Donato's Closet

Donato Dalrymple calls Elian Gonzalez his spiritual son. The Lauderhill man plans to play an ongoing role in the six year-old's life, even if the boy is returned to Cuba. After all, Dalrymple says, God selected him as a savior.

"God led me to him. God helped me take him out of the water, and it was God that chose me to fight Fidel Castro for this little boy," Dalrymple said recently, upon returning to his home after six days in Washington, D.C. "God has a plan for me and I love the kid. I know he has a father, but that doesn't mean that he can't have somebody else. There is a bond between me and Elian that I think Juan Miguel will understand."

Dalrymple regularly refers to himself as Elian's savior, rarely his rescuer. Heroic is another word he uses when describing how he plucked the boy from the sea on Thanksgiving morning and attempted to protect him from heavily armed federal agents the morning before Easter.

"It's the photograph of the century," he proudly boasts of the famed Associated Press picture of the INS agent threatening Dalrymple and Elian with an assault rifle. After the raid Dalrymple performed in the media circus, beginning with a tearful scolding of the nation on live TV: "America, what did you do to this boy?"

Dalrymple's activities have been well documented in the national media. (Most recently he starred in cover stories in both Time and Newsweek.) El Pescador (the fisherman, as he is often called in the Spanish-language press) has now become a minor figure in American history, the answer to a future trivia question. But even his family wonders why he wedged himself so deeply into the Elian saga. His cousin and fellow rescuer, Sam Ciancio, has disowned Dalrymple for shamelessly promoting himself. Dalrymple's mother Jennie, who lives in Tamarac, says she felt Elian needed to be returned to his father and is convinced her son jumped headlong into the fray for the "attention." Dalrymple's brother Lindford "Lindy" Dalrymple, Jr. notes, without malice, that Donato, whom the family calls Dee Dee, has always been self-serving.

In fact Dalrymple has long avoided children for the most part. His own domestic life has not exactly been a model of stability: three failed marriages to women who were little more than strangers. He says he feels lucky that he's "escaped" having children, as his life provides no place for them.

There was, however, another famous boy in Dalrymple's life: his nephew David Waller. Rather than embrace David, Dalrymple mostly ignored him. David's life was marked by abuse and ended violently. David's story, which is contained on microfilm at the Broward County clerk of courts' archives, reveals a little-known side of Dalrymple and his family.

Even when David Waller was born on August 13, 1977, it was a shameful occasion for the Dalrymples, not far removed from incest. David's father was Lindy, Donato's brother. The newborn's mother was Lindy's first cousin, sixteen-year-old Patricia Waller. The baby was conceived, Lindy says, during a family party celebrating his induction into the military.

It was natural that both Lindy and Donato would become soldiers. Their father, Lindford Dalrymple, Sr., was an army sergeant. Both brothers made a go of it and both bowed out before completing their service. Their father was a strict disciplinarian, but how strict is a matter of contention. One relative, in a court deposition, said there was talk in the extended family of how "physical" both Lindford and Jennie were with their children. Lindy Jr., who is two years older than Donato, contends he was lashed with a leather belt.

"My father would speak, and we would listen -- there was no other way," Donato says. "And that's what kids are missing today. When parents speak, the kids don't listen."

Perhaps that strong sense of parental discipline was carried from generation to generation. When Lindy and Patricia Waller took custody of David from his maternal grandmother in 1981, family members and friends began noticing that David's buttocks and legs were often covered with dark bruises. Lindy admitted to whipping the child with a Tupperware spoon. Spoon beatings apparently were common in the Dalrymple family: Two of Lindy's sisters, Ruth Veach and Connie Dalrymple, later testified that they also used spoons on their children.

Lindy, who was then 23 years old, also administered "hard slaps to David for his refusal to smile," slammed drawers on the child's fingers, and punished him by forcing him to listen to extremely loud rock music on headphones, witnesses told prosecutors.

On his last day alive, August 8, 1981, David's arms and legs were black and blue, there was a grotesque knot behind his ear, and his stomach was enlarged on one side as a result of internal injuries that prosecutors alleged were caused by Lindy. David was vomiting his food, which witness Josephine LaFramboise said infuriated Lindy. "Lindy got mad and went in the bedroom and ... picked up David by one arm and carried him upstairs, and I could hear him beating on the boy upstairs," LaFramboise said. "David never cried ... all he was saying was 'mommy.'"