Last of Three Parts
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.
Before this case, they had reason to be optimistic about getting a parole date. It had been 32 years since he committed the assault on another inmate he was now serving time for.
Then in 2002 the U.S attorney in Los Angeles named Robert in a federal racketeering indictment against the Aryan Brotherhood, or the Brand, depicting it as a tightly run organization that used violence to control gambling, extortion and drug trafficking in prisons throughout the nation.
Robert had not had a disciplinary problem since 1985. The former warden at Pelican Bay and a chief investigator said there was no credible evidence he was still involved in the gang.
But the federal prosecutors said Robert had been quietly running a sophisticated criminal syndicate from his cell. Among a litany of brutal crimes, they accused him of ordering five prison murders and the killing of a snitch's innocent father. Robert and 22 other defendants faced the death penalty.
At the first trial, held in Santa Ana, four Aryan Brotherhood heavies in the federal prison system were convicted but spared the death penalty. In the next round, prosecutors took death off the table. Robert Griffin and his co-defendant, John Stinson, now faced life without parole if convicted.
Assistant U.S. Atty. J. Mark Childs took the lectern to give his opening statement.
"In December of 1983, Steven Barnes, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, took the witness stand in a courtroom located in San Bernardino County and testified against defendant Robert Lee Griffin, who was a leading member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, and who was on trial for murder."
Childs, 40, spoke in a plain, deferential tone.
"A few months after Steven Barnes testified against defendant Griffin, a man by the name of Curtis Price, who was an Aryan Brotherhood member, went to the home of the father of Steven Barnes."
"Curtis Price went into a bedroom, put a pistol to the back of Richard Barnes' skull and pulled the trigger three times."
Pam took notes to keep her emotions tamped down. She had known what the prosecutors planned to say, but it was still painful to hear.
Childs called Robert Griffin "one of the most powerful members of the Aryan Brotherhood in its entire history."
Robert sat in his preppy clothes taking notes as jurors looked at photos on a screen above him. They saw a grainy image of him bulked up and covered in tattoos. They saw Barnes' body lying on his bed in his cowboy boots, the splatter of the killing all over the checkered bedspread. They saw a dead Stephen Clark, his face slick with clots of blackened blood, his neck slit open. They saw the far-off gaze that settled into Arthur Ruffo's face as he was silently strangled in his cell.
Griffin and Stinson were accused of secretly orchestrating or approving these murders.
Robert's court-appointed attorney, Michael Crain, called the case an elaborate concoction.
"Back in 1970, for those of you who remember, it was a time when our society was in turmoil," Crain told the jury, with a casual hint of Texas in his voice. "And prison at that time, there was a lot of violence. It was a dangerous place. You had to survive on your own.
"Inmates of various races and ethnicities banded together for protection from other races and ethnicities. . . . That's the prison system Robert Griffin entered as a young man of 21."
Crain told the jurors that Robert built a tough reputation -- with the moniker "Blinky" -- that now held him captive.
He knew prosecutors had to prove not only that Robert had orchestrated gruesome crimes but also that he was still part of the conspiracy as recently as August 1997. Under the statute of limitations, his earlier crimes wouldn't matter if he was out of the gang by then.
"The evidence in this case is going to show you that Mr. Griffin, for over 20 years, has not received a single disciplinary write-up in the Department of Corrections," Crain said. "And this is essentially unheard of."
Crain's voice hardened as he turned to prosecutors' key witnesses, the prison informants. Much of the trial rested on how these convicts were defined in the jury's eyes. They were miscreants -- drug addicts, perjurers, murderers.
The informant who triggered the case, Michael Thompson, had been described by a prison warden as "an extreme liar, fabricator and controller of other people" who has "attempted to ingratiate himself to any law enforcement agency by testifying against other persons."
But who else would get an inside view of such a sordid world? Prosecutors in snitch cases often warned jurors in advance with an analogy: In a play cast in hell, there are no angels.
"All of the witnesses are receiving something," Crain said. "They are not here because overnight they became good citizens and they want to bring truth and light to this courtroom."
Back at the Terminal Island prison that night, Robert did his yoga exercises and meditation. He had taken to Buddhism in middle age, partly as a way to keep his sanity in near-constant isolation.
Before he came to Los Angeles for this trial, Robert had been held in the harshest confinement in the state, the Secured Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison. For 12 years, he spent nearly 23 hours a day in his cell, with one hour outside alone, pacing in a bare concrete yard the size of a boxcar, madness stalking behind. If he dwelt too long on what his life had become, it would get him.
Buddhism pushed him to detach himself from desire and accept the present as the place where his actions, good and bad, naturally delivered him. Longing to have done things differently was pointless, the very basis of suffering.
He was tired after a long day. "I love you, Angel. We have to unwind and get ready for bed," he wrote Pam, using the royal "we" as he often did. "We got to tell you, Legs, Mike did good. You're always good."
Clifford "Smitty" Smith lumbered up onto the stand like a bellicose old walrus.
Wearing a green prison jumpsuit and chain restraints, he was built like an aging power lifter -- hefty paunch, massive chest and arms, stump of a head.
Pam had not seen him for more than 20 years, back when they were friends. On visiting days at the prison in Chino, he was a funny good ol' boy from Bakersfield. Pam had a quilt on her bed in Omaha that Smitty's grandma had sewn her for Christmas.
Now 53, Smitty was pallid and coughing like a consumptive.
"How many murders are you responsible for?" Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Aveis asked him.
"I believe, but I'm not sure, from the time I got in the Aryan Brotherhood until the time I got out we killed 21 people," Smith said flatly.
His fixed glass eye spoke to his time in battle.
"Why were you interested in joining the Aryan Brotherhood?"
"Two kinds of people in prison," Smith shot back, "predator and prey." He glanced at Robert and Stinson with his one good eye. "I'm a predator and they're predators."
He had used the same line a few months before in Santa Ana. He described how the Aryan Brotherhood tried to reform itself from a ragtag prison gang into a moneymaking criminal organization in the summer of 1982, when most of the members were in Chino. He said they formed a three-man commission, which included Robert, at the top.
Smith said the commission had to approve any hit on a brother.
"At some point was there an episode that occurred on the yard where 'Loser' Clark did anything in particular that really ticked you off?"
"Yes, the day he got killed," Smith said. "He called me a punk in front of my daughter."
Smith visibly fumed at the memory of Stephen Clark a quarter century after murdering him. "I'd been trying to get Griffin to let me kill him for months.
"After the little incident on the yard that day, that was like the final straw, and Blinky gave me the go-ahead," Smith said.
Aveis turned to a piece of evidence on the screen above Robert: "Govt. Exhibit 1." It was a letter signed "Blinky."
Robert had written the letter in Chino in 1982 to update a gang commissioner in San Quentin on gang activities and explain the demise of Clark. An inmate going up north had smuggled the "kite" in his rectum.
"All that could be done was done but in the last two months he had gone completely insane," Robert wrote. "Everyone did all they could to tolerate him and help him get to the streets but in the end he turned on everyone. . . ."
Robert's penmanship was tighter, more pointed than in the letters he wrote Pam. He discussed smuggling knives through metal detectors, an alliance with the Mexican Mafia, a potential war with the Crips.
In directing Smith to interpret much of the kite, Aveis came to this sentence: "Steve Barnes is in the federal protection program, as is his wife."
"Had there been any discussions about putting out hits on Steve Barnes?" Aveis asked.
"Sure. In '82, when we formed the commission, we established a policy by vote that if someone defected from the organization and told, like I'm doing here, anyone close to him would be open for taking a hit, except kids. That means they could kill my mother, my grandmother, my wife, but we wouldn't kill no kids."
Smith said they arranged for a brother who was about to be paroled to do the hit.
"We were going to hit Steve Barnes' parents. . . . This guy was telling on Griffin. He was testifying against Griffin. We wanted to put some, we wanted to show him you can't do that and get away with it."
This murder was the toughest part of the case for Robert. If the jury felt he was connected to the killing of an innocent man on the outside, he was done.
But prosecutors had damage control to do with their key witness. Smith had fabricated testimony in a quadruple murder case in Oregon. And then, at the earlier Aryan Brotherhood trial in Santa Ana, he testified that he had told the truth in Oregon. He didn't know the defense had a tape of him admitting he had lied in Oregon. Confronted, Smith had said, "You caught me."
Aveis had to lay this mess out there before the defense did. But Crain was not going to let this slip by quickly. He dragged Smith meticulously through every occasion he lied to juries just like this one here.
"Now, would you describe yourself as an honest person?" Crain asked.
"No," Smith shot back, to scattered snickers in the courtroom.
By now he had warmed up to performing like he used to on the yard in Chino. A few devil-may-care one-liners had the entire courtroom laughing out loud. At one point he admitted that a parole board would have to be drunk to let him out of prison.
"And so you were going to try to lie your way out of it with the Santa Ana jury and then realized, hey, I'm caught," Crain said.
"When you get caught, you're caught," Smith said.
Pam tried to clear her mind after each day in court. She walked up to Bunker Hill to get some exercise, or did some yoga in her hotel room. She tried to detach herself from hope -- from the looming gavel that would judge her life's struggle and ultimately decide if she would die alone.
She took the Metro Gold Line up to Pasadena to shop at Wild Oats, and made dinners in her room at the Kawada Hotel. On weekends, she visited Robert at Terminal Island.
In court, she sat by herself taking notes, betraying no emotion as eight heavily tattooed Aryan Brotherhood dropouts jangled through the courtroom in chains to testify that her husband, unlike them, remained among the unredeemed.
Since they got married in 1984, Pam and Robert had been in constant battle against allegations by AB dropouts or hangers-on. This was the big showdown, the chance to get it all out there and have it be judged by impartial jurors.
But they had a creeping feeling that the opportunity was slipping from their hands.
Robert complained in letters to Pam that his attorneys didn't introduce key documents and had to be reminded of evidence to refute the prosecution's witnesses.
Their frustration hit a peak when Brian "Deadeye" Healy shuffled up to the stand.
Healy had slowly strangled his cellmate, Arthur Ruffo, in Pelican Bay on Feb. 7, 1996.
At his murder trial, he claimed he acted in self-defense. Once convicted, he agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in return for a reduced sentence and immunity on another murder. He said the Aryan Brotherhood ordered him to do it because Ruffo had a dispute with Robert.
In court, Healy, 41, looked as if he had skulked out of a child's nightmare -- his arms bulging out-of-scale, his eyes black and flat as primer. He wore a big Tolstoyan beard, and tattoos climbed his neck like a necrotic infection.
"What other types of violent acts have you committed while you've been in prison?" Childs asked.
"I stabbed a prison guard in the neck. I was charged with attempted murder for that," Healy said. He rocked tensely in his chair. The sides of his shaved head flexed with sinew.
"Have you committed any violent offenses in the courtroom?" Childs asked.
"I stood up in a makeshift courtroom out in Folsom and stabbed one of my codefendants in the chest."
"Why did you do that?" the prosecutor asked.
"The reason I did it, I think. . . . I'm not even sure. He didn't take care of some business or something, but basically he had to go."
He said he got word from three Brand commissioners that he was to befriend Ruffo, get him comfortable before striking, rock him to sleep. After the deed was done, Healy testified, he found himself one day in a cell next to Robert's in the legal visiting room.
"I think he was right next door to me. . . . He told me thanks, that was a good thing that I had done and that if I needed anything to let him know, he was there for me."
Healy said he subsequently began to question whether Ruffo had really done wrong by the gang.
"So Griffin sent my attorney a letter outlining what happened, his opinions of Ruffo and what he thought Ruffo was up to," he said. "And then my attorney made sure I got it."
Jurors looked at an image of a letter on the screen above.
Childs drew Healy to a passage toward the end. "He was a bully and an obnoxious lying twit whose loyalty was with himself," Robert wrote. "He was one of the most disingenuous men I've ever met and having been in prison for 27 years that's saying a lot."
Childs asked Healy what the line about loyalty meant.
"Totally contrary to anything that the AB stands for. The AB had tunnel vision. Your family is the Aryan Brotherhood. To say your loyalty is to yourself is to say you're not loyal to the Aryan Brotherhood. If you are member of the Aryan Brotherhood, that means you must be murdered. That's the bottom line."
"And what did you understand Mr. Griffin to be communicating to you by that statement?"
"The Aryan Brotherhood is a better place without this guy. It was a good murder. Let it rest."
Crain furiously cross-examined him on his motives for killing Ruffo.
"Didn't he disrespect you?" asked Crain.
"No. . . ."
"Well, was there a time when Ruffo would disrespect you by masturbating in front of female guards and get you very worked up about that?"
"Yeah, he done that one time," Healy muttered.
Crain laid into Healy's history of dishonesty, getting him to admit he used to teach other inmates to lie to juries.
Robert whispered at Crain to tie up a loose end: Visiting logs put him and Healy together in the personal visiting room at Pelican Bay, not the legal one that the witness testified to. Not addressing this distinction, Robert felt, left the impression that records cleanly supported Healy's testimony.
Crain seemed increasingly agitated by Robert's exhortations.
"We're at a point where there's really nothing we can do but hope he doesn't implode on us," Robert wrote Pam on Dec. 13. "When we started in on him about our documents yesterday, it appeared he was about to have an anxiety attack. . . . We aren't doing bad, Bait, we have some great moments and avoided some ugly ones."
They could only pray that their witnesses could undo some of the damage.
They opened their defense with their last, best hope: Robert Ayers, the warden of San Quentin State Prison.
Ayers was a tough, former Army lieutenant colonel who had joined the Department of Corrections as a guard in 1968. When he was warden of Pelican Bay in 1997, he directed his staff to investigate Robert's claim that he had dropped out of the gang.
"I didn't see any current information in the central file," Ayers told the jury. "I didn't see anything that indicated [gang] activity within the past five years."
Ayers said the only evidence against him in the C file was vague statements by two confidential informants, including an inmate with no standing in the gang who was in San Bernardino County Jail while Robert was there for a court hearing.
"I didn't find a lot of credibility there because it was just absolutely inconsistent with what Griffin's behavior was in the years prior to that," Ayers said. "For me to believe that he would go down to a county jail and confide in somebody he didn't know just didn't strike me as credible."
Aveis started his cross-examination gingerly. "Nice to meet you face to face," he said. He knew Ayers' credentials were impeccable; he wasn't going to confront him head-on.
Instead, he asked a series of hypothetical questions, based on statements jailhouse informants made about Robert after Ayers reviewed Robert's prison file in 1997.
"If you saw in this particular inmate's C file that we've been talking about, this hypothetical C file, evidence that this inmate was involved in gang politicking, would that have value to you in your analysis of whether or not the inmate was active or inactive?
"Again, it would be another one of those dots that I would be looking to connect," Ayers said.
The rest of the morning Aveis followed this pattern. He fired a hypothetical question: Would it change your opinion if the defendant did this or this? Ayers answered: Possibly. I'd have to see it.
Crain objected repeatedly, arguing that it was not clear what, if any, evidence Aveis' questions were based on.
The judge told the jurors the questions themselves should not be taken as facts.
But Pam watched in mounting despair as the warden's testimony grew muddier and muddier.
She went back to her room at the Kawada in dismay. Ayers was their ace in the hole. She started to sob. Robert was going to die in prison.
The next day, she rode the DASH to court with a sense of dread. Crain called Barry O'Neill, a former gang investigator at Pelican Bay, to the stand.
O'Neill described how he conducted the investigation into Robert's gang activity for the warden.
"Did you look at this carefully?" Crain asked.
"Oh, I didn't just turn over a few stones. I turned over stones under the stones."
Crain asked him about the process by which inmates "debrief" -- giving investigators confidential statements in order to get into protective custody in a less restrictive facility.
"Now, is Mr. Griffin rather well-known among the prison culture, would you say?"
"Have you experienced situations where you believe that the debriefer was tossing in the name of some well-known inmate to benefit his own situation?" Crain asked.
O'Neill said, "The inmates that are debriefing tend to want to name the most, the highest-ranking people."
On cross-examination, Aveis seized on O'Neill's compensation for the case. As an expert witness for the defense, he was paid $100 an hour by the court for reviewing the discovery documents, traveling and testifying.
"What is the overall number of hours you've spent?"
"It's probably over 150 by now."
"How many pages did you read?" Aveis asked.
"I'm not sure I could get down to the actual number of pages. But it was in the neighborhood of 4,000 pages."
"So you've generated, earned about $15,000 for reading several thousand pages. Is that your testimony?"
"I would imagine."
When the trial wrapped up, Robert wrote Pam that Crain had tried his best. "He still thinks we got it. We didn't argue, but we don't, Legs. We believe there is a shot at hanging it, but there are too many lists and fantasy documents and letters containing our name. The jury doesn't know we have nothing to do with these people."
The judge continued the jury deliberations until after the holidays.
At her hotel Jan. 9, 2007, Pam got word the jury had reached a verdict. Inexplicably, she had a flush of optimism.
The courtroom was packed with onlookers and media. Pam tried to read the jurors' faces, but couldn't see anything telling.
U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner asked the clerk to read the verdict on Robert, for the count of conspiracy.
The operative word came quick and toneless.
The clerk read the special verdicts on the overt acts.
Guilty of conspiracy to murder Stephen Clark, Richard Barnes, Thomas Lamb, Richard Andreason, Arthur Ruffo.
And the critical special verdict: "Did defendant Robert Lee Griffin withdraw from the conspiracy charged in Count One before Aug. 28, 1997?"
"No," the clerk said.
Pam had to get out of that building. She dashed to the elevator.
Outside she walked under the perforated soul of Molecule Man. She paced hard up Temple Street.
Santa Ana winds were back, whipping up dust. She couldn't cry. Everything was dull and inert. People looked vacuous. No one understood. No one would ever understand. Buses lunged and whined. She looked up at the brown, birdless sky. She wanted to cry but she just couldn't.
The word "never" kept running through her head.
She would never touch Robert's hands again. She would never hug him. She would never kiss him. She would never chat with him in the kitchen while dinner cooked.
The rest of their days would be divided by bullet-proof glass.
"My love," she wrote three days later. "I find it hard to put pen to paper right now. It's a bitter hand we're dealt, D -- and an uncertain journey we set out on. But this is the road we travel and we travel it, as always, hand in hand. A little time, my heart -- it's not easy to redefine one's raison d'etre in the blink of an eye, you know. There are many aspirations to be rewritten, many assumptions to be erased; parts of the brain must be rewired. Our dreams are our children, and the loss of anyone cuts to the bone, even when another can be found to replace it.
"Do you think it's possible to suffer the inevitable losses in life without succumbing, incrementally, to sorrow and bitterness? I know this is kind of what your [Buddhist] practice is about, but I have trouble understanding what it is I should let go of and what I need to keep.
"See, I know the truth even if it has ceased to exist anywhere outside us. Well, my dear, we'll find our way; even with no road map. I remember how, many years ago, I walked the sand up there along the Pacific, looking at a trail of shiny, polished pebbles, thinking how they had been worn down from these huge boulders by time and saltwater. And so we are too, by time and salt water. We may get very shiny, and very small, Robert -- but what's left will be the very essence of us, and there will be nothing false in it.
"I love you, Robert -- Pamela."
She flew back to Omaha. In December 2007, she retired from First Data Resources. She visited Robert every month at Terminal Island, before his transfer back to Pelican Bay, and started to work on his appeal.
In February, she flew to Honduras with a group that provides fuel-efficient stoves for the poor.
Pam bundles up in jeans and a sweat shirt at her splintered motel, and sets out along the cobblestones to the mouth of the Smith River. The coast is big and wild up here, just south of the Oregon border.
She climbs the rocky headland and watches the river run clear and fast below, pouring into the empty Pacific. She threads through the heath, scales down the other side of the point along a fissure in the rock, and sets across a long beach scoured smooth by the wind. The basaltic coast is fractured with inlets and jagged islands. Vast boneyards of driftwood lie below the bluffs. A few pale spirals of smoke rise from ranchers' slash piles in the hills.
A lone woman passes with her dogs. Pam picks up small bits of driftwood burls on the sand. She glances at some birds and wonders if they are sandpipers or something else. Where a cold stream crosses the beach, she looks down and spots a yellow pebble. She picks it up and gazes at it, and puts it in her pocket.
She has pebbles from this coast scattered throughout her home.
A couple of hours later, she steps up to the counter to sign in at visitors' reception at Pelican Bay.
"Oh, Miss Griffin, how are you?" the female officer asks cheerfully.
Pam waits with all the other families visiting loved ones in the Secured Housing Unit. Some of them buy coffee cups and sweat shirts with slogans like "Hard Time Hotel" and "Worst of the Worst."
When they call her, she goes through a metal detector so sensitive a zipper will set it off. Officers buzz her through a sally port, and she gets a seat on the shuttle bus.
She looks at the fences outside the window as the bus speeds along the inside of the periphery. Two high chain-link fences topped with concertina wire flank glinting high-voltage lines. The prison grounds have no plants, just gravel. The bus pulls up to the SHU.
She walks into the dim fluorescent light. Gone is the resplendent life just outside -- the redwoods, the water lilies in the creeks, the ocean air and sun.
The guard tells Pam to sit at the window at the end of the row. She grabs a disinfectant wipe from a box on the table.
She walks over to her chair and wipes the phone down.
This may be the only place she ever sees Robert again.
In ways, she has come to accept their relationship as it is, as it has been -- something between them, with nothing outside to adorn it and nothing to spoil it.
Maybe this craving for him to get out is what she had to let go.
She gets angry and forlorn still. But whatever anyone else says, whether they judge her or ridicule her, she knows that what she has is as simple and pure as that pebble.
Robert walks into the cage behind the glass, smiling in his Woody Allen glasses and yellow jumpsuit. He looks at her as he puts his hands through a slot behind him to have his handcuffs unlocked. His knees bounce with energy.
Pam smiles and picks up the phone.