RIO DE JANEIRO – A 9-year-old boy at the center of a five-year custody battle on two continents was finally turned over to his American father Thursday in a scene as tumultuous as the legal fight itself, with the youngster forced to squeeze though a jostling crowd of reporters and photographers.
Soon afterward, a smiling Sean Goldman was back in his father's arms, talking about basketball and how much snow there was back in New Jersey. Then father and son boarded a private jet chartered by NBC and took off for the United States.
"It is now time for our new beginning, the rebirth of our family at such a special time of the year," the boy's father, David Goldman of Tinton Falls, N.J., wrote in a letter read to reporters after his departure.
The reunion ended an epic battle that pitted Sean's father against the boy's Brazilian stepfather, who had cared for Sean since his mother died last year. The dispute reached the highest levels of the U.S. and Brazilian governments and strained relations between the two countries.
"Today, the abduction has ended," said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who was with Sean's father in Brazil and supported him.
But the boy's maternal grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, said: "My heart is empty and broken because our love is missing. To take the boy on Christmas Day is a heinous crime."
The last act in the drama played out partly in public view. Wearing a gold Brazil Olympic T-shirt, a tearful Sean was walked a block to the American consulate, surrounded by his stepfather, other members of the family and their lawyer.
Once spotted by the more than 100 reporters and cameramen waiting for their arrival, the group had to drag, shove and push its way about 50 yards to the consulate's front door.
"I was disappointed to see him marched through the streets like that," Smith said.
Orna Blum, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said the Brazilian family was offered the same secure entrance to the consulate garage that Goldman used, which would have shielded the child from view, and that she had no idea why they decided to walk the boy a block through Rio's streets.
Smith, however, said the Brazilian family's lawyer told him it was their way of protesting the handover.
Once inside, the mop-haired boy calmed down after a few minutes, Smith said. Father and son were reunited in private and were soon eating hamburgers and talking, the congressman added.
"Once he was with his dad they were smiling, with their arms around one another," Smith said. "They looked just like best buddies."
Smith would not say where they were headed, only that they wanted to "cocoon" somewhere other than New Jersey for a while.
Goldman fought a long battle against one of Rio's best-known legal families to regain custody of his son.
Sean had lived in Brazil since Goldman's ex-wife, Bruna Bianchi, brought him to her native country for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation in 2004. She stayed, divorced Goldman and remarried, and Goldman began legal efforts to get Sean back.
After Bianchi died last year in childbirth, her husband, Paulo Lins e Silva, a prominent divorce attorney, continued the legal fight and won temporary custody.
On Tuesday, Brazil's chief justice finally cleared the way for Goldman to take his son home.
Goldman had said this week that if he won, he would allow the Brazilian family to visit Sean. But the Brazilian family's lawyer, Sergio Tostes, said no visitation agreement had been reached.
"It is inhumane that he left without a guarantee that his grandmother would be able to see him in the United States," Tostes said.
Now, Goldman said, is the time for Sean's American family to get to know him.
"Please know that my love and the rest of Sean's family's love for him knows no boundaries," he wrote in his letter. "We will go to the ends of the Earth to protect him and shower him with every ounce of love that we have."
When the boy's handover was blocked last week, the U.S. Senate put a hold on a trade deal worth about $2.75 billion a year to Brazil. President Barack Obama also discussed the matter with his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had also rallied behind Goldman, said she was thrilled that father and son had been reunited.