MIAMI -- Immigration and Naturalization Service Special Agent Betty A. Mills, who cradled Elian Gonzalez in her arms as they left his relatives' home in Little Havana, played one of the most critical roles in the predawn seizure of the scared little boy.
Her instructions: Find Elian, get him safely into a waiting van, and stay with him and allay his fears until federal agents reunite him with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
After Elian was found in a closet, Mills told him in Spanish: "'I know this seems frightening to you now, but it will all be over very soon,'" said Russ Bergeron, director of media relations for the INS. "She told him: 'We're not going to take you to Cuba. We're not going to put you on a raft. We're taking you to see your papa.'"
During the flight to Maryland, aboard a U.S. Marshals Service plane, Mills, 33, repeated that message, which psychological experts consulted by the INS said would "help overcome [Elian's] anxiety and assuage any fears," Bergeron said.
Once they were aboard the plane, he never left Mills' lap, INS officials said. It was his first airplane trip.
"Elian is very interactive with his adult caregiver. He was calm on the flight and he bonded with her immediately," said Karen Kraushaar, an INS spokeswoman who spoke with Mills after the plane landed at the base.
Mills, an eight-year veteran of the INS, had been chosen for the role because experts advised the INS that a Spanish-speaking, female agent would be the least intimidating for the delicate role of taking Elian from the Miami home.
"We determined very early on that she would be the appropriate person for this operation. She had all the pieces we were looking for," said Kraushaar. "As a law enforcement officer, she was wedded to a very scary situation and she performed admirably."
Mills, who is based in Miami, has a broad range of INS experience, is a veteran of tactical operations and is fluent in Spanish. Her mother is Puerto Rican and her father was born in Virginia. Mills grew up in Pennsylvania, speaking both English and Spanish.
After a stint in the Army as a member of the military police, Mills joined the INS as a border patrol agent in El Paso. Her next assignments were as an immigration agent in Phoenix and as an INS inspector in Pittsburgh.
During the operation, Mills and another agent were specifically assigned to Elian. The second agent was a backup for Mills. Once the child was in the van, a key part of Mills' role was to put him at ease.
For the flight, the INS prepared food and a package of toys for Elian that agents had been told would help relieve stress and anxiety. They included a Pokemon game, crayons, an airplane and Play-Doh.
"The experts told us Play-Doh would be good to use when someone has been in a stressful situation, because you can squeeze it and it helps work out anxiety," Bergeron said.
Elian and Mills colored and played Pokemon together on the flight; he changed his clothes and he talked with his father on the phone. He was excited to be on an airplane and wasn't very interested in either food or drinks, according to Kraushaar.
Mills' mission was completed, Bergeron said, when she turned the boy over to his father at the Air Force base.
"Right now she's just trying to get some rest," Kraushaar said last night. "She and the other agents were on call for 72 hours."