A sign welcoming home Sean Goldman is displayed near the Goldman home on December 24 in Tinton Falls, New Jersey.
For the first time in five years, a New Jersey father went to bed knowing that no last-minute legal appeal could keep him from his mop-haired son, who was finally back on U.S. soil after a tumultuous intercontinental custody battle involving his Brazilian stepfamily.
"My little boy is 5 feet away, sound asleep, peaceful," Goldman, of Tinton Falls, N.J., told NBC during the flight. "We're on our way. My heart is just melting. I love him."
The father and son had been reunited Thursday in Rio de Janeiro after the youngster squeezed through a jostling throng of reporters and photographers while being marched to the U.S. consulate by his mother's relatives. The reunion ended an epic battle that pitted Goldman against Sean's Brazilian stepfather, a powerful lawyer who had cared for the boy since his mother died last year.
Soon after Sean fought his way through the crowd, the smiling boy was back in his father's arms, talking about basketball and how much snow there was back in New Jersey.
The father said his holiday wish was to rekindle their relationship, put on hold since the boy's mother took him to her native Brazil in 2004 and refused to return him.
"It is now time for our new beginning, the rebirth of our family at such a special time of the year," Goldman wrote in a letter read to reporters after his departure.
Sean had lived in Brazil since Goldman's ex-wife, Bruna Bianchi, took him there for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. She stayed, divorced Goldman and remarried, and Goldman began legal efforts to get Sean back.
After Bianchi died during childbirth, her new husband, prominent divorce attorney Paulo Lins e Silva, continued the legal fight and won temporary custody.
Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who was with Sean's father in Brazil and supported him, said Thursday that "the abduction has ended."
The boy's maternal grandmother, Silvana Bianchi, however, said that taking him at Christmastime was "a heinous crime."
"My heart is empty and broken," she said, "because our love is missing."
The last act in the drama played out partly in public view. A tearful Sean, wearing a gold Brazil Olympic T-shirt, was walked a block to the 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.
Smith said he was disappointed to see Sean "marched through the streets like that."
The Brazilian family had been offered the same secure entrance to the consulate garage that Goldman used, which would have shielded the child from view, U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Orna Blum said. She said she had no idea why the family 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, Sean calmed down and soon was eating hamburgers and talking with his father, 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 wouldn't say where they were headed after the chartered flight to Florida, which was paid for by NBC. He said 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.
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.
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."