Storming the House
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."
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.
"I said to him, 'Keep a better watch on the car'," Yera stated in a deposition.
Then things got hot. Catalino claimed Yera pulled his jacket over his head, grabbed a knife from his belt, and waved it in his face.
Yera told a different story to prosecutors. "[Catalino] said, 'I bet I will kill you' and I said, 'Kill me if you want.' He went pow, and shot me in the chest."
Wounded, Yera staggered out of the parking lot, bleeding his way down West Flagler Street. Catalino followed, fired again, and struck him in the back, piercing his lung. Yera collapsed one block later on a patch of grass. Catalino stood over him and fired twice into the ground. Yera claimed the last shot grazed his trachea, doing irreparable damage to his vocal chords. Catalino's public defender, Leonard Succar, argued the shots were meant to summon help.
Yera's medical bills exceeded $180,000. (A subsequent civil suit would bankrupt Catalino's employer).
On November 2, 1994, a jury took just an hour and nine minutes to convict Catalino of attempted murder. Two months later he was sentenced to twelve to seventeen years in prison.
Leopolda sent him money every month for cigarettes and soap. But what he wanted more than anything was paper. He wrote night and day about the case, seething about his imprisonment.
Using colored markers, he drew complicated diagrams of the crime, depicting himself in bright yellow highlighter as "victim." Menacing silhouettes were labeled "aggressor." The words "police abuse" are scrawled in bold on four drawings that are contained in his court file.
When Catalino wasn't sketching, he worked in the prison commissary and fought. In 1996, prison records show, he lost seven months of gain time for assault and fighting. However, he did manage to convince Judge Barbara Levenson that he'd been wrongly sentenced in the first place, reducing his stint to seven to twelve years.
In a 1997 letter he drafted to Levenson, he depicted himself as a "uniformed representative of the law, a Lieutenant Supervisor of Security," who had been persecuted for "serving a nocturnal potential assassin who was drunk and under the influence of drugs."
"Why do I suffer for the bad work of others?" he asked. "It is not my right and responsibility as a permanent resident of the U.S.A."
Catalino accused everyone from the Miami police sergeant who had testified that he behaved like a "perfect gentleman," to the witness who corroborated the knife story of being incompetent liars.
He begged Leopolda to find him another lawyer. "No one would take the case," she says, shaking her head. "They all told me he could have gotten off, if only he hadn't shot [Yera] in the back." He mailed her loving cards, decorated with bright coloring book cut-outs of cartoon characters. They contained poetic odes to their grandchildren, arranged so that the first line of each stanza spelled out their names.
After four years of separation Leopolda wrote him a letter asking for a divorce. He agreed, and the state soon formalized the decision. In 2001 he was released, got a construction job, and continued his legal crusade. He met a nursing home employee named Maria Castillo, and the pair moved into a little brown warren of apartments on SW Seventh Street near Sixteenth Avenue. He worked all day and was no trouble to anyone.
He occasionally pounded on the door of Leopolda's apartment. She never answered, happy to live free of his fits. "He is a good man," the 73-year-old woman sighs, gazing at an album of their Havana wedding photos. Catalino stands smartly in a white linen shirt, glowing happily, among friends and family. "He was a good father, a good husband."
Her daughter Niurka agreed, her eyes tearing up. "Please help him," she asked softly. The last time she saw her stepfather, he was shopping in a Tropical supermarket on Calle Ocho. He asked about the family and told her he would use his upcoming vacation time to travel to New York to speak with a great lawyer.
She was shocked to see him on television last Friday, handcuffed in the nation's capital. Nothing in the Secret Service complaint (the State's only evidence so far) mentions anything about a bomb, as the Irish Times alleged. "The defendant has made no statement," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela George. "He didn't really say anything while it was all going on, either."
Nevertheless on Monday Catalino was charged with "threatening with a bomb." "That's a serious, serious charge," says Shawn Moore, his public defender, who adds his client could face ten years in federal prison, if not more.
The government denied bond. Following a psychiatric evaluation, he has been deemed mentally fit to stand trial.
No one has ventured a guess about what Catalino planned to do once he reached the White House. Chances are he just wanted to tell the President about his case.
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