2001Breaking News Reporting

How it happened

Lightning move took agents just 154 seconds
By: 
Herald Staff Reporters
April 23, 2000

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The lightning raid that plucked Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle's Little Havana house capped 44 hours of near round-the-clock negotiations, filled with near-agreements, stubbornness and subterfuge, with some of Miami's most prominent citizens trying to mediate a peaceful resolution to the five-month saga of the child rafter.

Attorney General Janet Reno and the Gonzalez family attorneys were in fact still on the phone with the mediators when eight federal agents smashed into the house. Four hours later, the 6-year-old child was in his father's arms and Cuban Americans were spilling in anger onto Miami streets.

It was 4:30 a.m. when Elian was awakened by the sounds of lawyers gathered in his house. The lawyers were talking on the phone with a mediator about a last-ditch offer that would have set a meeting between his father and his Miami relatives in a quiet and private place.

Elian got up from his bed, shaped like a Corvette car. His Easter clothes, a guayabera and shorts, hung from a bedpost. He went to sit in the living room's cream leather love seat with great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez.

"Mi corazon," (my love) Lazaro told Elian, calmly rubbing his temples and short brown hair. ''Mi vida'' (my life.)

Aaron Podhurst, a respected Miami attorney acting as a mediator, was on the phone. He had talked to Reno and was passing on a final offer to the Miami relatives -- they had five minutes to agree to take the boy to a meeting with Juan Miguel in another state.

They asked for a little more time to think it through. Podhurst put the family's lawyers on hold. But it was too late. The raid was already under way.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Miami Police Chief William O'Brien had received a call at his Kendall home from Assistant Chief John Brooks. Brooks, the police department's liaison with federal authorities, had news.

The negotiations had collapsed. Federal agents would raid the house at 5:15 a.m.

A total of 131 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agents and 20 U.S. marshals wearing SWAT gear and packing submachine guns were gathered at FBI headquarters in North Dade.

It was still dark in Little Havana as the caravan of three white Dodge vans, two pickup trucks and four sports utility vehicles headed for the Gonzalez home, driving south on I-95 then west on State Road 836 to the 12th Avenue exit.

Reporters were sleeping outside the Gonzalez house on lawn chairs or in sleeping bags, some snoring. Maybe 30 demonstrators were standing west of the house, at 2319 NW Second St.

The law enforcement caravan arrived at 5:07 a.m. at the barricade at Northwest 22nd Avenue and Second Street, east of the house. Only then did Brooks, riding in the caravan, inform police in the area that the raid was on. Police parted two metal barricades and the convoy sped to the house where about 30 federal agents leapt out.

Most groggy reporters and demonstrators were surprised and scrambled to action.

"Freeze! Don't move! Stay Back!" agents yelled at everyone.

It was two-pronged attack.

'DOWN OR I'LL SHOOT'

Agents had already scaled the wooden fence behind the Gonzalez house, freezing everyone in the yard.

"Down or I'll shoot you," agents said in English, repeating the command in Spanish.

Among those surprised was Mario Miranda, a former Miami police officer and head of security for the Cuban American National Foundation. Agents knocked him down, forced him to spread his arms and legs. One agent doused him with pepper spray while a second agent racked his shotgun and pushed it against Miranda's right ear.

"I could not think," Miranda recalled. "I could not move."

Inside the house, family and friends heard the commotion outside and peered out.

Someone yelled, "The feds are out here. The feds are out here."

It was 5:15 a.m.

Robert Curbelo Jr., a family friend inside the house, locked the back door.

Family spokesman Armando Gutierrez let in Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz through the front door so he could record the event.

The family then locked the front door.

AGENTS INSIDE

The agents knocked. Knocked again. No answer. A battering ram took out the front door. Eight agents were suddenly inside.

"Here they come!" Lazaro yelled from the love seat.

Donato Dalrymple, one of the men who rescued Elian on Thanksgiving Day and had spent much time in the Gonzalez home, ran from the front foyer and scooped Elian off the couch.

"I was on the sofa dead asleep. What I heard sounded like foot soldiers," Dalymple recalled. "I jumped up. I got him into my arms. He was screaming 'Help me Help me, Que Pasa, Que Pasa?"

Curbelo grabbed Dalrymple and pushed him into the bedroom Lazaro and his still-sleeping wife, Angela, share. Curbelo also pushed in photographer Diaz, Elian's 5-year-old cousin Lazaro Martell and his mother, Yuleidi, and closed the door.

In the living room, one agent pointed his gun at cousin Marisleysis' chest.

Another aimed his gun at Lazaro's head. Other agents aimed guns at attorneys Kendall Coffey and Manny Diaz, who stood frozen in the dining room.

MARISLEYSIS' PLEA

"Don't do this!" Marisleysis screamed, her arms outstretched. "Don't let him see this! I'll give you the boy! Please put the guns down! I'll get the boy up!"

Said Lazaro: "Is this what they trained you for? To take a 6-year-old child?"

"We had no warning that the marshals were coming. We were on the phone negotiating. They took him screaming and crying," Marisleysis complained later.

Agents searched the house for Elian, flipping over tables, breaking more doors and religious artifacts. Elian was not in his room.

"Give me the f---ing boy or I'll shoot," Marisleysis quoted one agent as saying.

Agents prepared to search Lazaro and Angela's bedroom, where Dalrymple had taken the boy. The fisherman, holding the boy in his tattooed arms, tried to hide in a tiny closet, but the closet was packed with boxes and clothes and there was no space.

Agents kicked the door open, splitting it in half. The top half swung on its hinges while the bottom half fell to the floor.

"I took his head and buried it into my shoulder... There was nowhere to go," Dalrymple recalled.

'GIVE ME THE BOY'

"Give me the boy," an agent yelled, pointing a 9mm Heckler & Koch submachine gun at Dalrymple.

Agents told Diaz to stay back, but he kept snapping pictures. His is the photo that quickly went around the world, a picture of an agent holding a gun on Dalrymple as the man hugged the boy to his chest.

INS Agent Betty A. Mills, packing a holstered pistol, entered the room with a blanket and grabbed Elian from Dalrymple.

Trained in hostage rescues, she told Elian in Spanish not to be afraid because he was going to be taken to his father and not back to Cuba, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner said later.

The agents backed out of the room with Elian -- the guns still trained on everyone and 5-year-old Lazaro Martell.

Elian screamed for Marisleysis.

"Prima Mari! Prima Mari!," Elian yelled. "Cousin Mari! Cousin Mari!"

Dalrymple begged: "Please Oh God! Don't take the child!"

The agents didn't answer him. Then other agents yelled.

'BINGO!, BINGO!, BINGO!'

"We got him. We got him. Bingo! Bingo! Bingo!"

The agents then retreated and in their rush left behind one dark green and black military helmet and a canister of pepper spray.

Outside, federal agents kept the crowd back, asking for calm. Miami police officers implored the crowd to remain still.

Agent Mills ran from the house with Elian wrapped in the blanket and leapt into the passenger side door of a four-door van. The doors then closed and van backed up.

The street lit up from photoflashes and television lights as protesters threw chairs, soda cans, rocks. The agents sprayed the crowd with pepper gas, hitting protesters as well as reporters and police.

The convoy retreated east on Northwest Second Street with federal agents running alongside and some tripping on television cables.

The whole raid took exactly two minutes and 34 seconds.

'THEY'VE GOT THE KID'

Brooks called Chief O'Brien at about 5:20 and said, "They've got the kid, and he's OK." O'Brien notified City Manager Donald Warshaw a few minutes later. Warshaw then quickly called Miami Mayor Joe Carollo.

O'Brien said he didn't call Carollo earlier because he didn't want to tip off the politicians on this supremely political drama. "This was... not a political issue," the chief said.

AWAITING HELICOPTER

As dawn approached, the federal convoy and several police cars with lights flashing sped to Watson Island, where a helicopter waited with its rotors spinning to take Elian to Homestead Air Force Base.

Two workers at the Casablanca Fish Market on the southwestern side of the island watched the transfer.

"He was kicking and screaming 'Let me go!' and 'I don't want to go!'" recalled Gilberto Castro.

Added Rafael Viera, "It was clear he didn't want to go."

The helicopter soon lifted off for Homestead, where a physician checked Elian to make sure he was OK. Elian, the woman agent and a psychiatrist then piled into a waiting U.S. government jet equipped with toys and Play-Do to entertain him during the two-hour flight to Andrews Air Force base and his waiting father.

NEGOTIATION COLLAPSED

For the INS, the raid looked like a victory. No delays, no major injuries.

But the raid in fact reflected the collapse of a final round of negotiations that had begun Thursday at 10:30 a.m. when a group of Miami power brokers trying to bring a peaceful end to the custody crisis gathered quietly in the downtown law office of lawyer Aaron Podhurst.

In the room with Podhurst, a long-time Reno friend, was University of Miami President Edward T. Foote II and UM Board of Trustee Chairman Carlos de la Cruz, also chairman of Eagle Brands. Another UM trustee, Carlos Saladrigas, head of ADP Total Source, joined the meeting by speaker phone.

Their goal was to come up with a plan for the transfer of Elian to his Cuban father that would be acceptable to Lazaro Gonzalez. The leaders also had to pacify the Cuban exile community, seething over the possibility of Elian's return to his communist homeland.

After the meeting broke up around noon, Foote and de la Cruz traveled to Lazaro's home to talk with the family's attorneys. "We discussed the possibility of our getting involved for the first time," de la Cruz said

The attorneys, including Coffey, Manny Diaz and Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, all seemed open to their involvement -- making clear the relatives' demands and concessions.

Around 1:30 p.m. Thursday, after a business-like meeting at the house, Foote and de la Cruz returned to Podhurst's law office to fine-tune their proposal along with Saladrigas.

CALL TO RENO

The foursome called Reno. "She encouraged us to go ahead. Her conditions were, we had to be able to sell [the deal] to the government and Elian's father."

From 1:30 to 6 p.m., the group hashed out the outline for an agreement while staying in contact with Reno. Sometimes Podhurst spoke to her directly, sometimes they put her on a speakerphone and they all spoke.

By the end of afternoon, they had a hand-written list of six points that could serve as the outline for a deal.

Above all, the relatives wanted to require that Juan Miguel Gonzalez live with them in a temporary residence in Miami-Dade County during the boy's federal court appeal for a political asylum petition.

The relatives wanted no government officials and lawyers in the picture -- just U.S. marshals to protect the site. And they wanted a 'facilitator' -- probably a psychologist -- to help the families "get together and do what is in the best interest of the child."

Foote wanted the transfer to occur in Miami-Dade County. Reno agreed to that condition, which pleased the local group.

DEAL BREAKER POINT

Reno told them the deal breaker was the transfer of custody to Juan Miguel. The family had to agree to that point. The mediators told her that would be hard.

Reno told them she didn't want to be embarrassed. She wanted assurances Juan Miguel would be received with courtesy in Miami.

In the next hour, de la Cruz and Saladrigas had a frantic conference call with several members of Mesa Redonda, a group of Cuban business executives and civic leaders, to explain the proposal.

Several members raised concerns, among them whether Reno was negotiating in good faith. The mediators said they believed she was.

They also briefed Jorge Mas Santos, head of the Cuban American National Foundation, Jose Basulto from Brothers to the Rescue, Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement, and Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin of Barry University.

Saladrigas said the mediators and the Cuban community leaders met at the San Juan Bosco church in Little Havana from 9:30 p.m. Thursday to about 2 a.m. Friday. They concluded the agreement would be tough for the Miami family to accept.

"We didn't see a lot of good alternatives," said Saladrigas.

Saladrigas and de la Cruz met at Kendall Coffey's office in Coconut Grove at 11 a.m. on Good Friday and began to hammer out the final draft of the proposal with family attorneys.

Lazaro and Delfin Gonzalez joined them and by late afternoon the group felt they had come up with a workable deal. Reno instructed them to put the proposal in writing and fax it to her office by 5 p.m.

They met that deadline. Foote was so confident that a compromise was really in the works that he went home to be with his family.

Family friend Curbelo said that Podhurst called the Miami house at 8 p.m. to say that Reno was considering the offer but wanted the child to stay with his father throughout the reunion. The family wanted the child to stay with Marisleysis.

By 9 p.m., Reno's office had sent the proposal to Elian's father and his attorney, Gregory Craig. Lazaro agreed to let Elian decide who he would want to stay with.

WHITE HOUSE BRIEFED

Reno was giving hourly updates to White House Chief of Staff John Podesta on the status of the negotiations. Podesta relayed one optimistic update to President Clinton at 8:30 p.m.

But at 2 a.m., Curbelo said, Podhurst called to say the government was insisting that the meeting take place in a privately run retreat in Washington's Virginia suburbs.

Podesta updated Clinton again at 2:15 a.m., relaying word that Reno still felt the negotiations held promise, said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Reno was negotiating from a small private office at the Justice Department's headquarters in Washington, known as Main Justice, surrounded by about a dozen people, including Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, Meissner, and INS General Council Bo Cooper.

Reno hoped that Podhurst, on whom she had "great trust," would be able to bring off the deal despite confusion about just who was speaking for the Miami family.

The Miami family felt the meeting site wasn't as important as its demand to speak to Juan Miguel alone. "There was an agreement on the table" Mas said.

Then everything unraveled.

Around 4 a.m., Reno declared the negotiations had broken down. The Miami family "kept moving the goal posts" with new demands and conditions, said an official who attended the Washington meeting.

PATIENCE RAN OUT

She polled the officials present, pointing to each one in turn and asking for their thoughts. Everyone nodded. "Our patience ran out," said the official.

Reno had a ''very pained look'' but agreed, Holder told reporters later, and gave the order to seize the boy.

At 4:20 a.m. Podhurst called Reno to ask for yet another reprieve while he continued to try to persuade the Miami family. Reno agreed to give him another five minutes, but when he called again to ask for even more time she held her ground. At 5:05 a.m., family lawyer Manny Diaz called Podhurst and asked if he had any news from Reno. Podhurst said he had "run out of time," Curbelo said.

Reno telephoned Podesta again shortly before 5 a.m. to inform him of the decision, and then again at 5:30 a.m. to tell him the raid had gone off without a hitch. Podesta rang his boss upstairs.

"The president was pleased," said Lockhart.

WORST NIGHTMARE

In Miami, Cuban Americans woke up to their worst nightmares.

Drivers up and down Calle Ocho began honking their car horns at around 5:20 a.m. as they heard the news on radio, just a few here and there at first, more like forlorn cries for help in the early morning stillness than rousing calls to battle.

At 8:49 a.m., a big cheer went up from the crowd gathered in front of the Gonzalez home as a man draped black ribbons and later black garbage bags around a large U.S. flag flying over Lazaro's shattered front door, and later an adjoining Cuban flag.

Ten minutes later, a group of elderly men delivered to the house a funeral wreath of red white and blue carnations with a ribbon that read "R.I.P. Democracia."

By 10 a.m., small but angry groups of demonstrators had started trying to block traffic near the corner of Flagler and 27th Avenue and threw bus benches, shopping carts and used tires onto other streets.

"This is a day of shame for America," shouted Jose Angel Ramirez, 18, as he ran away from one of the volleys of tear gas that police fired throughout much of the morning and into the afternoon to disperse the most unruly demonstrations.

FATHER-SON REUNION

Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived at Andrews Air Force in suburban Washington about 9 a.m., and quickly signed a sheaf of INS documents assuming custody of Elian, taking financial responsibility for his upkeep and promising not to remove him from U.S. territory until the court process runs its course.

At 9:30, Juan Miguel walked onto the government plane that had brought Elian from Miami and hugged him.

"Elian appeared very happy, and Juan Miguel was crying," said a Justice Department official.

At 2 p.m., Andrews base officials released photographs of Elian in the arms of a smiling Juan Miguel, with Nersy and the baby by their side.

Elian, who had begun the day crying in terror, was smiling.

Graphic: "Three minutes in Little Havana"