The Last Moments of the Sean Goldman Case

Revista Piauí

The Last Moments of the Sean Goldman Case
Piauí Magazine, Brazil
February 2010

Dorrit Harazim reports on the negotiations and pressure up to the moment the boy was put on an airplane back to the United States with his father


Who the 28-year-old lawyer is who won the most famous family rights case of recent years – the Sean Goldman case – and how he survived the marathon the led up to the boy’s return to the United States

On Monday December 21, 2009, Ricardo Zamariola, Jr. woke up at seven in the morning in the rented apartment he had moved to two years previously. While in Brazil, in the United States and wherever else in the world, the pace of work relaxed as Christmas drew closer, the lawyer was beginning the most crucial week of his short career: the one that would decide the destiny of the nine-year-old boy Sean Goldman who had for five years, six months, and five days been separated from his father, American David Goldman.

Zamariola took his wheeled case that he had packed the night before – a notable improvement on the one with the handle he had dragged around up to then, but still not on a par with those that glide on four wheels, used by lawyers living on airplanes between São Paulo and Brasilia – and headed off for the office. He had agreed on the strategy with his partners. Paulo Roberto Andrade had been chosen to hold the fort in Brasilia, where Gilmar Mendes, the president of the Supreme Court (STF), would announce the decision. Zamariola and Marcos Ortiz boarded for Rio. Ortiz took nothing because he planned to be back in São Paulo that night.

At two in the afternoon Paulo Roberto Andrade sat himself down in the anteroom off the office of the president of the STF. With the Court in recess, the building was practically empty. In the anteroom were just two other lawyers, hired by the Lins e Silva family to make sure the boy Sean Goldman remained in Brazil.

At the Hotel Marriott Copacabana on Avenida Atlântica, room 815 was an anomaly. Despite its stunning views of the brilliant blue, sun-filled sky and the tropical beach, the room had the air of a bunker. Heavy curtains darkened the atmosphere and the air varied between chilly and stuffy because of a defect in the thermostat. The room had been booked days before under the false name “Richard Spain,” to keep reporters away, for David Goldman. As the booking had been made by an intermediary from the US Embassy, the daily rate had dropped from US$550 to US$200.

In shorts and a T-shirt, David Goldman was stretched out on the bed. With the remote control in his hand, he surfed the channels without paying attention to any – except when, on CNN, the headline appeared – Developing Story – Brazil custody battle – repeating to death what was already known: that the ruling should be out at any time.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Orna Blum, the US Embassy press officer, had turned her BlackBerry into an information center. Throughout the weekend she had been getting text messages from the team working for Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, asking for updates on the case. Every now and then rumors of varying degrees of credibility came to her notice. The latest said that João Paulo Lins e Silva, Sean Goldman’s step-father, had been seen over the weekend in Itaipava, in the mountains around Rio.

Squatting on the floor, American Benita Noel was a bag of nerves. A senior producer at US network NBC, she was responsible for the daily coverage of the Sean Goldman case and for the special on the subject in which the network had invested several hundred thousand dollars. It was her fourth trip to Brazil with David Goldman, all made at the last minute with less and less time and larger and larger teams. This time she had left the Christmas tree decorating in the middle, but had promised her six-year-old daughter that she would be back in time to finish up. But it would depend, as would she, on Gilmar Mendes.

Stretched out on the little sofa in the room, Congressman Chris Smith had also left his kids behind to come to Rio for the third time. Co-sponsor for the preparation of the first American report on abductions in the light of the Hague Convention, the Republican Congressman was accompanying ten other cases at the same time. “But this is not just another case,” explained Smith, a heavy and affable man. “David has become a friend.” They are both from New Jersey. The day before, Sunday, while reporters staked out the front of the Marriott, the Congressman and David Goldman left by a side door and walked to a church in the Serzedelo Correia square, in Copacabana.

At a small desk facing the wall, Karen Gustafson de Andrade, the head of the US Consular Service in Rio, the most objective and silent in the room, had taken over David Goldman’s laptop. As she was the State Department representative in Brazil for questions involving the Hague Convention, Sean would be delivered into her care, according to the ruling handed down in June by the Federal Judge at the 16th Court.

It was this group that Ricardo Zamariola and Marcos Ortiz joined. They were the only ones able to explain to the Americans the procedural and legal nuances of the case. Throughout the day, cell phones created a crashing cacophony. The most confidential conversations, such as that between the Congressman and Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg, who called from Washington, were held in the small entrance hall or in the bathroom.

“I don’t think anything else is going to happen today,” said David Goldman, in the middle of the afternoon, who had swapped the remote control for a crossword puzzle magazine. He said it with a slight questioning intonation, but no one answered. The others were debating in English about how Sean would be sent back to the United States.

– If they don’t hand the child over to the Consulate, we’ll have to go to the house – said lawyer Ricardo Zamariola, referring to the boy’s stepfather and maternal grandparents.

– We want to do everything as fast as possible. Couldn’t we get him from the house and go straight to the airport, where David would be? – asked the press officer, Orna Blum.

– David needs to be there when he is handed over. Without the parties involved it is all more difficult – replied Zamariola.

Looking up from the computer, Karen de Andrade said she was online with someone from the diplomatic service who had told her that the Brazilian Federal Police planned to hand the boy over to his father.

Someone knocked on the door. It was room service, bringing club sandwiches, coconut water, juices, packs of peanuts and sodas.

– Do you think it’s taking so long because Gilmar wants to make a firm and solid decision? David Goldman asked Zamariola. The suitcase Goldman had brought from the United States was half-open, ready to be closed up. The lawyer’s bag was not even open.

– Maybe – replied Zamariola.

Just beforehand, his partner Paulo Roberto Andrade had called Marcos Ortiz from Brasília and told him that it was most likely that the ruling would be announced on that Monday.

– Right now, what percent chance have I got of having Sean with me tonight? – asked the father.

– Fifty percent – guessed Chris Smith, the Congressman.

– Hard to say – replied Zamariola.

There was another call on Marcos Ortiz’ cell phone, whose ringtone was recognized by everyone because it was the line kept free for calls from Paulo Roberto Andrade from Gilmar Mendes’ anteroom.

– It’s no one, it’s someone else – said Marcos Ortiz.

– It’s ten to six – sighed David Goldman to himself, believing that the looming end of the Court’s session would end his chances of having his son back that day.

Minutes later, more somberly, he said:

– It’s one minute to six.

Chris Smith’s cell phone rang. It was Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s anchor in Washington, telling him he would like to talk to David Goldman as soon as the ruling was out.

Congressman Chris Smith said he was concerned about the possibility of the US Congress vetoing a fiscal benefit worth US$ 3 billion to Brazil before the key moment. He had heard that the Democrat Party would withdraw the veto by December 30th, even if the boy remained in Brazil. “We will be seen as paper tigers if we pull back now,” said Smith. But as the decision to lift the veto was being kept secret, to all intents and purposes the pressure was still on: the Brazilian authorities believed that Brazil would lose US$3 billion if Gilmar Mendes decided to keep Sean Goldman in Brazil.

It was almost six-thirty when Paulo Roberto Andrade called from Brasilia and said that a previous case, back from when Sean’s mother was still alive, had been reopened by the Brazilian family’s lawyers at the Superior Tribunal of Justice.

– This has got to stop. Paulo! You need to try to put pressure on Gilmar! – Zamariola told him. For the first time the lawyer was showing signs of stress. Everyone was talking at the same time. David Goldman also showed signs of his nervousness: “This system is bankrupt, guys, don’t you agree?” he asked. No one replied.

Karen de Andrade, who remained at the desk on the laptop, announced that Larry King, the CNN interviewer, had just emailed David Goldman. “As the father of two children, my heart is with you,” said the message.

Sick of crossword puzzles, Goldman got up off the bed and went to the computer. There were 736 people online giving their opinions about the imminent decision; 46, 329 others had already expressed theirs. Ten minutes later there are 50, 800 people online.

To keep himself busy, David Goldman started tidying up the room. At eight at night Marcos Ortiz’ cell phone rang. It was Paulo Roberto Andrade, saying the decision had been left for the following day.

Ricardo Zamariola left the room to get some air. “What still makes me confident is that Gilmar Mendes could simply have said there was no rush,” he said, “and that he would wait for the end of the judicial recess. To do so, he would need to write no more than five lines. He wouldn’t need to take as many hours as he is.”

With the postponement Zamariola and Marcos Ortiz needed a room for the night. This booking was also made under a false name, “João Soares.” Before going to room 1001, Zamariola was irritated: “How can you explain what is going on? There is no explanation! Things are now going on out of my control. I’ve gotten to the point where I want it to be decided today, no matter the result. If he has to stay, he has to stay – period. I have lost. I did what I could.”

The NBC producer, Congressman Chris Smith, spokesperson Orna Blum and diplomat Karen de Andrade also departed; David Goldman was alone in room 815.

Continued Page 2

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