The Drowned and the Saved

An anti-abortion crusader faces manslaughter charges for the accidental death of a child

Donald David Diener believes he is a messenger of God. The 67-year-old former Los Angelino is here to unite his Christian brothers and sisters across the world for the Second Coming of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. "I was called to wake up the Christian community," Diener explained in a soft, unobtrusive baritone while sipping coffee in the living room of his Hollywood home in early February.

A tall, lean man with broad shoulders, thinning sandy blond-white hair and the weathered face of a charter boat captain, Diener even dressed with a nautical look: white khakis, navy polo shirt, sockless Top-Siders. He was leaning back in a worn wicker rocker, his twelve-week-old son, Daniel, sleeping peacefully in the nook of his right arm. Another son, two-year-old David, toddled into the room toward his father and hauled himself up one of Diener's legs. The boy peered up, eager for attention, and Diener reached down with a free hand and wrapped it around the boy's waist. He gently kissed the top of David's head. "Sometimes he gets a little jealous when he sees me rocking his brother to sleep," he said, smiling.

Setting his cup atop the circular wooden table to his left, Diener began his story: raised Baptist but became a born-again Christian at a "very, very young age." Married at 18, divorced at 47. Two children now grown: a daughter who lives in Los Angeles and a son who recently died of cancer. After divorcing his first wife, Diener led a nomadic life selling fine art and laying the groundwork for his role in the Second Coming.

Part of his mission, Diener said, is to mobilize Christians against abortion and other affronts by man against God. "I'm raising awareness to what is really going on," he explained, narrowing his eyes to emphasize the point. "Too many people are afraid to equate abortion to murder. I'm not." Diener's plan was to set up a foundation that would unite Christians around the world and raise donations. The money would then be used to film a documentary and to finance a nationwide billboard campaign against abortion. Diener said the billboards would consist of photographs of living, breathing babies with a tag line: "I choose life, do you?" However, Diener said, his strategy does not include picketing abortion clinics. "That just turns people off," he said. "I'm interested in reaching people intellectually, spiritually."

In 1997 he traveled from Los Angeles to Miami, where he bought a 55-foot shrimp trawler that had been converted into a luxury yacht called the Alchemist. For two years the boat served as Diener's seafaring gallery, where he would promote and sell artwork up and down the southeast coast. He was on his way back to California in the summer of 1999 when he met Brigitte Bustamante, a 34-year-old Colombian. Married for four years, they have two little boys. Bustamante has a seven-year-old daughter, Melanie, from a previous marriage.

In 2002, Diener created a nonprofit foundation, Unite for Christ. A year later, the state gave the foundation permission to raise private donations from individuals. To spread his evangelical message of Christian unity, Diener markets the "Flag of Christ," a purple-and-gold standard that, he states, is the symbol that all Christians, whether Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, can hold high on the Judgment Day so that Jesus Christ can identify them as true believers.

These days, however, Diener doesn't have much time to work on his flag crusade. He has not been able to raise any funds on behalf of Unite for Christ and he no longer sells fine art. Thus, he has no time or money to work on his anti-abortion billboard blitz. Today, Diener earns a living with a part-time evening telemarketing job and receives financial help from his and his wife's family.

And he's seeking salvation of another sort: from the state criminal justice system as he awaits trial on one felony count of child neglect and one count of aggravated manslaughter in the January 23, 2003, death of Rainey Hillman, Bustamante's then-four-year-old daughter from her first marriage. The preschooler drowned when she fell into the bay at Haulover Park Marina in North Miami-Dade, in between Bal Harbour and Sunny Isles Beach.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office charged Diener with the crimes after concluding that he had placed the deceased little girl in great danger by leaving her "unattended to and/or unsupervised while [she] played at or about a nearby dock area next to water deep enough to drown in," according to the February 12, 2003, arrest warrant.

"In cases such as this one, we're dealing with issues of adult accountability and responsibility for the children they care for," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, in a recent phone interview. "All child-neglect cases have a pattern where the adult abandons his or her responsibility to a child. This one is no different."

But Diener has rejected any responsibility in Rainey's death, even though prosecutors have offered him a plea deal that would require no jail time. He would, of course, have to admit guilt. But admitting or showing guilt and remorse for what happened to his stepdaughter would inflict serious damage to the messenger's divine mission. "How can I go before Congress or church groups and ask them for help, knowing that I admitted to killing my own child?" he reasoned. "I can't do that. I can't lie."

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