Trial strains the hope of a prisoner's wife
Pamela Griffin long imagined her husband, Robert Griffin, getting out. His indictment in a federal case targeting the Aryan Brotherhood stunted those dreams. As the trial unfolds, her fears mount.
Filling her time while in California to visit her husband, Robert, at Pelican Bay State Prison, Pamela Griffin walks along the rocky coastline not far from the Oregon border. (Annie Wells / Los Angeles Times / August 30, 2008)
In the predawn solitude of a prison cell on Terminal Island, a thin, graying state prisoner shaved, ate some bran flakes and a banana and started a letter to his wife, before a convoy of heavily armed U.S. marshals took him to court.
"Sweet Companion," he wrote in long, elegant strokes. "I love you, Legs, and trust you're feeling spiffy this morning. We're ready. Well, as ready as a guy can be at 4:04 a.m."
Robert Griffin's daily letters spun an unbroken strand of conversation with Pam. He meandered along the thread, never stepping back and crossing out words, following thoughts as they came. He talked about the mortgage, the garden, their families -- as if he and Pam were chatting at her breakfast table in Omaha and he had not been in prison every day of the last 36 years.
"Our ride is here. We'll be back this evening with our take of the day."
Pamela Griffin emerged a few hours later from her brick hotel on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles. It was Nov. 7, 2006. The air was dry and restless with Santa Ana winds. She caught a DASH bus to East Temple Street, and walked under a sculpture of perforated steel silhouettes, Molecule Man, into the air-conditioned lobby of the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building.
Pam was a 56-year-old banking attorney, slight and pale, with a Midwesterner's gracious cheer -- "Oh, peachy keen," she would say when asked how she was doing.
She had taken a six-week leave from her job as a senior counsel for First Data Resources, a multinational company that processes credit card transactions. She did not tell her bosses why. They did not know she had been married for 22 years to a man charged with running one of the nation's most brutal prison gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood.
She went through the metal detectors on the bottom floor, and then through one on the eighth floor. Marshals stood throughout the courtroom, questioning every visitor, under security measures normally reserved for Mafia or terrorism cases.
She sat down in the second row and opened her notebook. Robert, 58, sat at the defense table wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses and one of the open-collared shirts she had sent him. He called it his "professor look."
Pam knew every detail of the case against him. In a sense, she had been fighting these allegations for two decades -- before parole boards, judges, prison committees -- trying to prove Robert had walked away from the prison gang long ago.
She wanted to be in court to help Robert's attorneys, and to show the jurors he had a wife who loved him.
He called her "Bait," short for "Dragon Bait" from their favorite Tom Robbins novel, about a love affair between an outlaw and a princess.
He was the dragon, or just "D," the man Pam never felt alone with, the other voice in her every reflection.
They used to talk about what they would do when he got paroled. They would sit on the back deck, watch the redbirds in the ash tree, read the Sunday paper. They would garden, go camping, take a tour of Ireland.
They didn't talk about this anymore. As they grew older, Pam learned to be more cautious with her hopes.
She planned to retire next year. She had no children. Her mother was gone, her father ailing. She couldn't allow herself to visualize the daily reality of the rest of her life.
But a simple image slipped past her emotional fortifications now and then: Robert and her talking in her kitchen, cooking dinner.
She did not want to be in that image alone.