Posted on Fri, Apr. 22, 2005


Elián saga altered lives

Today marks the five-year anniversary of the federal raid that eventually led to Elián González's return to Cuba.

Five years ago today, more than 150 federal agents stormed a modest Little Havana home, emerging from a cloud of tear gas with a 6-year-old boy.

Today, Elián González is 11 years old, living in Cuba with his father and dreaming of a life as a gymnast.

But the saga of Elián still lives with those who for 149 days fought to keep him in Miami.

The photogenic Elián, dubbed ''a miracle child,'' became another symbol of the 45-year-war between Cuban President Fidel Castro and the Miami exile community.

His sojourn in the United States sharply split not only Miami but the nation as a battle waged in the streets and in courtrooms to decide whether the boy should be returned to Cuba to be with his father, or remain in Miami, the dream of his mother who died at sea trying to come here.

It began on Thanksgiving Day 1999, when the boy was found floating off Fort Lauderdale in an inner tube. It ended with the predawn raid called Operation Reunion the Saturday before Easter 2000. Within hours, a smiling Elián was in the arms of his father, Juan Miguel.

Today, the people who took Elián into their hearts and their home -- and those who reunited him with his father -- have moved on. But they still remember.


Elián's second cousin

Marisleysis González, who emotionally championed keeping Elián in Miami, doesn't like to talk about the times when she was on television with the boy as his attractive and most-outspoken supporter at only 21.

But she does say that she never saw or spoke to Elián again after the raid, which she has said at first emotionally destroyed her.

González, now 26, has found success with Marisleysis Hair Design beauty salon in Westchester, which she opened in 2002 at 7383 SW Eighth St.

Two years ago, she wed Richard Moreno, then 19, according to Miami-Dade County records. Some who know her say the marriage is over, but records do not reveal a divorce.

Asked about her marriage, González begged off: ``I'm working, I have to hang up now.''


Fisherman who found Elián

To this day, Donato Dalrymple says strangers recognize him and ask: ''Whatever happened to that kid?'' He knows they mean Elián.

Dalrymple and his cousin, Sam Ciancio, where among the drama's first players.

They had gone fishing on Thanksgiving Day 1999 and found Elián near death, drifting on an inner tube off Fort Lauderdale.

The boy's mother was among 11 people who had perished at sea trying to reach South Florida.

Dalrymple remained close to the boy and as the custody battle heated up, Dalrymple forcefully advocated keeping Elián here.

He was at the Little Havana home the night of the raid. He and Elián were frozen in history in a famous photo of the raid taken by photographer Alan Diaz.

The shot shows Dalrymple holding a terrified Elián in his arms as a federal agent with a gas mask points a gun at the two.

''It's a historical picture,'' Dalrymple said. But he doesn't own a copy. 'It's not like I look at it and say: `Hey, that's me!' That was a very hard time in my life.''

''That 150 armed agents had to storm into a home to take away a 6-year-old boy was wrong,'' he said. ``There was an easier way to do this.''

Dalrymple, 45, of Fort Lauderdale, still runs a janitorial service company. He said he has since divorced and lost his mother in a car accident. He and his cousin, Ciancio, who felt the boy should be returned to his father, had a falling-out and are not speaking.

He still visits the Gonzálezes in Miami-Dade. Otherwise, he said, ``I've moved on.''


Family spokesman

Publicist extraordinaire Armando Gutierrez became a fixture as the González family spokesman.

The Elián case, which overwhelmed his life for seven months, is a bittersweet memory.

''This was a sad part of the history of the U.S. -- thanks to Janet Reno,'' he said, referring to the then-attorney general who ordered the April 22 raid.

Today, Gutierrez is trying his hand in radio. He's co-owner of a Latin music station in Bartow, but still lives in Miami and does political consulting.

''My life hasn't changed much; I'm still in politics. I'm still married. I live in the same house,'' he said.

Gutierrez doesn't see the González family much anymore. ''They keep a low profile,'' he said.

Gutierrez said he wrote a book about his Elián experience, fittingly called The Family Spokesman. He hasn't been able to publish it, but says he'll do it himself when he retires from political work.


Federal official who led raid on the house, retired

James Goldman proudly calls the rescue of Elián the fastest execution of a federal warrant in history.

Goldman, then director of investigations for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, led 150 federal agents in the raid. He was the first man at the door, he said.

It took under two minutes to knock down the barricaded front door of the González home, find Elián in a bedroom with Dalrymple and whisk him out to a waiting white van.

Goldman, 49, of Weston, now working as a vice president for LexisNexis, said the 5 a.m. raid kept being delayed due to negotiations, even as the posse of agents drove to the house. ''We had what I called a flickering green light'' from Washington, he said.

Inside the van to Watson Island for a helicopter ride to Homestead Air Base and then a Learjet flight to be reunited with his father, Elián at first was ''semi-hysterical.'' But he soon quieted down and enjoyed his ride on the chopper ''like any 6-year-old,'' Goldman said.

Goldman said things could have been handled more smoothly. ``We had golden opportunities before that night to take the boy and didn't, and negotiations should not have gone on as long as they did.''


Photographer who shot famous raid picture

There was a constant throng of photographers and reporters at the González home, but when the raid went down, there was only one person taking photographs: Alan Diaz.

The ponytailed photographer was working as a freelancer and felt uneasy that Easter weekend. He knew the mood at the house, where he had camped out since Nov. 30, 1999.

''I just had a hunch it was going to happen and it was such a strong hunch I didn't sleep that night. So when they came in, I was ready to shoot,'' Diaz said.

When the agents arrived and the tear gas began flying, Diaz, Dalrymple and Elián ran to a bedroom and locked the door. ''The minute the first agent broke in, my strobe light hit him in the face,'' Diaz said.

Goldman, the federal agent in charge of the operation, said one of ''the luckiest events of the night'' was that Diaz wasn't fired upon by the agents.

Diaz, 57, of Miami Springs, agrees. ``Absolutely, I could have been killed.''

But Diaz didn't stop shooting, and he captured a photo that won him a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 2001. He landed a job as a staff photographer for The Associated Press. Today, he shoots the Miami Heat and the Florida Marlins.

Diaz said the experience changed him -- and not because he won awards. ``I can't tell you exactly how, but it did. Before that day, I was someone else. Maybe it's the day I matured, I don't know.''


Elián's great-uncles

Like his daughter Marisleysis, Lazáro González, 54, the boy's great-uncle, disappeared from the limelight after the raid.

Today, he works as a bus mechanic for Miami-Dade County and lives with his wife Angela in West Miami.

Of all the local relatives, Delfín González, 68, has worked the hardest to keep the boy's memory alive.

He purchased the home where Elián lived at 2319 NW Second St. for $80,000 and turned it into a museum and shrine full of memorabilia.


Former U.S. Attorney General

For months, Janet Reno tried to persuade the González family to return the boy to his father. In the effort, the boy's Cuban grandmothers, then his father, then the family went to Washington, D.C.

The Gonzálezes, who had a team of top-notch attorneys, would not budge.

Reno negotiated with the family until minutes before the raid. She finally ordered the raid, which made her a hero to many and a traitor to many.

In 2002, Reno ran for Florida governor and lost in the primary in an election plagued by technical problems. Reno, who has Parkinson's disease, lectures and lives quietly in Kendall.

Herald staff writer Charles Rabin and researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.