Unveiling the Face of the Prison Scandal

Times Staff Writers

Chuck Graner flew both Marine Corps and American flags outside his house after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and they were far from the only flags in Uniontown, just an hour from where one of the hijacked planes crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside.

Three month later, the Desert Storm vet reenlisted, joining an Army Reserve unit that needed military police. “I just thought it was the right thing to do,” he told a neighbor.

Graner was in the middle of rebuilding his front porch when the unit was ordered to active duty on Feb. 24, 2003, a month before the invasion of Iraq. He left his American flag in the front window, like a curtain, and shipped out to the Middle East, where he would make a name for himself -- but not as a small-town hero.

Graner is among the seven U.S. soldiers ordered before courts-martial, accused of humiliating and torturing Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s own former house of torture. Four will face hearings beginning Monday, including Graner and his pregnant girlfriend, Pfc. Lynndie England, who downplayed their actions as “basically us fooling around.”


But since the release of photographs and videotapes of what went on along Tier 1A at Abu Ghraib -- showing England with a stack of naked Iraqis, for starters -- the repercussions have been never-ending, including the mass release of prisoners and scrutiny of Bush administration legal memos on what’s permissible in wartime interrogations. Over the last two months, the scandal at Abu Ghraib may have eroded America’s moral authority not only in Iraq but on other fronts of the war on terror.

While the larger questions are yet to be answered -- how widespread was such abuse? was torture authorized? -- other guards have identified the ringleader on Tier 1A as 35-year-old Charles A. Graner Jr., the thumbs-up Army specialist who appeared to be enjoying himself while battering one detainee with his fist and posing with others shown naked, bloodied or dead.

One commentator noted Graner’s “evil leer.” Another saw him as one of the “monstrous American creeps.” A third derided the Abu Ghraib guards as “recycled hillbillies,” as if such roots might explain why they ran amok inside the prison in Iraq.

But Chuck Graner began his life in suburbia, in a two-story brick home with yellow siding, on a hilltop south of Pittsburgh. He was a kid with promise before he became the man the world saw, the tattooed former prison guard who had pleaded guilty to harassing his ex-wife. He was also a veteran who had kept his cool guarding Iraqi prisoners in the Persian Gulf War -- before he became a defiant man who was hard to figure, one who would display Bible verses outside his home, but pick passages from an angry prophet.

That’s not the Chuck Graner they recall in the borough of Whitehall, a quiet community of 15,000 residents that reported only four robberies one recent year. He was the son of an airline mechanic, but mixed daily with the children of doctors and lawyers. Friends assumed that a white-collar life would be the destiny also of the boy who drew little attention to himself in St. Gabriel’s elementary school or in Little League, where he was the catcher, the kid behind the mask.

By Pony League age -- 14 or 15 -- he played on the team coached by attorney Ed Lawrence, who recalls him as a polite boy who could be competitive without getting hot under the collar. “I never had any problems with Chuck,” Lawrence sums it up.

It may seem odd that a youth coach would remember an average player after two decades, but there’s a reason: Lawrence’s daughter Lisa, “an egghead kind of kid,” in her father’s words.

The teenagers hit it off and became a “class couple” at Baldwin High. The 1986 yearbook shows them side by side in the science club, and not merely on the student council, but also on its executive board -- Chuck wearing a tie in that photo. All that was partly Lisa’s doing, her family says -- she sort of “pushed him into that” -- but he did not seem out of place among the achievers.

“He wasn’t a dummy. He was in the top 20-25%,” said Patrick Sentner, who was vice president of the student council.

Graner entertained classmates by imitating David Letterman, and showed physical guts by wrestling and pole-vaulting -- though a teammate jokes that they were “picnic pole-vaulters” because they’d practice a little, then “watch the women run around the track.”

“He was just an all-around good kid,” said veteran school board member Jane W. Hunnewell.

Lisa’s dad wondered about the ambitions of the mechanic’s son squiring his daughter, but it wasn’t like Chuck was “hanging out at some shopping center smoking cigarettes.” Besides, Lisa was heading off to college -- on an academic scholarship at the University of Virginia -- and distance has a way of taking care of first loves.

If the former Lisa Lawrence comes to their 20th high school reunion in two years, classmates will learn that she went on to get a doctorate in meteorology, publish scientific articles and start a family with her husband, a science teacher. Her former boyfriend, they may note, started out at a pretty good school, too.


Marines and Marriage

The University of Pittsburgh lists Graner as having been a full-time student for two years. Its records don’t show what he studied, or why he left.

The month classes ended in 1988, he joined a Marine Corps Reserve unit based at an armory in Pittsburgh. It gave him something to do that summer -- boot camp -- after which it was a weekend-warrior commitment.

Two years after leaving college, Graner still listed his parents’ Whitehall address as his own, and described himself as a construction worker, on a marriage certificate.

His bride was Staci Dean, 19, a former cheerleader who had written in her yearbook at Uniontown High, an hour and a half south of Pittsburgh, that her ambition was to “party at Slippery Rock with Jen.” She stayed at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania for a year and then moved to Pittsburgh, where she met Graner.

She was pregnant when they wed on June 15, 1990. Her family provided them with a white wood-frame house in Uniontown that had belonged to her grandparents. The hamlet of 12,000 has a proud military heritage -- it’s where George Washington saw his first military action, in the French and Indian War. Uniontown also was known for its millionaires once, when the coal mines and steel mills were flourishing. But the area now is among the poorest in Pennsylvania, a place where jobs are in chain restaurants, at a hospital or where Graner found work, the Fayette County Prison.

With a child coming, he needed steady paychecks and benefits. He was hired the month of his marriage, but did not have much time to get to know his fellow guards. Within weeks, Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait and his reserve unit was called up for Desert Storm.

Ross Guidotti, who had enlisted a year before, noticed one thing about his new fellow MP: his “huge” ears, which stuck out when Graner got his first military haircut. “We used to say he could be a radar dish.”

Graner knew how to handle such hazing -- curse the other guy and laugh. He “seemed to enjoy his existence,” Guidotti said, though Graner did strike him as “easily led ... always trying to fit in.” He would speak loudly when he walked into a room, as if to say, “Hi, I’m Chuck Graner, look at me,” Guidotti said.

The reservists had summer training in California, in Twentynine Palms, and often waited for such trips to “get some ink done,” Guidotti said. Graner had an eagle and “USMC” tattoos on his right arm, roses on his left forearm and a whale on his inner left calf.

The Marines preached that MP stood for “multipurpose,” so they were trained in infantry combat, white-hat duty guarding a base and how “you’d better be able to handle enemy prisoners of war,” Guidotti said. They did those drills at “Twentynine Stumps” -- including instruction in the Geneva Convention -- just months before they got to use their training in the Middle East.

They arrived in Saudi Arabia almost as the U.S. government announced, on Jan. 16, 1991: “The liberation of Kuwait has begun.”

Guidotti recalls Graner as lonely then, awaiting news from home, where Staci was due to give birth. He was “expressing distress that he wasn’t going to be there. Once we got overseas, that’s what he talked about: his daughter coming.”

His daughter was born Jan. 21. A month later, Graner and the other Marine MPs had their greatest test of the war -- and of their self-control.

Their mission was to guard the largest prisoner of war camp, near the Kuwaiti border in Saudi Arabia. About eight football fields long and ringed by thick razor wire, it handled perhaps 20,000 captured Iraqis during the war. Among those were 4,000 who threatened to riot on the night Guidotti describes as “scary as hell” for him, Graner and about 110 other Marines standing guard.

The bedraggled Iraqis panicked when a fierce rain and wind storm blew apart a makeshift mess hall where they were being fed. “They were pushing their own soldiers into the wire. We were on the other side. They were screaming in Arabic, ‘Kill us! We’re dogs! We’re going to die anyway!’ ” Guidotti recalls. “I got a shotgun loaded up with ammo and I’m thinking, ‘I’m dead.’ ”

It was one of those moments when someone could have set off a massacre. But no one did get killed, he recalled, because they were disciplined and their commanders were there to order a few warning shotgun blasts over the heads of the Iraqis. Then they found more rations to feed the enemy, a simple solution to the crisis that made it into the official Marine history of Desert Storm.

“I don’t buy this whole war stress bull, because we were under a lot of stress and we didn’t do any stuff like that,” Guidotti says of the recent events in Iraq. “The claim even by his fellow soldiers of lack of training -- that dog don’t hunt. [And] we had a lot of [civilian] prison guards the first time. I didn’t see them doing that to prisoners.”

He knows that many people are changed by combat, and sometimes you can’t see changes in the other guy “when you’re changing at the same time.” But Graner?

In Desert Storm, the first President Bush ordered a cease-fire by the end of February 1991, and “Chuck, me and a whole bunch of guys,” Guidotti recalls, “we came home May 15.”

He’ll never forget that moment.

“Before Chuck Graner ever became known as this sadistic criminal, I’m going to tell you what I saw -- the last image of Chuck Graner burned into my mind: I guess he’s 22, his eyes red with tears, crying, holding his little girl with his wife beside him.

“That’s the last memory I got of Chuck Graner ... the happiest moment, I would imagine, of his life.”


Witness to a Scandal

By July 1991, Graner was back at the Fayette County Prison, where the warden today, Larry Medlock, recalls him as “an average corrections officer” whose only problems had to do with lateness and the like. But John Stossel, a now retired senior officer, sensed an “attitude” in the MP out of the Marines who drew the afternoon shift, after the bosses went home and where the guards stuck together. Perhaps that’s why the warden says he was not told when Graner messed with a new colleague by spiking his coffee with Mace.

The Graners had a second child, a son, in 1993, and two years later bought a larger home in Uniontown for $39,000. The next year, 1996, Chuck got a new job, at the state’s new maximum-security prison in neighboring Greene County. The pay was $9.79 an hour to start at the State Correctional Institution Greene.

It was built for 1,500 of Pennsylvania’s hardest-core prisoners, including about 110 on death row, and had the perks of modern corrections, such as central air conditioning and cable TV. But it was not immune from the age-old tensions of such institutions. While almost 70% of the inmates were black, many from big cities, SCI-Greene was in a rural part of the state near the West Virginia border, and more than 90% of the guards were white.

Diane DeMarco, a local representative of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Assn. who went through the training academy with Graner, said he had what it took to work in a maximum-security institution.

“I’m always leery about people who never talk about their families. He talked about his children a lot,” she said. “He didn’t stand out as being the wrong person for the job.... Inmates test. They can chew you up verbally. It takes a unique person to not take it personally.”

Graner arrived in time to witness a scandal at SCI-Greene, when a series of inmates complained that guards were using unnecessary force, making racial slurs and goading them by, for example, spitting tobacco juice into their food. Getting a jury to believe such allegations from inmates might have been difficult, but there was some independent evidence -- thanks to a wall video camera that monitored all transfers of inmates into “the hole,” as the restrictive housing unit was known.

The county’s district attorney at the time, David Pollack, examined videotapes that he said showed prisoners being ordered to stand on a mat, strip naked and change into the minimal garb worn in the hole. Some would hesitate, or lose their balance, and “be shoved up against the wall,” he recalled. He concluded that “it was a rough process ... not a criminal process,” but the state fired two lieutenants and two guards and suspended or reprimanded 21 others.

The newcomer Graner was not implicated in that affair. But he was sued twice during his tenure at SCI-Greene, first by an inmate who alleged that he and three other guards got him to eat potatoes with a razor blade inside, then by a prisoner who alleged that a group of guards made him stand on one foot while handcuffed and tripped him. However, that prisoner was found to have sued too late, and the other inmate completed his sentence and vanished. There never was a hearing on whether Chuck Graner was a guard who stepped over the line.


A Traumatic Divorce

Staci Graner filed for divorce May 29, 1997, and obtained the first of three protective orders against the man she described as domineering and violent. Graner blamed her for the split and tried to block the divorce, which seemed to send him into a tailspin during the three years it took to become final.

Graner alleged that his wife had “left the marriage to become involved in another relationship.” She did not respond to that, but told a judge that she and the children had come back to their old home for a time, when Graner promised to get an apartment for himself. “He has returned every night in the middle of the night, sneaks into the house,” she complained. “He claims that that is the only place he can get ready for work.... I wake up with him just standing and staring at me.”

He also installed hidden video cameras in the house, she said. The court file does not say what was on the tapes, but the judge ordered Graner to turn them over to Staci.

Graner’s divorce lawyer, Phyllis A. Jin, downplays the split as “not as nasty as some.” She describes Graner as a “typical, hard-working man ... very devoted to his children.”

He did not seem very devoted to his job, though. Graner’s record at SCI-Greene was: reprimanded in December 1997 for lateness and unreliability; suspended a day in October 1998 for tardiness; and suspended for similar offenses for five days in March 1999 and another five days in February 2000 -- a month after the divorce became official -- when he was given a “final warning” by the prison.

That June 16, four years into his tenure there, Graner still was a corrections officer on the graveyard shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Ninety minutes before it ended, a lieutenant said they needed him to stay and work overtime. Graner called the union steward to say that he had to be home by 8 a.m., when his son and daughter were to be dropped off under his joint custody agreement.

The captain in charge said Graner told him only that he had to pick up his kids, and gave the impression he’d be back, as ordered. Graner never returned.

He was fired July 17, 2000, and went to work for a temp agency and a private security firm.

In March 2001, Staci filed for her third protective order, telling the court her former husband “still considers me his wife and if I refuse to live with him as such, he considers me ‘dead.’ ” He “yanked me out of ... bed by my hair, dragging me and all of the covers out into the hall and tried to throw me down the steps,” she said. “Both of the children ... were screaming [and] he let go of me, turned around to the children and said, ‘See what your mommy is doing to us?’ ”

The police were called, and Graner pleaded guilty two weeks later to harassment. He was ordered to pay $116 in fines and court costs.

Later, Staci turned to the court again, when she was moving on with her life, becoming a nurse and getting remarried. She petitioned to have her ex-husband buy out her interest in their house, where he was living.

That’s when the court got a letter, from Ft. Dix, N.J., reporting that Charles Graner would not be able to appear at any hearings for a while. It was from a Capt. Raymond Short, who wrote, “Cpl. Graner’s critical role in the national security mission of this command precludes his participation.”


Back in the Service

When Graner re-upped Dec. 20, 2001, it was with the Army’s 372nd Military Police Company based in Cumberland, Md. The reservists there included other veterans along with green recruits, such as the pizzeria manager and auto mechanic with whom he would later make news, and Lynndie England, from just down the road in Fort Ashby, W.Va. She once worked in a chicken processing plant and had enlisted at 17, thinking she’d be a “paper-pusher,” her family said, and earn money for college.

The monthly pay was $1,891.50 once they were activated in 2003, but Graner got two bump-ups along the way. One came with good news: an arbitrator had overturned his firing by the prison. The ruling said he had an “abysmal record” of tardiness, but that his punishment for disobeying an order was far too severe; it was reduced to a three-day suspension. Graner was due back pay, would have a guard’s job waiting and, while in the Army, would get a $500-a-month stipend from the state.

He got another $100 a month from the federal government when the 372nd was ordered out to foreign service in March 2003.

Graner was a regular at Uniontown’s Bread of Life Tabernacle in the months before they shipped out. He sometimes brought a young guest to Sunday services at the church to which he’d been introduced by his ex-wife’s family, and where they still were fixtures. The congregants would recognize his guest later, in the photos from Iraq. “We knew her,” Pastor R. Brian Kisner said of Lynndie England.

The petite West Virginian similarly took Graner to see Fort Ashby, where her parents later would put up warning signs in their trailer park to keep the press out. Graner and England clearly were an item well before they reached Iraq.

In Uniontown, Graner left behind more than a flag in the window and a half-finished porch nailed over with plywood. He left Scripture on a stone in his frontyard. To locals who knew their Bible, it was telling whom he was quoting -- Hosea, the Old Testament prophet who ranted about his own ill-fated marriage, as a way to warn of the price to be paid for unfaithfulness and betrayal.

“Sow for yourselves righteousness,” Graner wrote. “Reap the fruit of unfailing love ... for it is time to seek the Lord until he comes and showers righteousness on you.”


Accounts of Abuse

Religion got at least one mention when the investigations began looking into what happened late last year in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

“The Christian in me says it’s wrong,” Graner was quoted as saying. “But the corrections officer in me says, ‘I love to make a grown man piss himself.’ ”

His fellow MPs, and others, had many such recollections of Graner.

Spc. Jeremy Sivits, the mechanic from Hyndman, another small town in western Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty and told investigators that Graner had punched a prisoner into unconsciousness, so “his eyes were closed and he was not moving,” and that Graner later shook his fist and said, “Damn, that hurt.”

A prisoner recounted that guards came in during Ramadan, the holy month, “with two boys naked and they were cuffed together face to face and Graner was beating them.”

England herself stated how a lot of that “fooling around” was Graner’s idea, like stacking up the naked Iraqis and posing her with a dog leash around a prisoner. “We thought it looked funny,” she said, “so pictures were taken.”

Army disciplinary reports described Graner as hardly the “yes sir” type of soldier, especially when he and England were ordered repeatedly to stay out of each other’s cots. ‘You can kiss my ... ,” he reportedly told a sergeant.

But what was Graner thinking when he gave another MP a disk with all those photos? Hadn’t he learned, from his experiences back home, what trouble such evidence could cause?

Graner declined to respond to questions sent to him by e-mail. His civilian attorney, Guy Womack, a Houston-based former Marine, has said Graner was merely following orders inside the prison, where military intelligence officers wanted the detainees “softened up” before interrogations.

The 21-year-old England has been moved to Ft. Bragg, N.C., for her court-martial and the birth of their child.

Graner remains in Iraq, awaiting his first hearing and doing “mostly menial things ... like answering the phones or picking up the trash,” Womack said. “But from time to time he’s on the road running convoys, [and] he’s armed.

“As daunting a threat as this is, facing a court-martial, his day-to-day job is life-and-death.”

At Bread of Life Tabernacle back in Uniontown, a recent Sunday morning service drew 80 congregants, including the parents of the former Staci Graner. They swayed to the songs of four gospel singers. A toddler wandered down the aisle. There were cries of “Amen!” in the Pentecostal church.

A back wall displayed a POW flag and photos of soldiers and sailors on active duty, though not Graner’s. His overseas address was no longer listed in the church bulletin, either. But they follow the news, of course. And the pastor still communicates with Graner by e-mail.

His sermon was a caution against judging others, with readings from Romans about right and wrong. “Evil is evil,” Kisner said. “Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong.”

Yet only God, he reminded the congregation, knows what’s in a person’s heart.

“We don’t know how to help him,” the pastor explained later. “So we pray.”