, on the telephone with a group of fellow Miamians who thought they could still persuade the relatives to turn the boy over to his father.

The group, led by University of Miami president Tad Foote, proposed a cooling-off period: both sides of the family would repair to a neutral retreat until the appeals process concluded, where Elian would be allowed to make a gentle transition from his new home to his old. The idea made some sense to Reno, but she had two conditions: first, Elian had to be put immediately into his father's custody, and a deal had to be inked fast. Reno told the go-betweens that if they couldn't work out the details overnight, there would be no deal at all.

What even Reno may not have realized was that the mediators weren't dealing only with the Gonzalez clan: they wanted the blessing of the Cuban-American leaders too, so there would be no picketing or problems. "We wanted everyone to be able to leave the family alone," says Aaron Podhurst, one of the mediators and a longtime Miami lawyer who has been a friend of Reno's for 30 years.

Just before 5 p.m., Reno was sufficiently encouraged to brief Clinton on the deal. By midnight the feds had put a nine-point plan on the table: Lazaro and his family would hand over Elian to the government at 3:30 a.m. at the federal courthouse in Miami; the family would be put up at a hotel under guard and driven the next day to Washington. (The relatives claimed they didn't want Elian to fly. Justice officials assumed someone else in the family had a fear of flying, but agreed to chauffeur them to Washington anyway.) Once in Washington, Juan Miguel would be reunited with Elian, and the two families would live in separate but adjacent quarters during a weeklong transition period. Three new child-psychology experts would be brought in to smooth the handoff; in addition, Lazaro and his wing of the family would waive all rights to sue Juan Miguel for custody later or go back to court for damages. For their part, Justice lawyers would go to court and seek a departure control order for Elian so that he could not be taken out of the U.S., in accordance with the 11th circuit order.

Craig, working in his office, put the deal to Juan Miguel after midnight. Initially the father balked at the idea of living anywhere close to Lazaro, but after some calls back and forth, he agreed. But at this point the accounts diverge: federal officials say Lazaro and his kin objected to all sorts of conditions and kept wanting to add new ones. It wasn't even clear who was making the decisions. "We were never able to say Lazaro Gonzalez had agreed with anything," says an official. "It was never clear who the lead lawyer was, and that made it difficult to figure out how you could talk to these people."

Podhurst claims that he felt they were very close to a deal as late as 3 a.m., and that it was Reno who suddenly balked. The neutral safe house would have to be around Washington, she said, not Miami. Even if he could get the family and the lawyers to agree, he was worried about the Cuban-American leaders. "They couldn't wake everyone up to ask them if they would accept moving the safe house to outside of Florida," he says. "I had the Attorney General on hold while I was talking to [family lawyer] Manny Diaz. And then he says, 'Wait a minute. Here come the marshals.'"

When 4 a.m. rolled around, Reno had hit the wall. Huddled in her small inner office, she polled all her top advisers: they were unanimous. "You could see she was very anguished. You could see the pain," says one of those in the room. So she told the negotiators, "Time has run out," gave INS chief Doris Meissner the go sign, and the wheels of Operation Reunion began to roll. "I was shocked," says Podhurst. "I think we could have worked it out."

Craig, meanwhile, was still working. He had sent his client home to sleep and was still in his office with the TV on mute when around 5 a.m. he saw the rescue unfold on the screen. He jumped to the phone and called Bethesda, waking up Juan Miguel in his room at the residence of Fernando Remirez, head of the Cuban diplomatic mission to the U.S. "Turn on the TV! Turn on the TV!"

A man who had been guarding the outside of the Miami house tried to alert the small crowd that something was happening. "They're here! They're here!" he shouted. When Eddie Gonzalez, 40, saw the agents moving in, he jumped over the barricade and shouted, "What the hell are you doing?" The officers immediately began spraying a green-colored pepper spray from canisters held at their waists and pushed him down to the ground. Student Fausto Vilar, 18, was hit with the butt of a rifle as he jumped over the bars. "They grabbed me and an older man behind me and pushed us down to the pavement. I couldn't breathe or see. I had to go to a house and spray a water hose in my face." Gustavo Moller, an NBC audio technician, suffered a gash above his left eye when an agent pressed the barrel of an automatic rifle into his face as he stood in the front door. "It was the ugliest thing I've ever seen," Moller says. "This is the most inhumane way to get at justice."

Watching the constant replay of the raid on the networks, the staff members back in Reno's office were troubled at the image of the child cowering in the closet and crying in the agent's arms--but they had no regrets. "It was a very sad thing to see," said Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder. "I was disappointed that people who indicated they cared most for the boy were unable to do the simple things that would have prevented what happened from occurring."

The Miami relatives and their supporters were on the air instantly, telling their harrowing story and denouncing the government. "If this had been your son, would you have wanted a gun to be pointed at his head and have him dragged out of your house that way?" Marisleysis said. "Bill Clinton and Janet Reno betrayed this country--not just my family, but this country!"

As word spread, the crowds began to grow, and Miami police worked to maintain some order while allowing angry residents to express their fury at the sudden turn. Some vented their anger on police, after they heard that an assistant police chief was sitting in the passenger seat of the INS van that took Elian away. In the minutes after the raid, Mayor Joe Carollo had made it plain that he had no advance warning whatever. Late in the afternoon he gave a press conference and denounced the government's actions. "What they did was a crime," he said. "These are atheists. They don't believe in God."

At the heart of Little Havana, there was a gauntlet of concrete benches, garbage Dumpsters, newspaper boxes, STOP signs, chairs and other objects thrown into the wide streets and burned. "We are peaceful people. We are not violent. Look at what they have turned us into," says Alex Lugo, 34, a math teacher. "Janet Reno is a coward. We want the world to understand that Janet Reno and Fidel Castro have hurt this little boy."

Even as the crowds boiled, SUVs from Cuban-exile groups moved slowly down the streets calling on loudspeakers for calm, telling the rioters to wait for Tuesday's planned general strike and march. Nearby, 85-year-old exile Pepe Troica shook his head and guarded his car with a lead pipe. "I was completely against sending Elian back," he said. "But this vandalism is ruining our cause."

No one liked the idea of handing Fidel Castro a prize. In Havana the reaction was subdued; the government cautioned Cubans that the fight for Elian wasn't over yet. Nevertheless, Fidel thanked Clinton, Reno and "American public opinion." He added, "The child may have cried for five minutes, but at least he's now spared from crying the rest of his life." Cuban TV lost no chance to broadcast images of "the hysterical behavior of Marisleysis ... and the desecration of the American flag by the Miami Mafia." Echoing Little Havana's piety, Cuban citizens like Virginia Sotolongo, 42, said, "The Virgin of Charity has done this miracle. I always believed that the child would be with his father."

If anything took the wind out of the demonstrations, it was the fact that the leading players had exited the stage. By mid-afternoon, Lazaro and his relatives and Dalrymple had hopped a flight to Washington to force a meeting with Juan Miguel, or Bill Clinton, or whatever sympathetic Congressman they could get to take them in. Juan Miguel refused to meet with his kin, and they were turned away at the gates of Andrews Air Force Base.

In Miami and in Washington, most parties agreed on one point: this was not over yet. The court case could drag on for months, and there is no telling where it will end. One of Elian's Miami relatives, Lillian Santiago, who had arrived at the house just as the raid was concluding, had these words to calm the growing crowd of protesters. "The boy will be back," she told them. "The courts will return him to us." But even if that were to happen, which most legal experts doubt, Juan Miguel won't be leaving his side. --Reported by Tim Padgett and Timothy Roche/Miami, Jay Branegan and Elaine Shannon/Washington and Dolly Mascarenas/Havana


"We tried every way we could to encourage Lazaro Gonzalez to voluntarily hand over the child to his father ... The Miami relatives rejected our efforts, leaving us no option but the enforcement action."

"This was in the end about a little boy who lost his mother and has not seen his father in more than five months. I hope, with time and support, Elian and his father will have the opportunity to be a strong family again."


"They said, 'Give me the boy, or we're going to shoot' ... He was screaming ... 'Don't take me!' I never thought they would do this to a kid ... How can this boy be O.K. when he had a gun to his head? I thought this was a country of freedom ... Whatever happens after this, let them pay the consequences."

TRENT LOTT Senate majority leader

"When I awoke in my hometown with my family today--Easter weekend--and learned of the tactics that had been used to seize Elian Gonzalez, my first thought was that this could only happen in Castro's Cuba. President Clinton should not have allowed this to happen."

REV. JOAN BROWN CAMPBELL National Council of Churches

"[Juan Miguel Gonzalez] was very tearful, very happy. This is a moment he'd waited for for a very long time. And he's glad the boy is safe."

Campbell came out in support of Reno in the very first hour after the raid. She has been one of Juan Miguel's staunchest American advisers.

GREG CRAIG Juan Miguel's attorney

"I don't doubt that for those of us watching this, it looked shocking ... But ... the early evidence is that Elian's in good shape. He's a strong boy, and the connection between his father and him is so powerful ... You realize that by keeping them apart, something terrible was done."


Cover Date: May 1, 2000



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