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ELIAN CUSTODY BATTLE

Elian, Dad Reunited After Raid

Immigration: U.S. agents swarm home of Cuban boy's Florida relatives, ending five-month impasse. He joins father at Maryland military base. Protesters roam Miami streets.

April 23, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO and MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The last discussions between Reno and the Miami relatives called for Lazaro Gonzalez and his 21-year-old daughter, Marisleysis, to bring Elian to a neutral hotel or conference center near Washington, according to a senior Justice Department source.

Sites discussed included the Wye Plantation, a center on Maryland's Eastern Shore that has been used for Mideast peace conferences, and the Airlie House near Warrenton, Va. But the Miami relatives countered that the meeting would have to take place in the Miami area. Justice officials turned them down.

It was imperative from the Justice Department's standpoint that Juan Miguel Gonzalez regain formal custody of the child at any meeting. But the Miami relatives turned down this provision as well.

In further talks, the Miami family's intermediaries proposed that all family members stay at a neutral location until a federal appeals court case is decided, in late May at the earliest. But Juan Miguel Gonzalez faxed a counterproposal late Friday that called for a much shorter joint stay.

In describing the talks, Reno said afterward that "every step of the way, the Miami relatives kept moving the goal posts and raising more hurdles."

A Postponement, Then Retrieval

Reno gave the go-ahead for Operation Reunion about 4 a.m. After a brief postponement when the Miami faction asked for more time, she ordered the retrieval to start again.

Well-armed agents arrived abruptly at 5:15 a.m.

"He was crying, 'Don't take me!' " said Marisleysis Gonzalez, who was near hysteria minutes after an INS agent scooped up the child in a white blanket and rushed him into a police van outside. She expressed outrage at seeing "a 6-year-old with a gun to his head."

Inside the house, pandemonium reigned.

Elian had been asleep on a living room couch with Lazaro, according to Marisleysis, when agents used a battering ram to knock down the front door. (Law enforcement officials said that eight agents knocked before entering, as required under federal procedure.)

Alerted by the commotion, Dalrymple, the fisherman, jumped from the floor where he was asleep, picked up Elian and rushed with him into the bedroom where Lazaro's wife, Angela, was sleeping.

With pepper spray drifting in through the open windows, Dalrymple said, he tried to hide with Elian in a closet.

But in a moment recorded by the Associated Press photographer, a federal agent holding an assault rifle ordered Dalrymple to hand the screaming boy over to an INS agent.

That agent then rushed Elian from the house and into a waiting van. The agent later told her supervisors that the boy was clearly scared. While she rubbed his back to keep him calm, the agent felt just as frightened--particularly with all of the commotion outside, Justice Department sources said.

About 30 Cuban exiles were keeping vigil outside the house when about 20 agents and a series of white vans rolled up in front. Along with family members rushing outside the house were two of their lawyers.

"It was one of the most disgraceful moments for our system and our government that I can recall," said Kendall Coffey, one of the two family lawyers and a former U.S. attorney in Miami.

Coffey said he was in the house holding on the phone with Aaron Podhurst, one of the Miami intermediaries, when the agents burst in.

"It is an hour of shame for the Clinton administration, shame for the Department of Justice, shame for the INS," Coffey said.

The van carrying Elian backed down the street and away from the commotion. He then was taken by helicopter from Watson Island, near downtown Miami, to Homestead Air Reserve Base, where he was transferred to a U.S. marshal's jet and spirited away toward the Washington area--and his father.

Before taking off, a Spanish-speaking physician examined the boy. In the air, a Spanish-speaking psychiatrist visited with Elian.

Officials Work to Calm Boy on Flight

Federal sources said Elian was told where he was going, provided a toy plane and a map so he could follow the jet's route. He also was given a "play pack" containing Play-Doh, which authorities wanted him to squeeze to ease the stress.

The officials on board the eight-seat jet sought to calm the child, according to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. She said they told him: "This may seem very scary right now, but it will soon be better. . . . You will not be going back to Cuba. You will not be on a boat. You are around people who care for you. We are going to take care of you. Please don't be frightened."

INS agent Betty Mills, who removed Elian from the house, had been carefully coached by psychologists. Mills, 33, an eight-year veteran of the service, explained to Elian what was happening every step of the way.

"All this noise will go over soon," she said to the boy. "We're here to take you to your papa."

When the plane took off, Elian began to cry. It was his first plane ride. But when Mills began talking to him again, he calmed down. She opened the shade to show Elian how pretty the sky looked when the sun was coming up.

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