In "A Father's Love," David Goldman shares his five-year battle to bring his son, Sean, back to the United States after Sean was abducted by his mother, Bruna, who wanted to raise Sean in her native Brazil. Goldman describes the emotions he went through and how he got support from both high-level U.S. government officials and national media organizations. Here, Goldman writes about the first few days of what was supposed to be a two-week trip for Bruna and Sean. Read an excerpt:
Chapter 1: The phone call
A TWO-WEEK TRIP — that’s all it was supposed to be. Two weeks. I didn’t relish the idea of being apart from my wife, Bruna, and our four-year-old son, Sean, not even for two weeks, but it was unavoidable. I had to work. I can handle it, I kept reminding myself. After all, I had clients scheduled aboard my charter fishing boat during the first week my wife and son would be gone. After that, I planned to join Bruna and Sean for the latter part of their vacation in Brazil, my wife’s birthplace. In a few days, we’d be back together as a family again.
I loaded the suitcases — there were more than the usual number of them — into my Jeep Cherokee SUV, along with Bruna’s parents’ luggage. Although citizens of Brazil, my in-laws. Raimundo and Silvana Ribeiro, owned a condominium in New Jersey, and visited often, sometimes for a month or two at a time. The night before, we had attended a local carnival sponsored by St. Leo’s Church, and Bruna’s parents had been at our home the day of the trip, after going out to lunch with my parents. Everyone got along as usual, two happy families united as one, with no tension among any of us and never a cross word between us. Now Sean’s maternal grandfather, Raimundo — or Ray, as he was known in the United States — and his grandmother, Silvana, were returning to Brazil with Bruna and Sean.
It wasn’t the first time during our four-year marriage that Bruna had visited her homeland. She and I had traveled to Brazil before Sean was born. Bruna took great pleasure in spending time with her friends in her old stomping grounds. I enjoyed surfing off the beautiful beaches of Barra, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. We both savored Brazil’s barbecues and delicious mangoes. Bruna took Sean to visit our extended family a few months after his birth, and had made the trip by herself for her grandmother’s funeral a few years earlier. More recently, in March 2004, she and a friend and fellow teacher at the school where Bruna taught went to Brazil during the school’s spring break. So it didn’t strike me as unusual for us to plan a trip during the summer, after Bruna completed her teaching responsibilities for the 2004 spring semester. We usually traveled as a family to Brazil twice a year, once during Bruna’s winter break and once during the summer. Just as any couple whose family members live in different locations, we made special efforts to enjoy time together with all of our relatives, especially after Sean was born. Although Rio was a dangerous place, as Bruna and her parents often reminded me, it was still her hometown in her native land and it was beautiful. We wanted Sean to be familiar with both cultures, and to know that he was part of something much bigger than himself.
On Wednesday, June 16, 2004, I drove the family to Newark’s Liberty International Airport to begin their vacation. Under Brazilian law, when any one parent travels alone with a child to Brazil, the other parent or guardian is required to sign a letter of authorization. So before the trip, as part of normal procedures, I signed the release authorizing Bruna to take Sean out of the country for a limited period of time.
Since I was going to see the two of them in a week or so, I didn’t think much of it at the time. Besides, I was busy planning Bruna’s thirtieth birthday party. As a surprise present for her, I hoped to have our kitchen redone while she was out of the country. I was also working on an itinerary for another family trip to Turnberry Isle in Florida — one that would include Bruna’s mom and dad — to celebrate her birthday in mid-August after we had all returned from Brazil. Ordinarily when we vacationed together, I made the arrangements. Having traveled as much as I had over the years, I found it easy to book all the family members’ flights and hotels, and handle all the other details myself. But this time, Bruna’s mom kept protesting, saying, “Oh, we can take care of that from Brazil.” This struck me as odd, but I thought, Okay, fine. We’ll make the arrangements from Brazil.
At the airport, after I got Sean comfortably situated from his stroller, I helped carry Bruna’s, Sean’s, and my in-laws’ suitcases into the busy Newark terminal. I assisted in getting all the suitcases checked in, then walked Bruna and Sean to the security area in front of the Jetway leading to their flight. With passengers bustling all around us, I kissed Bruna and Sean good-bye and embraced Bruna’s parents.
I watched as my family went through the initial identification checkpoint and started down the hallway toward their flight. Then, as we always did when one of us was traveling, Bruna and Sean stopped and turned toward me, and we used sign language for our final good-bye. I pointed to my eye, my heart, and then to Bruna and Sean, and mouthed the words “I love you.” Bruna and Sean pointed to their eyes, their hearts, and then back at me: “I love you.” Bruna turned and followed her parents down the Jetway, toward the security metal detector, pushing Sean in the stroller as she went. I watched them until I could no longer see them, and waited a few minutes longer in case they had forgotten anything or there was a last-minute flight cancellation. Then I returned to our vehicle and headed back to our home in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. It was going to be long, lonely night.
In many ways, ours had been a storybook romance. I met Bruna Bianchi Ribeiro in 1997 in Milan, Italy, where I was working as a fashion model and she was studying fashion. We moved back to New Jersey, where we were married in 1999, and in May 2000, Bruna gave birth to Sean. We had a beautiful marriage, an ideal little family; it was perfect in every way, and we were head over heels in love.
At least so I thought.
The day after their flight, Bruna called from Brazil to let me know that she and the family and arrived safely. “Sean is so excited,” she gushed. “He’s eating mangoes and he just loves it here.”
Bruna’s unusual emphasis on how happy Sean was to be back in Brazil seemed a bit over the top, but I was glad my wife and son were safe and sound and already enjoying their vacation. We talked briefly, then said our “I love you’s” and our good-byes.
On Sunday, June 20, Bruna called again. I could tell immediately from the tone of her voice that something was wrong, but I would not have guessed what she was about to say. “You’re a great guy, David, and a wonderful father to Sean. I have no regrets about our relationship and having Sean together.”
I didn’t even have time to wonder where Bruna was going with this line of thought, as she continued without a pause, almost as though following a script.
“Our love affair is over. I’ve decided to stay in Brazil,” she said. “I’m keeping Sean here with me.”
Whooom! It was as though the earth had suddenly dropped out from under me, and I was hanging in midair. “What? What! What are you talking about, Bruna?” I could not believe what I was hearing. Our love affair? What about our marriage? The tone of voice with which she said those words to me was one I had never before heard from her. She sounded cold, calculating, and unemotional — not at all like the upbeat, vivacious, passionate woman to whom I was married.
I remember thinking, What is this? Where is this coming from? The person I loved, and envisioned loving for the rest of my life, until death do us part, had suddenly become as cold as ice.
It got worse. Bruna had a list of demands. “You need to come here immediately,” she said. I want you to sign over the full rights of Sean to me. If you ever want to see Sean again, you need to fly to Rio de Janeiro immediately. I have a document my lawyer has drawn up, and you need to sign it.”
Lawyer? What lawyer? And how could she have secured such a document? She had been gone only a few days! It never occurred to me that this might have been a meticulously devised plan by Bruna and her parents in collusion with a Brazilian attorney.
According to Bruna, the document she wanted me to sign was ten pages in length and spelled out several demands, including that Sean remain with Bruna and her family in Brazil, and that I surrender my legal role as Sean’s parent, in addition to giving full custody to Bruna. “And you need to agree never to press any criminal charges. Never to go to the police in the U.S. to file kidnapping charges, never file any custody papers in the U.S. courts, never file for separation or divorce in the United States, and you must do nothing that will interfere with my plans to obtain U.S. citizenship.”
My brain was reeling, my body convulsing; I felt nauseated. Bruna, what is going on here? I was shocked and devastated at the same time.
“David, if you do any of those things and go against what I want — if you hire a lawyer — you will never see your son again, and you will spend all your money trying.”
“Bruna, what is happening?”
Bruna was done and she wanted to get off the phone. “You must come here, David,” she demanded.
“I can’t believe this…”
“You need to come here now. Bye.” Click. The phone line went dead.
I hung up the phone. My knees gave out, and I slumped to the floor, my face in my hands, my head still spinning, my heart pounding. I thought it might explode into a thousand pieces. My mind refused to fathom what I had just heard, yet there had been no equivocation in Bruna’s words. She had made herself quite clear. Our marriage was over, and she planned to keep our four-year-old son, Sean, in Brazil.
Our son, my buddy, my baby boy, Sean. I loved that little guy more than my own life. This couldn’t be happening. I was crushed and confused, distraught and disoriented, by this ghastly turn of events. I had never felt so alone in all my life.
I called my parents. My mom answered the phone. “Mom…” I struggled to get sound out of my mouth.
“Oh, hi, David,” she answered cheerfully. “Happy Father’s Day.”
Happy Father’s Day? My wife has just run off with my son. It was not a happy Father’s Day at all. It was the start of six years in a father’s hell.
From "A Father's Love: One Man’s Unrelenting Battle to Bring His Abducted Son Home" by David Goldman. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Viking, part of the Penguin Group.