Fifteen Minutes of Infamy

The fisherman who rescued Elián, Donato Dalrymple, comes from a family with a violent history. And that's not the half of it.

Donato Dalrymple calls Elián Gonzalez his "spiritual son," and he plans to play an ongoing role in the boy's life even if Elián is returned to Cuba. Dalrymple says he's entitled to it: He was, after all, chosen by God to be Elián's savior, to find the boy drifting at sea and bring him ashore.

"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 says upon returning to his Lauderhill home after six days spent fueling the fire 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 couldn't have somebody else. There is a bond between me and Elián that I think Juan Miguel will understand."

Dalrymple always refers to himself as Elián's "savior," never as his rescuer. Heroic is another word that he isn't shy about using when describing his actions, both when he plucked Elián from the sea on Thanksgiving morning and later, on the morning before Easter, when heavily armed federal agents finally plucked Elián from Dalrymple's arms.

Donato Dalrymple calls Elián his spiritual son but admits that his own home life is way too unstable for children
Bill Cooke
Donato Dalrymple calls Elián his spiritual son but admits that his own home life is way too unstable for children

"It's the photograph of the century," he proudly boasts of the famed picture of Elián and him in the closet as a combat-clad INS agent points an assault rifle at his chest. After the raid Dalrymple eagerly performed in the ensuing media circus, beginning with his tearful, overwrought scolding of the nation on live TV: "America, what did you doto this boy?"

Dalrymple's doings have been well-documented in the national media. (Most recently Dalrymple starred in cover stories in both Time and Newsweek.) Dalrymple has now become a minor figure in American history, the answer to a future trivia question, and certainly Broward's most famous resident of the moment. But even his family is wondering why he wedged himself so deeply in the Elián saga. His cousin and fellow rescuer, Sam Ciancio, has disowned Dalrymple for shamelessly promoting himself to the media. Dalrymple's own mother, who lives in Tamarac, says she felt Elián needed to be returned to his father and is convinced that her son jumped headlong into the fray for the "attention." Dalrymple's brother notes, without malice, that Donato, whom the family calls "Dee Dee," has always been "selfserving."

But what is most stunning about Dalrymple's new fame is that, before Elián, he went out of his way to avoid children for the most part. His own domestic life is marked by abuse and three failed marriages to women who were little more than strangers to him. He says he feels lucky that he's "escaped" having children, as his unruly 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 ignored him, both in life and in death. But, then again, there was no gain to be had by making David his cause célèbre. Unlike Elián's survival story, David's life was marked by abuse and homicide. David's story, which is contained on microfilm at the Broward County Clerk of Courts archives, reveals a dark side of Donato Dalrymple and his family.

Even the healthy baby boy's birth, on August 13, 1977, was a shameful occasion for the Dalrymples. David's father was Lindford "Lindy" Dalrymple, Jr., Donato's brother, and David's mother was Lindy's paternal first cousin, 16-year-old Patricia Waller. The baby was conceived, Lindy says, during a family party celebrating Lindy's induction into the military.

It was natural that both Lindy and Donato would enter the military. Their father, Lindford Dalrymple, Sr., was an Army sergeant. Both brothers made a go at military life, and both bowed out before completing their service. Their father was a strict disciplinarian, but just 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 the father and mother, an Italian-American woman named Jennie, were with their children. Lindy Jr., who is two years older than Donato, tells New Times 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."

David apparently didn't listen to Lindy enough. 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 David's fingers, and punished David by forcing him to listen to extremely loud rock music on headphones, witnesses later told prosecutors.

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