Storming the House

The real story behind that wacky run at George W.

Storming the House
Catalino and Leopolda in happier times
St. Paddy's day began well in the nation's capital. As noontime neared, Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern was preparing to present George W. Bush with a crystal bowl full of shamrocks in the White House press room as an international gesture of friendship, unity, and faith.

But the fuzzy, green love-in ground to a halt when a six-foot-tall, 66-year-old Miami Cuban ex-con named Catalino Lucas Diaz hurled a black cylinder onto the White House's northeast lawn. Secret Service agent Brandon L. Phillips advanced on the gangly intruder and began shouting commands. Rather than obey, Catalino hoisted himself high atop the towering iron fence and onto the grass.

"He is said to have told the security men that he had a bomb," the Irish Times reported in its Sunday edition, "but was bundled to the ground and arrested before he could detonate it."

Catalino's jailhouse artist's rendition of the plot to put him behind bars
Catalino's jailhouse artist's rendition of the plot to put him behind bars

The White House went on lockdown. For the next three hours reporters were not permitted to leave. Secret Service agents approached Catalino's suspicious gift with a high-powered hose. "The tube the defendant threw over the fence had wires, batteries, and a tape recorder taped to the outside," Phillips wrote in a report. After spraying the package — or "missile," as prosecutors would later call it — into oblivion, authorities discovered nothing but writing inside.

News spread quickly. Stories were published in dozens of papers throughout the nation and world. Local rags from North Dakota to Northern Scotland crowed about the wacky intruder. Even the Indo-Asian News Service ran a brief about the "Florida man" who had been arrested "on the grounds of the U.S. president's mansion." Facts were thin, as they usually are in such briefs.

But research reveals a truly Floridian saga. Where else could someone be armed, subsidized, and imprisoned by the same governing body?

Catalino Lucas Diaz, New Times has learned, was born in Havana on February 13, 1941. Tall and lanky from an early age, he often tussled with other schoolchildren who he suspected of laughing at his stature. He dropped out of an American mechanical school in tenth grade, according to family members, court documents, and prison records.

Soon afterward he enlisted in the Cuban army and fought for Gen. Fulgencio Batista. After Fidel Castro's 1959 victory, 19-year-old Catalino and a few friends hatched a scheme to sabotage a Communist-controlled government building. "I'm not sure," recalls his ex-wife, Leopolda. "But I think it had to do with placing a package near the office." Catalino and crew were caught before they could act. He spent the next 27 years of his life languishing in jail, fighting guards, and spending time, naked, in solitary confinement.

When Catalino was released in 1987, he moved in with his older brother, an architect named Isaac. For several months, he did odd jobs around Havana. One evening at a party, he met Leopolda, then a stout 55-year-old widow.

Something about the odd skinny man with the slender goatee appealed to her, she recalls. He had developed a feverish love for writing songs and poems in jail; his tireless work ethic seemed promising. Plus, he had a plan.

His failed plot qualified him as a political prisoner. He might be entitled to asylum in the United States. They married in August 1988 and made frequent trips to the U.S. embassy, filling out paperwork and giving interviews. At some point Isaac pulled Leopolda aside. "Catalino is different," he warned her. "He's had a problem since he was a child." Sometimes, he said, his brother went a little crazy.

But America beckoned. She had a chance to give her daughter, Niurka, and son, Omar, a new life. On March 15, 1989, the family of four boarded a plane to Miami, where the helpful exile community awaited. Catalino's sponsor hooked him up with a job at a security company. When he was laid off a few months later, he found a job with another. The pattern repeated.

He doted on his family. Every once in a while, however, he would lose his temper, hurling furniture and glasses around the family's apartment on SW Fifth Street for seemingly no reason. In 1991 a spat broke out between Catalino and a Haitian coworker. He was arrested and charged with armed robbery with a firearm and aggravated assault.

His family spent $5000 on a lawyer. After a few psychiatric consultations, the state dropped the charges. "This lawyer got him a paper that says, 'You're a little crazy'," Leopolda says now, twisting her finger around her ear. The court file has been destroyed but the docket notes a pair of consultations by a Coral Gables shrink named Anastasio Castiello. (Castiello did not return calls for comment.)

Despite the psychologist's finding, the State of Florida licensed Catalino as an armed security guard in 1992. He took a job with Skyhawk Security and carried a .38 caliber revolver. He often worked seven days a week.

On New Year's Eve 1993, Catalino was set to work the parking lot at the Palm Liquor Lounge on Flagler Street and NW Sixteenth Avenue. Before going out that night, Leopolda told him to be careful: Things might get crazy.

At around 2:00 a.m., a Spanish-born window installer and bar regular, Jesus "El Gallego" Yera, parked his Cadillac and wandered in for his seventh Heineken of the night. On the way out, he discovered the hood ornament had been ripped off his car, so he decided to give Diaz a piece of his mind.

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