Photos: Reunited: A father's five-year battle

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  1. Joking on the plane

    Five years after his battle to have his son back, David Goldman, right, plays with nine-year-old Sean on the Dec. 24, 2009 plane ride home from Brazil to New Jersey. Two hours before the end of the 9-hour flight, Sean woke up, and he was soon horsing around with his dad. After father and son held a bubble gum-blowing contest, Sean amused himself by turning the lights in the plane on and off, and even engaging in a food fight. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Two pairs of shoes seem to say it all: father and son, together again. David and Sean piled their shoes on top of each others just minutes after the plane was wheels up. The plane left at 11:53 a.m. Rio de Janeiro time, or 8:53 p.m. ET. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sean holds up a travel pillow he refers to as his "arm" aboard his flight to the U.S. He was last in the U.S. in June of 2004. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. During much of the flight, an exhausted Sean slept, as his dad kept a watchful eye on him. David told NBC it still felt surreal - he could hardly believe he was finally on his way home to New Jersey with his little boy. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. As the plane flies at 40,000 feet above Brazil, heading north to the U.S., a still-dazed David Goldman kisses his sleeping son's head. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. At 6:15 p.m. ET on Christmas Eve, in Orlando, Fla., father and son walk off the plane and onto U.S. soil. All David can think about is getting his tired son tucked safely into bed. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Christmas Eve was David and Sean's first night together since June 15, 2004. On the day that David Goldman calls a miracle, father and son spent a quiet night together watching movies, and as he fell asleep, David says Sean curled up peacefully with this giant stuffed dog. (Benita Noel / NBC News) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Meredith Vieira
Dateline NBC
updated 1/8/2010 8:04:06 PM ET 2010-01-09T01:04:06
transcript

This full hour will not be online, but you can see related web-exclusive video here.

It was 1997, and David Goldman was making a glamorous living as a handsome international model - working with big stars like Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum. He was in Milan when he met Bruna Bianchi, a 23-year-old fashion student from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Karen Bott, David's friend: She shined. She was a beautiful person inside and out. Warm and friendly and just as easy and outgoing as he was.

Meredith Vieira, Dateline NBC: And that first time you saw her?

David Goldman: She was smiling. Such a vibrant, bubbly smile. We ended up, of course, having a pizza (laughs) in Italy - what else would you do?

David was smitten.

The model and his girl from Ipanema had a Christmas wedding --on Dec. 17th, 1999 -- and settled into David's home state of New Jersey.  Adding to their joy was that soon, a baby was on the way.

The glowing couple welcomed a little boy into the world.  They named him Sean, and David was over the moon.

Meredith Vieira: What did you guys do together?

David Goldman:  What didn't we do together?

David says he stopped traveling and worked more flexible hours, so he could be at home with Sean.  He became "Mr.Mom."

David Goldman: I would take him out for breakfast. Take him on the boat. We did everything - everything a father and son could do, and then some.

It all seemed so idyllic.

Bobby Chang, David's friend: He and Sean would go camping in the back. They were inseparable. They had a very, very special bond.

Friends admired the picture perfect family.

Casey Fillian, Bruna's friend: All three of them were beautiful.  It looked like a -- it looked Video: ‘I don’t know how I could ever give back’

like a fairy tale.

... Until the day that changed David's life forever: June 16th, 2004.  That was the day David drove Bruna, 4-year-old Sean, and Bruna's parents to the airport.

David Goldman: Love, hugs, kisses. We did the thing "I love you" like we always did as they were walking through the jetway.

It was only supposed to be a two-week vacation in Brazil. But when Bruna arrived in Rio, David got a devastating call.

David Goldman: It was a voice from her that if I didn't know it was her, I wouldn't even recognize it. “Our marriage is over. Our love affair is over. I've decided to stay in Brazil.” So clear she said this, so unemotional.

Meredith Vieira: Never gave you a reason, just that it was over.

David Goldman: It was over. She wants to be back in her country.

David demanded that Bruna return with Sean immediately, but she refused, and then issued her own set of demands.

David Goldman: To sign away full custody of Sean to her. And, to never press any criminal charges against her. And I'm like, "Whha - what?"

Meredith Vieira: When you hung up that phone, David, what did you do?

David Goldman: I was shocked, I think I was like, just dropped.

Gene Quigley, friend: He was so beside himself. He was so upset, you know, I could hardly understand him

Gene Quigley has been David's buddy since they were teenagers. When David told him the shocking news, Gene assured him that Bruna probably just needed to calm down.

Gene Quigley: I just thought maybe she's just confused. You know, she just needed some time and she would be back.

But David says Bruna just kept calling, frantically pleading with him to fly to Brazil to sign over custody of Sean -- and threatening that he better not report her to the police. He started recording her calls.

Phone recording:

Bruna: If you are not going to come here, then the thing is going to change.

Meredith Vieira: But you didn't go to Brazil.

David Goldman: No. I spoke to several attorneys. And each one of 'em said, "Do not step foot in that country."

Patricia Apy, the attorney David hired, told him that by keeping Sean in Brazil against his wishes, Bruna was guilty of parental child abduction. A treaty called the Hague Convention on international child abduction requires countries who sign it -- Brazil is one - to promptly return abducted children to their home country. That meant Brazil should send Sean back to the U.S. within 6 weeks, and any custody battle would have to take place in a New Jersey court.

Meredith Vieira: You believed at that point, I'm not gonna go to Brazil, and within six weeks, Sean will be back here and it'll be resolved here.

David Goldman: Yes.

Meredith Vieira: On U.S soil.

David Goldman: Yes.

Agonizing as it was, David waited, clinging to the occasional calls when Bruna allowed Sean to get on the phone.

Sean: Hi Dada!

David Goldman: Hey Sean. When you guys come back, I'm going to give you the biggest hug and kiss and pick you up and put you on my shoulders. And we're best friends forever. My heart beats for you.

Sean: Dada?

David Goldman: Yeah?

Sean: I love you forever.

David Goldman:

I love you forever buddy. We're best friends. Who's your best friend? Video: An old friend of Sean Goldman's talks

Sean: You.

But each day without Sean was harrowing. David's sister Leslie saw her brother go from a happy-go-lucky guy to a haunted man.

Leslie Goldman: He would say every second of every minute of every day, I'm heartbroken. And that's really how he was.

David felt blindsided. What had happened to his blissful little family?

Meredith Vieira: Do you think that maybe you missed something there? That there was some clue?

David Goldman: That's where I feel like the biggest idiot. I wouldn't have driven them to the airport if I had any - any slight thought that that would be the last time I'd see them.

Who was this woman screaming at him in her calls from Brazil?

Recorded phone call:

Bruna: I don't want to live in New Jersey anymore!

David Goldman: Why are you screaming at me, Bruna?

Bruna: I don't want to live in that place. Please understand this!

Karen Bott: She should've been an actress, cause she had us all fooled.

And David's nightmare was just beginning.

David Goldman: It was a man's voice telling me, “Prepare to die..”

Meredith Vieira: At what point did that word go through your head, "My son's been kidnapped"?

David Goldman: It's tough for even me to think, Bruna had kidnapped our own child.

It was almost impossible to say out loud. David Goldman's wife Bruna had not only left him, she'd taken their son.

David Goldman: You ran off to Brazil, with Sean.

Bruna:  I ran off to Brazil with Sean because if I was there and I told you that I want to separate ... I knew you're never gonna give me the separation. That's why.

Bruna got a Brazilian judge to give her temporary custody of Sean. Furious, David filed a civil suit in New Jersey, and got this order demanding Sean be returned to the U.S. within 48 hours. But Bruna just ignored it --- and then, David says, the death threats started.

David Goldman: It was a man's voice, telling me they know where I live. They know where I am. Prepare to die. It was very alarming, very alarming.

Terrified, David contacted The FBI -- which advised him to leave his house for a week. by the time he returned, the calls had stopped.

Meredith Vieira: And you never found out who made those calls?

David Goldman: No. But, they were using my Nextel direct connect, which only Bruna had the number.

Meredith Vieira: David, I bet there are people who watch this interview who say, “There's gotta be something he's not saying. There's gotta be some skeleton in that closet. There's gotta be a reason why this woman would go to Brazil, take her child, your child, and turn around and call you and say ‘You're out of my life.’”

David Goldman:  Show me. Find it.

Even from Brazil, Bruna continued to tell David he was a great dad.

Bruno: You're a wonderful dad and I, I couldn't have any, anyone better.

Sixteen months after Bruna left with Sean, David made his first trip to Brazil in hopes of bringing his son home.  But in one of what would be many legal setbacks, a Brazilian court gave Bruna permanent custody of Sean, saying he should stay with his mother.

Things spiraled out of David's control -- for two years, his attorneys filed appeals as a heartbroken dad missed out on his son's birthdays, his milestones, his sweet smiles and embraces. But each decision was in Bruna's favor.

Mark DeAngelis: It's shocking really.

Mark DeAngelis met David on a fishing trip just weeks after Bruna left. Touched by his story, Mark became a staunch ally, researching the Brazilian legal system.

Mark DeAngelis: One unfavorable ruling after another, one unfavorable outcome after another. Almost as if the Brazilian judicial process seemed to work backwards.

To make matters worse, David says Bruna and her family cut off all contact with him.

David Goldman:  That was my father-in-law, hung up on me too.

Then, even though Bruna was still legally married in the U.S., she got a Brazilian divorce, and three years after leaving David, she married a Brazilian lawyer named Joao Paulo Lins E Silva, who ironically--along with his father, specializes in family law.

David Goldman: Their practice is fighting against international child abduction. His father travels around to different countries lecturing on the Hague convention and children's rights. You can't make this up.

And in August 2008, things took yet another turn, this one startling - and tragic.

Karen Bott, David's friend: Jaw dropped to the ground and I thought "Oh my god." I couldn't believe it.

Bruna was dead. Pregnant by her Brazilian husband, she'd given birth to a baby girl, only to die from complications 8 hours later. She was 34. David's first thought was of his little boy.

David Goldman:  My poor son. He just lost his mom. I need to see him. He needs to see me.

Shaken, David immediately called both his U.S. and Brazilian attorneys.

David Goldman: Both of them said "It's over. You should be able to go down there and bring him home."

Meredith Vieira: Because you're the only biological parent left?

Meredith Vieira: Yes, who's been fighting for this long.

Patricia Apy, David's attorney: We're done. We're done. We have to be done because at that point a fit biological parent always trumps a third party.

David rushed to Brazil, but when he arrived, more crushing news. Bruna's new husband had already filed for custody of Sean. What's more, he was trying to remove David's name from his own son's birth certificate.

David Goldman: This guy wanted to erase me from any connection with my son, and put his own name on it.

Sean's Brazilian family, including Bruna's mother, argued that since the now 8-year-old boy had been living in Brazil for 4 years--  half his life -- he belonged with them. David was livid. He spoke out on NBC's TODAY show.

David Goldman: How can it be possible a non-blood relative, I mean a non-blood person, could take my child? 

Within weeks, David got his first glimmer of hope -- as long as he was willing to come to Brazil, he could visit his son on weekends. Dateline took David to Brazil on what was now his tenth flight there since last seeing Sean.

David Goldman: I'm just so tired. Mentally. Physically.

But after an agonizing, 3-hour wait outside Sean's Brazilian home, David was defeated again: His son wasn't even there.

David Goldman: No one knows where he is. We just know is that he left yesterday. Lins e Silva took Sean and left, and I get screwed around again.

On top of that, the Lins E Silvas hit David with a lawsuit, accusing him of damaging their family name.  They also filed a complaint that among other things, accused him of harassing them with a helicopter.

David Goldman: He's accusing me of hiring a helicopter and circling over his house to harass him or something. I mean, it's absurd.

David's fight was about to become more contentious than ever - with a little boy caught in the crosshairs.

It had been four heartbreaking years. Four years since David had set eyes on his son.  Four years since they'd idly canoed on this river behind his house. And now, Sean's vacant seat seemed to call out to him. A painful reminder of a time when life seemed so blissful.

Meredith Vieira: How much do you miss that little boy?

David Goldman: I miss him every second of every day. The time we had together was the most special, precious moments. I can never describe the love I have for my son.

David kept Sean's room frozen in time: his little things, all exactly the way he left them.

Meredith Vieira: After four years, I would think you'd be pretty beaten down, but you seem determined.

David Goldman: I won't ever quit on my son.

Meredith Vieira: Never.

David Goldman: Never. How can you? How can you give up on your child? It's my legal, my moral, my God-given right to raise my son.

But at every turn, the Brazilian family of his now deceased wife Bruna, seemed determined to make sure that never happened. Although they declined an interview with Dateline, in e-mails they sent to the media, they questioned David's motives, suggesting that all he really wanted was money. 

David Goldman: It's not about money, and for them to suggest that is even sicker

The allegation stems back to the civil suit David filed against Bruna.  He named her parents in that lawsuit too and the court ordered their U.S. assets, including this condo, frozen.

Patricia Apy: And that allowed us to seize the property and the bank accounts in the hopes that it would place pressure on Bruna and her family to return and comply with the order

Later, David agreed to drop the parents from the case -- in exchange for a payment of $150,000.   

Meredith Vieira: They're throwing that back in your face and saying "He's not interested in Sean. He just wants cash." Do you regret that you settled? Do you think that muddied it?

David Goldman: Legally, absolutely not. I didn't want to settle that day in court, and I was advised by my attorney to do so. It enabled me to pay off some legal bills.  

David, who now ran a fishing charter business, had already gone through his savings. To help him with his legal expenses, his friends created a Web site called "Bring Sean Home." They also launched a massive grass roots movement.

Mark DeAngelis, David's friend: His supporters basically waged war on his behalf. I mean, there's really no other way to describe it.

They created a Facebook group, and an online petition. And organized rallies like this one in front of the Brazilian consulate in New York.

Mark DeAngelis: They need to follow the law and obey the treaty and bring Sean home.

Sympathetic letters and e-mails poured in, including this one from then-Sen. Barack Obama.

And when Dateline first broadcast his story last January, David made a desperate plea.

David Goldman: Who can help me?  Who can help?  I just need help.

Congressman Chris Smith: My own involvement began when I actually saw the Dateline show.

David's story infuriated Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey.

Congressman Chris Smith: I'm a dad and I know what it's like to love and cherish your children. And when David made his appeal at the end of the show, I was on the phone the next morning.

David Goldman: We sat down and he looked me right in the eyes and he said, "Next time you have to go to Brazil, I'm going with you.”

Just three days later, the congressman was on a plane with David, heading to Brasilia, Brazil's capital city.  Smith had a stern message for Brazilian officials -- a reminder that by not returning Sean, the country was violating a treaty that deals with international parental child abduction.

Congressman Chris Smith: The reputation of Brazil is on the line here. Abductions are serious crimes.

As David accompanied Smith to meetings, he clung to a collection of photos and cards -- Bruna had given him this one just six months before she took off with Sean.

David Goldman (reading): “You are my real love.” Underlined.

But one of David's greatest tests was yet to come. At a tense court hearing, he came face to face for the first time with Joao Paulo Lins E Silva -- the man claiming he should now be Sean's father.

Congressman Chris Smith: They were facing each other, and David would look him in the eye. You'd see that he was close to tears a few times, but he held that in check.

When the marathon six-hour court session was finally over, the Congressman emerged with some hopeful news.

Congressman Chris Smith: Thankfully, David will have the opportunity to visit his son.

This time, Lins E Silva made a promise in court - the family would allow David to spend time with Sean. And finally, after four and a half devastating years, David felt himself exhale just a little --  now, he could truly imagine his little boy back in his arms.

David Goldman: I'm just gonna lay my eyes upon my son and try to do whatever I can to keep it together.

But Sean was no longer that little 4-year-old whom David had so lovingly called his little buddy.  This was an 8-year-old boy.  Would he even remember his dad? Would he still love him?

It was a gorgeous morning in Rio de Janeiro - February 9 - the day David Goldman hoped to finally set eyes on his little boy.

David Goldman: I'm hoping I can take him out shopping or take him for ice cream.

David was anxious - he'd been granted visits before, but never got to see Sean. As he'd done so many times, he'd brought a backpack full of photographs and gifts.

David Goldman: I saw these little lollipops.  I remember he liked-- he liked candy a lot and sweet things. 

And there was something tiny David had been carrying for four and a half years, a poignant reminder of their lost life together in New Jersey.

David Goldman: I was teaching him to whistle through an acorn shell before we-- we left.  And this is actually the acorn shell that he was using.

But would his son even want his gifts?  Adding to the tension were the conditions of the visit -- as long as Sean was willing, David could take his son anywhere in Rio -- but they would never be alone.

David Goldman: They have a-- a psychologist with him, with my son, that's g-- has to be there the whole time.  So-- I don't know, I don't know. I hope for the best but I expect the worst.

Congressman Chris Smith and a U.S. Embassy official came along for moral support.  David was to meet his son inside this gated compound where Sean was living with his grandparents, his mother's new Brazilian husband, and the baby girl she gave birth to just before she died. Finally, at 9 a.m., after four and a half years and 11 trips to Brazil, David Goldman was reunited with his son.

Home videos:

David Goldman: I love you, buddy.

Sean Goldman: I love you too.

David Goldman: I love you so much, Sean.

These are David's personal videos of his visits with Sean, seen here publicly for the very first time.

David Goldman: I just walked over and I ran, and I picked him up. I hugged him, told him I love him, I miss him.

David Goldman: Sean started calling me "Dad" and "Dada." It was like he said it and it felt good t-- for him to say that, which I just wanted to bawl and start crying, like, "Oh my God."  I hadn't heard that in so long.

As joyous as the reunion was, David says he felt like they were in a fishbowl. Sean's Brazilian family was watching every move.

Congressman Chris Smith: The surveillance was omnipresent on the part of the abducting family. They tried to make it miserable.

The court order did not restrict where father and son could go. But the family said they didn't want Sean to leave their compound.  So David and Sean stayed in the enclosed courtyard - where their visits were closely monitored.

Congressman Chris Smith: There was a man up on the roof with a cell phone, there was a lawyer that was literally in the pool.  There were three people in the pool.  David, Sean, and some lawyer with a cell phone. It was theater of the absurd.

But the Congressman says David only had eyes for his little boy. And even though Sean hadn't seen his dad since he was 4 years old, Smith says their tight bond remained unbroken, as if no time had passed at all. By now, Sean's English had become a little rusty -- but it was music to David's ears.

David Goldman: At one point he said, "Hug me with maximum force. Hug me with maximum force. " And - and he goes "Again, maximum force." So I squeezed him again. And I just didn't ever want that to stop.

But Sean also had a question for his dad.

David Goldman:   He asked me how come I haven't been to see him in four years. So I told him that I've been there many times to see him, sometimes for two weeks trying to be with him and see him. So I just said the courts were making things very difficult.

About an hour into the visit, Congressman Smith took a photo.

CongressmanChris Smith: And you could see the love of David for Sean.  And Sean was right at home right away, there was that bond.

To smith, Sean seemed relaxed, happy, affectionate. He even saw father and son rough-housing and joking with the American embassy official.

Karen Bott: Shock Sean.

Sean Goldman: Come here.

David Goldman: Come over here, we’ll shock you.

Karen Bott: I'm scared. I'm scared. 

David Goldman: She's holding an electrical device.

David never released these videos before because he was afraid his son's display of affection would anger Sean's Brazilian family. As overjoyed as he was, David knew this precious time with Sean was only temporary.  His boy still wasn't home -- where so many people in New Jersey especially his grandparents -- waited -- and longed -- for the way things used to be. 

Barry Goldman, Sean’s grandfather: Every family gathering for years, that's been-- we all made a wish that Sean would come back to us.

Ellie Goldman, Sean’s grandmother: We go around the table and say, "What are you grateful for?" And we were grateful that we were together.  And we said-- we all said, we hope Sean is with us on our next holiday.

For David, the visits were bittersweet -- along with joy, he saw pain and confusion on Sean's face.

David Goldman: He's tormented. He's conflicted. Why would they do this to us for this long? Why do they do that to him?

And most heartbreaking of all, after two days of visiting for several hours at a time, David had to say goodbye again -- not knowing when he'd be back.

David Goldman: We both just turned at the same time. And our eyes locked. And neither of us said a word. But that connection is there. Just locked. I feel so bad for him.

But Sean's Brazilian family was about to hit David with ugly personal allegations suggesting he wasn't even fit to be Sean's father.

Rallyers: Bring Sean home!

They took place nearly 5,000 miles apart, on two different continents: Two rallies on the same weekend in March last year.  One supporting David Goldman…

Rally participant: There is no excuse that David had to wait 4.5 years to see his child.

And one criticizing him, where Bruna's brother was among the Brazilians speaking out.

Luca Bianchi, in Portuguese: Now Sean is going to be taken away from his stepfather, grandmother, grandfather, sister, and uncle: everyone who loves him.

The opposing rallies came on the heels of David's first visits with Sean in four and a half years, when he found their bond was still intact.

In the U.S., outrage, and political support for David, were mounting.

Rep.Walter Jones: This is not what the world should be about. The world should be about trying to bring families together.

On the house floor, amidst passionate speeches calling on the Brazilian government to return Sean immediately, Congressman Smith pointed to that photo he'd snapped just an hour into David and Sean's first visit.

Congressman Chris Smith: A father who deeply loves his son had his parental rights violated with shocking impunity.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the growing chorus of prominent voices supporting David.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: He's been very brave as he has fought to have his son returned to him and he has gone not just the extra mile, but mile after mile.

She even made a personal call to him.

DavidGoldman: She said as parent to parent, I want to do what I can to help you and Sean be back together and come home.

His case wasn't the only one weighing on the Secretary. There were several dozens like it involving American children abducted to Brazil. Clinton voiced her concern to Brazil's foreign minister.

Now, with high level politicians involved, the Brazilian press -- most of whom had never reported David's story -- was suddenly all over it.

And after months of silence, Sean's Brazilian family decided it was time to let their attorneys talk.

Attorney Sergio Tostes: The issue is Sean, what is best for the little boy?

Lead attorney Sergio Tostes told Dateline that Secretary of State Clinton had no business being involved in what he called a simple family matter.

Attorney Sergio Tostes: This is not good for the relation of two countries. It escalated to a degree, i mean, absolutely insane, insane, it is a family thing.

Tostes argued that bruna's new husband, Joao Paulo Lins E Silva, was just as much a father to Sean as David because he had been living with Bruna and Sean in Brazil since early 2005 - almost four years.

Attorney Sergio Tostes: There's two ways to define a father, either by blood, or by affection. He has two fathers who love him.

That argument angered David.

DavidGoldman: Sean is MY son. He's got MY blood running through his veins.

Tempers flared even more when the Brazilian family turned to the media to argue their case.  Sean's grandmother appeared on the Brazilian TV show "Fantastico."

Silvana, Sean’s grandmother: I hope Sean stays where he is happy and cared for.

In a splash of Brazilian TV, newspaper and magazine reports, including one in which Sean beams from the cover, the family revealed details about his life there.  He loved soccer -- and swimming -- and was very close to his grandma Silvana, Bruna's mother.

Sean wanted to be a cook just like his grandma, the family said, or a lawyer, just like Bruna's Brazilian husband, whom they said he called "Dad."

The family also attacked David with an avalanche of allegations, including one by Bruna's mother who suggested her daughter had feared David because "there are times when he's very violent and he punches and breaks the closet." 

David Goldman (in Brazil): The allegations are lies. They're throwing anything up in the air and hoping it sticks. But I'm not going to go down their mudslinging path.

Mark DeAngelis, David's friend: It was sickening, really sickening to-- to watch the whole thing play out, the manner in which they attacked David personally, just vicious, nasty, slanderous attacks on him,

The accusations stung - especially when the family accused David of neglecting his son. That one was especially hurtful, David says, because for years they had been returning all the presents and cards he sent to Sean, unopened.

David Goldman (opening card): It says “I love you so much, Sean. Have a happy birthday. Love always, Dad.”They've done everything they possibly could to totally erase my relationship with my son from his memory.

Former assistant U.S. Secretary of state Bernard Aronson, who became an adviser to David, saw the negative accusations as a tactical move.

Bernard Aronson: I think this is just a power play. They want to keep this child in Brazil. And they don't have a legal right to do so.

David focused on helping his lawyers plow their way through Brazil's legal system. But the clock was ticking. Sean was growing up.  He would soon be 9 years old. How much longer could this take?

The case was about to take a series of quick and stunning turns,  with shocking court decisions, and a highly controversial videotape of the little boy who'd become a pawn in this heated battle.

TODAY Show, June 2, 2009, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell: Meredith, it may almost be over. The long-awaited ruling from the Brazilian court was categorical.

It came on June 1st, 2009 -  just days after Sean Goldman's 9th birthday: a stunning ruling from a single Brazilian judge who said enough is enough.

David Goldman: A federal level judge wrote 82 pages explaining why my son needs to be with me. Period.

The judge's order said it was urgent that Sean be sent back to New Jersey immediately because he was being subjected to a "pernicious process of parental alienation."

Psychologist Dale Atkins -- an expert NBC consulted -- says that term essentially means the brainwashing of a child against his own parent.

Dr. Dale Atkins: So all of their memories about wonderful times together, about a gentle or sensitive or caring or loving parent are washed away. And they're replaced with very negative and denigrating images and realities for the child. And so they then take those as truth.

The judge's ruling, based on reports from three Brazilian psychologists, also said that the longer Sean was away from his father, the more damage would be done.

New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith: The psychiatrist came back and said, "Every day that Sean is away from his father, and in this current situation, is injurious to his mental health."

To David's supporters, that made the ruling iron-clad.

Bernard Aronson: We all thought, "Wonderful.  This is it.  Done.  End of story."

On the Web site supporting David, it was summed up with one simple word: Victory.  In Brazil, the judge's ruling made front page news. But when David rushed down to Brazil, the unthinkable happened: a Supreme Court justice suspended the return order.

David Goldman: It is incomprehensible to the point of obscene. It's sick. Absolutely sick.

Congressman Chris Smith: How long are they gonna stretch out this-- this ordeal? How much can a man take?

It was yet another drop in David's emotional roller coaster ride - but by now, he'd learned to steel himself for these endless legal hurdles.

David Goldman: Until I'm on the plane with my son and the wheels are up, I have to keep marching on an even keel.

If he couldn't take Sean home, David at least wanted to see him - it had been 3 months since their last visit.   But when he arrived at the Brazilian family's gated complex, David received unsettling news. It seemed the pressure was getting to Sean - the family said he'd spent the whole morning at a psychologist's office. That afternoon, David tried again, and this time, Sean was home.

David Goldman: Seems tired, he seemed a little bit nervous, but the longer we were there, he started calming.

The change in his son was unnerving to David. The judge's ruling said the parental alienation Sean was experiencing was so detrimental, he was in danger of no longer recognizing his own father.

Meredith Vieira, June 2009: That's got to be difficult for you to hear, when they say that this child is the victim of parental alienation?

David Goldman: Psychological torture? Emotional damage? I mean, those words have also been used so everyone there now gets it. But for me, as a parent, to sit here and even have to talk about the suffering and the torture that my son is being exposed to is beyond words.

It strained David's visits with his son.  For every hello with Sean, there was a goodbye -- after that, things were out of his control.

David Goldman: Because he goes back up into that apartment, into the house of horrors, essentially.  "You cannot call him Dad. You cannot say you love him. You cannot be affectionate. If you do any of these things, you will be taken from us. You will never see us again. Don't forget Sean, he abandoned you, he didn't love you. He's pretending.”

Meredith Vieira: How do you know they've said that?

David Goldman: It's written in the report.

Meredith Vieira: By the court appointed psychiatrist?

David Goldman: Yes. 

Mark DeAngelis, David's friend: On the one hand, they're running a family-law practice, specializing in international child abduction cases, actually with clients like David Goldman. While at the same time, they're lecturing around the world on topics like parental alienation.

David Goldman: I mean, the levels of hypocrisy in this guy is just unmentionable.

David says he got even more worried about his son's well being when Sergio Tostes, the attorney for Sean's Brazilian family, hinted that he might try to put the boy on the stand.

Sergio Tostes: The process of justice will be completed when Sean is heard. Until then, we don't have the due process of law totally completed.

David Goldman: I think it's terrible. I think it's sinful the amount of pressure they're putting on my son, and it should never come to the point where they need to put him on a stand and testify.  I mean, that's incomprehensible. How cruel - how cruel.

But there was more. Bruna's family took Sean to a psychiatric facility and -- and after sitting Sean down in a glass-enclosed room --  in front of five paid witnesses and a video camera --   they had one of their own psychologists question him about where he wanted to live. Sean said, Brazil.  David's camp was outraged.

Congressman Chris Smith: Some nine-year-old does not come up with the idea of doing a 40-minute video repeating over and over again how he wants to stay in Brazil. It has all the earmarks and markings of a hostage situation.

Meredith Vieira: Do you see any possibility that Sean might have in a quiet moment, come to the conclusion by himself that he wants to be in Brazil, and that's what he was conveying in that tape?

David Goldman: No. No. He's a defenseless, helpless, innocent victim. A child who lost his father. He's scared to death that he's going to lose the only other people that he knows. The whole thing is just so twisted.

Meredith Vieira: There is a biblical story about two mothers fighting over one child, and I think it's Solomon who says, "I'll split it down the middle, the kid."  And one mother says, "No, then she can have the child."  And that's how they knew that was the real mother.  Is there any part of you that would be able to say, "I-- I can't let him go through this anymore, I would rather step aside, let them raise him, than keep this going back and forth?"

David Goldman: Lemme ask you this. In that biblical story, is one mother torturing the child?  I mean, can anyone just let their child be in an environment that's so emotionally unhealthy?

Threatening legal action, David's attorneys prevented the family from broadcasting the controversial tape, but the whole ordeal made Father's Day  -- David's fifth without sean --  seem all the more bleak.

David Goldman: Every day that I miss with my son, and he misses with me, is nothing short of a tragedy.

In USA TODAY that weekend, the passions surrounding David's case were compared to the 1999 Elian Gonzales case. He was the 5-year-old Cuban boy who's mother drowned trying to cross illegally into the U.S. His relatives in Florida tried to keep him here, but the U.S. government ultimately seized him and returned him to his father in Cuba.

Bernard Aronson: The law said he belonged with his father, and the U.S. returned him to his father.  Brazil has the same responsibility.

Pressure surrounding the case had become so intense by then, even the President of the United States weighed in.  When Dateline spoke to President Obama in July, he told us Brazil was being strongly advised to take action.

President Barack Obama to Meredith Vieira: We have advised the Brazilian government that we want to move this forward expeditiously. And that we want folks to abide by international law.

But all David could do was wait. One month after the next went by. In December, he traveled to Washington to deliver a personal speech to congress during a hearing on international child abduction.

David Goldman: My parents, Sean's grandparents, his aunts and cousins in New Jersey, all of whom love Sean and desperately wait for his return - just concluded our 6th family Thanksgiving with an empty place setting waiting to be filled by Sean.

And then, just one week before Christmas -

Jeff Rossen, TODAY Show, Dec. 17: The new Brazilian court ruling is pretty clear. David and Sean, father and son, should be reunited by Friday.

Once again, the federal court had ordered Sean be sent home immediately.  And along with Dateline, David Goldman was boarding yet another flight to Brazil. This was now his 15th trip.

David Goldman: My focus is to go down there and bring my son home to me and his family safe.

Reporter: What’s going to be the first thing you say to your son?

David Goldman: “I love you.”

This time, when David landed in Rio, media interest in his story had ramped up to an almost hysterical state.

The press crush got so out of control, police cars, with sirens blaring, had to surround David's car just to get him out of the airport.

Was it really over this time? Dateline is with David Goldman, with an exclusive look behind the scenes, taking you inside a wildly unpredictable week as Sean’s Brazilian family fights to the end.

When David Goldman landed in Rio last month, it seemed everyone had an opinion about his fight to take his son out of Brazil.

Woman in Rio: Leave your son here, he's happy here.

The tension was at an all-time high, but this time, David felt he got more open encouragement from Brazilians than ever before.

David Goldman: The loving bond of a parent and a child - the people get it.

Interest was at such a peak, David's face seemed to be flashing on every TV screen, and in every newspaper. It looked like the end was in sight. But just hours after David got to his hotel, everything suddenly took a screeching backwards turn.  To David, it felt like a cruel déjà vu: The very same supreme court justice who had held up Sean’s return in June slammed the brakes on everything again.

Bernard Aronson: We felt like we were watching, you know, Jaws II, because the same thing had happened in June. We were all afraid we were watching this movie again with the same terrible ending.

This time, the family was insisting that 9-year-old Sean be put on the stand to tell the court what he wanted.

At a press conference, family lawyer Sergio Tostes posed with a poster he said the dejected boy had drawn himself.

Sergio Tostes: “I want to stay in Brazil forever.”

And in spite of those psychologist's reports about parental alienation, he denounced the notion that Sean was being psychologically harmed.

Sergio Tostes: Whatever that has been said that he has been tortured is totally false.

But Congressman Smith, who'd flown back to Brazil yet again, quickly hit back.

Congressman Chris Smith: Some people have said, Why haven't we heard from Sean?” We have.

David Goldman: He was heard loud and clear by these Brazilian court-appointed experts. You separate a child from a parent for this point, period, of time, you poison the child's mind.

The war of words set the stage for what would become an extremely tense week in Rio.

Sergio Tostes: We are ready to negotiate.

Congressman Chris Smith: Negotiate? Negotiate what? There's only one negotiation - bring Sean home.

The international political pressure was ramped up to an all-time high. Angry about the endless court delays, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg blocked the renewal of a major trade bill  -- worth some 3 billion dollars to Brazil's economy.

Bernard Aronson: This was not a small act. It was an extremely high-stakes poker move that he made. 

Oddly, as David's attorneys pushed for an emergency review of the Supreme Court setback, Joao Paulo Lins E Silva, Bruna's Brazilian husband, was nowhere to be found. 

Ever since Bruna's death, he'd been at the forefront of the fight to keep Sean in Brazil -- saying he was as much a father to Sean as David  --   but now, it was Sean's grandmother Silvana who was leading the fight.

And with Christmas just around the corner, Silvana seemed to make an abrupt about-face  -- inviting David to spend Christmas night at her house -- with Sean.

Sergio Tostes: We are raising the white flag. We are opening our hearts saying we want the family reunited.

David Goldman: They haven't said anything to me personally, they haven't said anything to my attorney. I'm inclined to not believe the sincerity.

To David, it hardly seemed like a peace offering. At the very same press conference, the family's lawyer continued to attack David.

Sergio Tostes: If necessary, I prove that he's not a good father, that he's not qualified to raise Sean.

And Christmas itself became a source of stress. As the country began winding down for the holidays, David's legal team worried that the Brazilian courts would go on break before a decision was handed down.  But late on Sunday -- just five days before Christmas, the chief justice announced that he would make a ruling the next day.

All day Monday, David, his attorneys, embassy officials and Chris Smith stayed holed up in his small hotel room, practicing a painful game of "hurry up and wait."' Everyone was on edge  -- but the hours dragged on. Monday turned into Tuesday ... But still, no decision. 

Ricardo Zamariola, David's attorney: We thought that on Tuesday morning, when we arrived in court, the decision would already be taken, issued and ready to be delivered to the attorneys. And it was not. So, another surprise.

It had now become a game of international suspense. The whole world anxiously watching to find out if David Goldman's son would stay in Brazil or go back to New Jersey. On this second day of waiting, NBC News was granted exclusive access --behind closed doors -- with David's two young attorneys.  Ricardo Zamariola, was only 23 when David first hired him. His law partner, Marcos Ortiz, is just a few years older.  And with everything at stake, the nervous energy from these two young legal eagles filled the room.

Ricardo Zamariola: It's almost 1 p.m. and we're still here.

Minutes stretched into hours. Each ring of the phone sent them jumping, testing their youthful enthusiasm.

Ricardo Zamariola: If Sean does not return, this will give brazil confidence to do whatever the hell it wants.

By 5 p.m., after seven hours of waiting, Ricardo made a sobering prediction.

Ricardo Zamariola: Actually, yesterday morning, I was confident about the Supreme Court's decision, but I'm not anymore. It's taking too long.

If they lost, it would be their most public legal setback yet.  And worse, the future of a young boy - who had already suffered through so much trauma - was hanging in the balance.

Finally, at 9 p.m., after eleven arduous hours, they got the word.

David Goldman had won.  It was a solid 30-page ruling: Sean must go back to New Jersey. Immediately.

Ricardo Zamariola: Tony, is David there? Where is he? 

In the frenzy, it took the attorneys a few minutes to find David.

Ricardo Zamariola: David, did you get the news?

But stung once too many times, David was tempered. He only had one question.

David Goldman: When, when, when will we be leaving? When will Sean and I come home?

The next morning, David's attorneys were summoned to court to meet with Sean's Brazilian family. They wanted to negotiate the terms of Sean's handover. All day, lawyers on both sides engaged in heated back and forth conversations.

Meredith Vieira: You were being pressured to negotiate with the family, the Brazilian family?

David Goldman: Yeah. Even though we had a Supreme Court judicial order. Actually, I wasn't as much being pressured as asked.

Ultimately, the negotiations fell apart. There was only one agreement:  Sean would be delivered to David at the U.S. Embassy at 9 a.m. the next morning.

But  as the media camped outside the family's compound that night, questions swirled: Was Sean even there? Would the family ever really turn him over?

David Goldman (on phone): Take care, thanks. Hopefully it works. Fingers crossed, prayers, hopes, whatever, thanks Dad, bye. (hangs up)  That was my dad.

It had been a draining week for David in Brazil -- and an anxious one for his family back at home in New Jersey.

David Goldman: You know, they are all pins and needles.

And in the final hours, with all the legal wrangling apparently over, it was hard for anybody to relax. By 7 a.m. Thursday - two hours before Sean's Brazilian family was to hand him over at the U.S. Embassy - David's hotel room was already full of people rushing him out the door.

David Goldman: Karen, will I be able to log on in the Embassy at all while we're waiting? And I'll be able to bring some of Sean's things inside?

David Goldman in NBC interview: I was just trying to take a shower, and get dressed, and ready, and I was already packed.  Just ready - ready to get this done.

Meredith: Were you nervous?

David Goldman: No. I've been concerned over and over for the welfare and well being of my son, but not nervous.

David had been up most of the night, handwriting a thank-you statement he hoped to read after his son was safely back in his arms.

David Goldman (reading statement out loud to his attorneys): We will go to the ends of the earth to protect him and shower him with every ounce of love that we have. God bless you all. David.

Ricardo Zamariola: I prefer when you don't read. it's three or four words.

Marcos Ortiz: It’s tedious.

David Goldman: I'm going to give this to Congressman Smith to read as a statement. 

For Congressman Smith, who had stood steadfastly by David's side, his fight to bring Sean home had become a personal mission. And as the end game approached, the two worried out loud about Sean's safety.

David Goldman: I hope they don't hurt Sean more. It’s like dragging my son through a mob.

Word was the Brazilian family planned to make a scene at the embassy, dragging Sean past all the waiting cameras.

David Goldman: They just want things done on their terms.

Meredith Vieira: To the very end?

David Goldman: To the very end.

But by 7:20, David was ready to face whatever the morning would bring, turning to give our cameras a hopeful thumbs up before he was whisked out a back door of the hotel and into a waiting embassy car.

It was Christmas Eve.  But even in a city where 75 percent of the population is Catholic, it seemed no one in Rio de Janeiro was focused on Papai Noel. All eyes were on the embassy - and the Brazilian family's home -  as everyone wondered if they would abide by the court's orders.

Right up until the last minute, as gift baskets and flowers were delivered to her house, Sean's grandmother continued to protest, arguing that this was an egregious mistake, and Sean did not want to leave Brazil.

Silvana Bianchi: He is very sad. He was hoping that he could express his will. He has this right.

Concerned about a spectacle, the embassy made a public appeal.

Orna Blum, U.S. Embassy spokesperson: The most important thing for Mr. Goldman, and certainly for his Brazilian family, is to ensure that Sean and his family members can have privacy.

And quietly, the embassy offered Sean's family a way to avoid the horde of cameras.

Attorney Patricia Apy: The embassy made specific arrangements so that the handoff could take place in a completely private, discreet location.

Congressman Chris Smith: To simply drive into an underground garage where the transfer and the process could be done very discreetly and, in Sean's sense, privately.

But that never happened.  Arriving half an hour ahead of schedule, Sean's visibly upset grandparents approached the embassy on foot. And as the cameras swarmed, Bruna's Brazilian husband, Joao Paulo Lins E Silva, came next, his arm wrapped tightly around Sean.

In his bright Brazilian shirt, there was no missing Sean Goldman. And in the crush of cameras, with people screaming, horns honking, helicopters circling, and police on guard, he looked like one frightened little 9-year-old boy.

Meredith Vieira: Did it break your heart to see that?

David Goldman: Yes. It was torturous. I saw them do this. I had to turn away. Why are they doing that? My poor son! Why?

Bernard Aronson: It was hard to see how, if you had any genuine feeling for this little boy, you would parade him through a media frenzy-- that would obviously frighten him, that obviously would traumatize him, for no reason at all.

The family's attorney would later emphatically deny that the embassy had offered them a private entrance. But David's attorney says both he and embassy officials repeatedly reiterated the offer for a more private handover.

Attorney Ricardo Zamariola: I made the offer to the family's attorney.  The offer that they could use the consulate's garage.  I made the offer personally.  And-- this offer was not accepted. We did everything that was within our powers to avoid that kind of situation. 

Inside the embassy, things got downright ugly. Even from the second floor, David says he could hear the chaos.

David Goldman: I heard their attorney was yelling and screaming, cursed out Congressman Smith

Congressman Chris Smith: He actually shouted at me "You're a liar" with his eyes bugging out of his head. Another indication of what David Goldman has been up against all these years.

During all the commotion, David was still upstairs, waiting to see his little boy.

David Goldman: I was upstairs in another room - and they asked if it would be ok if I allowed his grandmother to bring him up. And I said "Yes, you know, of course."

Meredith Vieira: And when he saw you, and you saw him?

David Goldman: He was just saying “I'm very hot.” Talking to me like we've spoken for a very long time.  He didn't ever, ever once say “I don't want to go with you, I don't want to be with you.”  I just kneeled next to his chair, and you know, pet his head. And held his hand.  And just told him how much I loved him. He had no resistance at all, but at the same time, he was in a great deal of pain.

Ignoring all the frenzy, Sean began focusing on practical things.

David Goldman: He was saying, “If there's a lot of snow, we need to get boots. I need a winter coat.”  You know, so he's been envisioning it. He's been imagining it.

Sean's grandmother was still in the room.

David Goldman: And she looked at me and just said, "Oh David, so many things have changed, and I did ask her "Why? Why didn't you drive into the embassy?  Why didn't - you dragged him across the street."

Meredith Vieira: What did she say?

David Goldman: She just looked at me.  She didn't answer that one.  And she said to me "Will you allow me to see him?"  And I looked at her and I said, "I will not do to you what you have done to me."  And all she heard was the "will not."  And she looked at me and said "You, you will not?" - and I said "I will. In time, we'll arrange that. You'll be able to see him."  And then I said, “But now, you need to tell him that you remember how good of a father that I was and she spoke to that to him in Portuguese.”

Meredith Vieira: Why was that important for you, to have her say that to him?

David Goldman: Because he needed to see that.  And I also gave her a hug. He needed to see that

Meredith Vieira: A lot of people watching this might say well why would you do that, given the way you feel about this family and what they've done?

David Goldman: Because she is still his grandmother.

But any attempt at healing the deeply raw rift with Sean's grandmother would have to wait. Within an hour, the Brazilian family had left the embassy -- and father and son were racing to the airport.

Meredith Vieira: What was going through your head in terms of this little boy that you're about to take home?

David Goldman: I hope he doesn't have lifelong nightmares of that day

The wheels would soon be up. Was a father's five and a half year nightmare finally over?

They looked almost lonely, three un-tagged bags bearing all of a 9-year-old boy's most important possessions. But how do you pack for a flight like this?  After five and a half years, Sean Goldman was about to board a plane heading back to the U.S., back to the house he'd called home until his mother abducted him to Brazil.

Meredith Vieira: What was that ride like to the airport?

David Goldman: He was thinking about what kind of plane it is, and-- and-- and-- he's thinking about how long of a ride it is. There was no resistance, no fighting, no-- never once crying.

For David Goldman, it all seemed so surreal.

David Goldman: I mean, I've been on a one-way mission, a marathon, for over five years.

At the Rio airport, a convoy of white vans brought David and Sean out to this private plane, chartered by NBC.

Before climbing on board, Sean politely shook hands with the pilots - as his dad flashed a thumbs-up to the small group of people who'd accompanied them onto the tarmac.

New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith: There were a couple of security people, and it was-- a member of the embassy and myself. And when David and Sean went up that stairs, they both turned around, and they waved. And it was very meaningful. Because Sean, at that moment, had a big smile on his face.

David Goldman: He didn't have to walk up that plane. He could've thrown a tantrum - I mean, up the stairs into the plane. but he did it. He's a strong kid. He did it without a tear. And then we began our journey.

At exactly 11:53 a.m. Christmas Eve -- the moment this dad had waited so long for...

David Goldman: Give me a high five! Wheels up, buddy!

The plane seemed to hurdle into the sky -- instantly lifting away years of anguish and stress away.

Meredith Vieira: You shot your arms up into the air. What were you thinking at that moment?

David Goldman: We're on our way.

Meredith Vieira: You always said "It won't be till the wheels are up on the plane."  Was that the moment when you finally realized yes, I do have my son back?

David Goldman: That was, for that day, the icing on the cake. 

As Rio vanished under the clouds, two pairs of sneakers seemed to say it all:  father and son, together again. Sean, exhausted by the day's ricocheting events, was soon sound asleep. But his dad was still overwhelmed.

David Goldman: I can feel my body is just exhausted. I'm drained, but I still have the adrenaline going - I mean, my little boy is five feet away, sound asleep, peaceful... We're on our way. (blinking back tears) It's a Christmas miracle.

NBC News' Jeff Rossen, who'd been covering David's story from Brazil, was on the plane.

Jeff Rossen: What's it like to look at him, right now, on this plane and know that you are his guardian, that's it?

David Goldman: I just melt. Such a sweet boy. Still such a warm boy. It's so sad that he had to suffer even to the very end.

The frantic scene outside the embassy was still haunting David.

David Goldman: I was praying for it to end. For it to be over.

David would spend much of the 9-hour flight gazing at his son in disbelief - and when Sean complained he was feeling sick, his head aching, his feet freezing, David gently soothed his son. It was an emotional ride for everyone onboard.  On David's immigration form, where it asks how many family members are traveling with you, the crew had written one, with a smiley face.

Captain Mike Funiciello: I don't think there was a dry eye on the airplane when the kid came on.

Incredibly, this wasn't the first time Captain Mike Funiciello had been on a flight like this -- he also piloted the private plane that flew Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba.

Captain Mike Funiciello: It was a lot like this, you know, a lot of teary-eyed people...very happy, very happy to be together again.

Sean stirred only occasionally to peek out from under his hoodie at a movie - and to eat French fries for lunch. But when he wasn't resting, David rarely took his eye off his dozing son.

David Goldman: I don't want him to wake up and not - look up and know someone's there for him, that I'm there for him. Although I hope he doesn't sleep the whole plane and then stays awake all night, because I'm exhausted.

Like any kid, sean was hardly about to miss out on all the fun.  Soon, he was wide awake, chatting with the pilots up in the cockpit... And goofing around with his dad.

Posing playfully with the pillow he called his "arm," Sean was soon sharing secrets with his dad - even engaging in a food fight with Jeff Rossen.

As the plane began its descent onto U.S. soil, father and son huddled closely to peer out the window.

David Goldman: Here we go, bubba!

They had touched down. Sean was finally back in America.

Captain Mike Funiciello: Well, listen guys, I hope you have a very, very happy holiday. Good to see you guys together, it really is.

David Goldman: Thanks.

Captain Mike Funiciello: It was my pleasure to do it. Our pleasure to do it. We enjoyed it.

They had traveled 4,300 miles - to another continent, to a new life together. But would that plane ride turn out to be the easiest part of their journey?

It is 6:14 p.m. in Orlando, Christmas Eve, when the wheels go down. The pilot pulls the plane into a private hangar, hoping to avoid another public spectacle. As David disembarks, Sean is a few steps behind. Tired after the 9-hour flight, and still complaining that he feels sick.

Meredith Vieira: Do you think it was the stress?

David Goldman: Of course. How could it not affect anyone, what he'd gone through. He had a headache, and he was tired.

All David can think about is tucking his little boy safely into bed. This would be the first night father and son had spent together since June 15th, 2004.

Meredith Vieira: Christmas Eve was your first night alone together here in Orlando. What did you guys do?

David Goldman: We went to the room, obviously. I ran a bath for him. And we ordered room service. What do you think he ordered?

Meredith Vieira: Hamburger?

David Goldman: Chicken nuggets.

Meredith Vieira: Chicken nuggets, OK.

David Goldman: Chicken tenders, which he loved when he was here before. And then we sat and watched cartoons. And then he got tired and he pulled out his big stuffed dog, the toy that he's got and went to bed. And I told him several times that I loved him.

One day after Christmas, David sat down with me for his first interview since being reunited with his son.

Meredith Vieira: Welcome home, Dad.  (chuckle)

David Goldman: Welcome home, Son.

Home, for the moment, was a hotel room at Universal Studios theme park. There, far away from the TV crews already parked outside his house in New Jersey -- NBC helped David and Sean re-unite with family.

As Dateline captured images of their first days together, our cameras kept their distance, especially from Sean -- who'd had his fill of the media in Brazil.

Meredith Vieira: It's the day after Christmas, December 26th, and you've now had Sean for 2 nights.

David Goldman: There's no words to describe how joyous and wonderful it is to be with my son again.

David's parents were so eager to re-connect with their grandson, they flew down to Florida on Christmas Eve.  Sean was already fast asleep, David was beaming.

Ellie Goldman: And he says, "Can you believe he's in there?"  He said, "I can't believe he's in there.  I keep going and looking and touching him.  I can't believe he's here."

Meredith Vieira: You'll never be able to top this Christmas, David, I'll tell you that much.

David Goldman: Never. 

On Christmas day, David's sister Leslie, her husband and their two children arrived.

Leslie Goldman: It's great to have him back and I might have scared him because when I saw him, I just gave him such a tight hug.

Sean's cousin Coltrane is almost the same age as Sean, and despite not having seen each other since they were 4 years old, the two became instant pals.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that at the center of all the attention, there's just a regular 9 year old boy. And for David each moment with Sean, no matter how mundane, seemed like a gift.

David Goldman: He was getting into bed the other - last night. And I looked at him, and you know he did one of those  - (rolls his eyes) - and got up and brushed his teeth. So it's nice that he's still a child. And he needs help, you know.  And I'm here to give it to him. And I love every second of it.

For David's family, Sean's return is a completion of their family circle.

Leslie Goldman to Sean: Have you seen pictures of your father at this age? You look just like him. Doesn't he?

Kids being kids, Sean and his cousins took charge of the place, running around the hotel room, shooting toy guns, and playing basketball, using their grandfather's outstretched arms for a hoop.

Barry Goldman: I'm Pop Pop.  And-- he's Little Buddy. Oh, it's so great.  It's wonderful.  And-- and what's really so wonderful is watching my son David.  He's-- he's been a mope for five years.  Now, he's, like, glowing.  It's wonderful.

They say kids are resilient, and on the surface at least, Sean seemed to be taking everything in stride.  Eating ice cream, playing pinball in the amusement park's arcade, hopping on all the daredevil rides, and shooting hoops with his dad ... Just like they had on that very first visit in Brazil, almost a year before.

Still, for all the happy moments, David sensed a bit of distance from Sean.

Meredith Vieira: The first time you saw him, February 9th-- there was a bond.  You talked about it.  People saw it.  And he-- he hugged you.  He asked you to hug him with maximum force.

David Goldman: Maximum force.  Yes.

Meredith Vieira: Have you seen a change in him in-- in terms of the way he looks at you since then?

David Goldman: Yes. That day was beautiful.  It was beautiful.  I was Dad to him. And he's now a bit timid.  He hasn't given me a maximum force, and I'm not gonna make him, of course.  And I-- I just want to go and squeeze him, and squeeze him. But it's only been, what, a day and a half.  And he did give me a-- a mini force this morning.

Meredith Vieira: A little hug?

David Goldman: Yeah.

Meredith Vieira: Do get the feeling that at one moment he-- he has a warmth toward you and then the next-- he's-- he sees you as the enemy?

David Goldman: He pulls away.  Well, they've told him I'm the enemy for so long, that I'm the bad guy.  And I can see he-- he-- yeah, he does struggle with that.

The years they spent apart weigh heavily on David. Though he's glad Sean appears so calm, he worries that his son has yet to get upset -- and wonders if this is a sign that he hasn't fully processed all that's happened.

David Goldman: It would be natural for him to be crying. It would be normal for him to be crying.  And he's just so like closed it all in right now. There's got to be pain hidden in there. I hope he can, in a very short time, open up to me. And will open up to me in a short time. But I'll be patient.

Meredith Vieira: You're good at being patient.

David Goldman: Sometimes you have no choice. And you learn patience.

Meredith Vieira: Has he called you dad yet?

David Goldman: no. No.  He hasn't this time yet. I think he's struggling with that.

Meredith Vieira: Have you called him son?

David Goldman: Oh yeah. I've called him son, I've called him buddy.

Determined not to let any bitterness get in the way of Sean's healing, David immediately allowed Sean to contact his grandmother in Brazil.

David Goldman: We landed, and I-- here's my phone, text your grandmother and let her know you're okay.

Meredith Vieira: When you landed in the States, you had Sean do that?

David Goldman: Yes.  Yes.  And yesterday, for Christmas, here's my phone, call her up, call them up and wish them a merry Christmas.  Yeah.

A first step, in a long journey ahead.

Meredith Vieira: The hard work, in some ways, is only just beginning.

David Goldman: Exactly. And that's why I still can't be so celebratory. And I will remain focused on him, and help him as best as I can be as a loving dad.

But for now, this was heaven -- three days of family togetherness and joy.  Soon, it would be home to New Jersey, where Sean would finally see his old bedroom again ... And pet his old cat Tuey. But going home would also bring renewed controversy, with theBbrazilian family reaching out yet again to stake their claim on Sean.

The last time David and Sean had been in a U.S. airport together, David was sending his 4-year-old off on what was supposed to be a two-week holiday. Five long years later, he was finally coming home. They looked like any other father and son returning from Christmas vacation. How could anyone guess what it meant to David to simply have Sean standing next to him? Or to share a crossword puzzle? Or a jelly donut?

At Dunkin Donuts:

David Goldman (to Dunkin Donuts employee): One jelly. not that one. Not that one. Yeah, the one in front of it.

They are the small, simple moments that now mean the world to David Goldman. Three days after Christmas, when they pulled up in their driveway in New Jersey, the house was dark ... But inside, they got a bright welcome home with a Christmas tree from the local fire department, and most importantly for Sean, his old cat Tuey.

David Goldman: Look at you, rolling on her belly for Sean.  She missed you.

Tuey even had her own stocking on the chimney - right next to Sean's.

Tuey: Meow.

Sean plopped right down to tear into the presents that friends and neighbors had left under the tree.

Sean Goldman: Oh, this I like.

David Goldman: That one you like. Oh wow, another racecar, a remote-controlled one. We can have races now.

Sean Goldman: Yeah. This one is mine.

And then he started making his way through the house ... His house.

David Goldman: This was the guest room.

Sean Goldman: Oh, my playroom.

David Goldman: This is where you used to play in the office. Do you remember that chair?

Sean Goldman: Yeah.

David Goldman: You do! Do you remember these?

Sean Goldman: Yeah.

It's funny how sometimes, the smallest thing can jog your memory. For Sean, it was the little teeth marks he left in a wooden banister so many years before.

Sean Goldman: Oh, here's my tooth.

David Goldman: Yes! You remember your teeth! Yeah, right here. Yup, this is how tall he was.

For David, each glimmer of recognition was a step towards bridging the gap with his son. Watching Sean roam through his old bedroom - the place David could never bear to change - it all sank in.

David Goldman: I spent 5 years avoiding this room, but keeping it here for him. And now I sit here under a whole different light. He's home. He's home.

David Goldman: Hey you, should we celebrate? That's apple--apple juice. That's apple juice champagne.

Sean Goldman: You can celebrate. I, no.

David Goldman: Why?

Sean Goldman: Because it's champagne.

David Goldman: No, it's no alcohol.

There was so much to celebrate -- Sean seemed genuinely happy to be here, running around the house, making himself, well, at home. David's friends and family were elated.

Gene: I walked into the house and Sean got up and he-- and he was smiling. And he came over to me and he put his hand up and he gave me a high five, and he says, "Hey, Quigley." David just kind of looked back at me and we just had this moment where it was like, "I can't believe you-- you know, he just did that."

Father and son have spent much of this week palling around -- spending quiet time together fishing, and shopping for winter clothes. And just yesterday, Sean started school.  Three days ago, NBC sat down with David again, here in New York, for an update on Sean.  David says he seems happy, though he worries that his son still hasn't shown much emotion.

David Goldman: I'm almost wondering if he had to develop some sort of-- sort of detachment mechanism to help him survive these traumatic experiences. Of first being ripped away from me at a young age of four, and then his mom passing.

Meredith Vieira: Passing away. Do you worry about almost the other shoe dropping?  That there's-- he's gonna hit some wall at some point?

David Goldman: It is concerning. I don't know if he's just now-- he's got to be loyal to the adult that he's with.  Or, again, if part of him is really happy and-- to be here with me.  Which, I see that.  But, again, where-- where is-- where does one end and one begin.

The battle for Sean isn't over. Just one day after father and son returned to New Jersey, Sean's Brazilian family vowed to continue fighting for him.  But David's attorneys believe the chances of Sean ever going back to Brazil are remote at best.

Attorney Patricia Apy: I cannot imagine-- given-- what our law in the United States provides, what the treaty provides, and what the status of this matter is in Brazil, any basis for-- Sean being returned to Brazil.

The bitterness probably won't subside anytime soon.  At a press conference last week, David's U.S. attorney estimated that his five-year fight has cost him half a million dollars.  When she added that technically, David could go after the Brazilian family for reimbursement, it spurred a splash of new Brazilian headlines, as Sean's family reiterated its contention that all David ever wanted is money.

Bernard Aronson: It's just obscene to suggest that this man went through what he went through, you know, for some personal gain.  He-- there's no personal gain in losing your kid for four and a half years.

In fact, there's still a lawsuit pending against David in Rio, filed by Bruna's Brazilian husband and his father, seeking financial compensation for the damage they claim David has done to their family's honored name.

But David is intent on focusing only on his son and their healing ... Which looks like it may Video: Touchdown! Sean Goldman learns American football already be starting.   Remember that little three-letter word David so desperately wanted to hear?

Meredith Vieira: When we spoke in Orlando, I asked you if he called you dad. You said no, he hasn't. You've called him son, but he hasn't called you dad. Well, has he done that yet?

David Goldman: He did. It was maybe a couple of days after we were home. We're down out at the river, and they were breaking ice with friends, cousins. And he said "Dad, can you help me?"

Dateline was there when the moment came.

David Goldman: I heard it, but I wanted him to say it again, so I acted like I didn't. “What, what'd you say?” He said, "Hey Dad, come here." So of course, I jumped right down, and helped him break this stick. I didn't want to make a big to-do over it, just wanted to let it flow naturally.

Meredith Vieira: Inside, you must have been doing cartwheels.

David Goldman: I've been waiting for five years to hear that, those words again. And they're precious words, from a precious little boy.

He hopes peaceful moments will help erase all the trauma of the past five years, and dreams of once again idly canoeing with his little boy, just like they used to years ago.

David Goldman: If there's one moment that reaches beyond the others that I have of hopes and aspirations is for us to just go for a paddle in our backyard. I can't wait for the winter to end. I long for that day. I'll probably start cryin'.  So he'll definitely be in the front, not looking at me paddlin' away.

Meredith Vieira: Why that moment?

David Goldman: I don't know.  He loved it so much.  And that was just us in-- in nature, right-- right at home it was-- it was so beautiful.  And that one little spot in-- where he would look for the dinosaurs something about that was just so pure and so special.

For now, it's enough to simply be home, side by side, father and son, in the house where memories of little Sean still pleasantly linger... And David and Sean are buddies again.

David Goldman (smiling at Sean): We did it. We did it.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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