Two worlds collide as lawyer fights for inmate husband
Second of Three Parts
“Well, it’s dinnertime at the amazing Miss Weird’s Place,” Pamela Griffin wrote her husband, Robert, one night in 1986, sitting alone at her kitchen table with leftovers. “Tonight we have the famous incredible squash concoction -- or soon-to-be-famous, maybe -- smothered with hickory-smoked cheese.”
Pam loved narrating the quirks of her days to Robert. She described the renegade squirrels in her garden, the personalities at the office, the mosquitoes that savaged her legs when she mowed her lawn on a warm summer evening.
At 36, Pam had just moved to Omaha from Sacramento to take a job as an associate in the banking department of a respected law firm in an old building on Farham Street.
Robert was in state prison in California.
“It’s okay if I worry about you now and then, isn’t it?” Pam wrote. “Since your general well-being has been under concerted attack lately, I’ve just stepped up my concern a bit, that’s all.. . . . And you know, I can’t help feeling that I’ve skipped out on you.”
The Griffins were married in the visiting yard at Folsom State Prison in July 1984. He had been incarcerated since 1970, first for an armed robbery in Fullerton, then for an assault on a fellow inmate in San Quentin and the murder of an inmate at the state prison in Chino. He had an almost mythic reputation in the system as a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, or the Brand.
Pam and Robert had fallen in love during the 11 years she was married to his older brother, Gerry. In prison visits and letters, they shared their private struggles and a nascent awareness of an intense emotional bond. Robert proposed to her in the visiting room at Folsom, in front of the vending machines. The place smelled of burnt popcorn. She laughed him off. She had just signed her divorce papers.
But she felt no one could ever know her the way Robert did. A few months later, she agreed to do it.. She didn’t tell anyone about their marriage -- not her parents, brothers or friends. She knew women who fell for prisoners were viewed as naive, delusional or possessed by some fetish for outlaws. She didn’t want to carry that burden as she started her career.
Pam graduated from McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento a year after the wedding and took the job in Omaha. When an appeals court threw out Robert’s murder conviction, Pam expected he would be paroled soon and they could start their life together.
Instead corrections officials sent him to Tehachapi and locked him down, under new security measures meant to control prison gangs, which were becoming increasingly potent.
Guards barely let Robert leave his cell.
“Sweet Dancer,” he wrote her. “Ah, I love you. That is a constant.”
“We went to court today. I felt like I was somehow involved in the first wave of an invasion with the radio transmissions that were jumping: ‘Able team leader -- go to tact two -- Commander of team one -- contact team leader three -- all team leaders we’re coming to checkpoint two, secure the outer line.’
“It was that way all the way down and there were only two of us.”
Robert was 38 now and trying to convince everyone he was done with the gang -- that he just wanted to live a quiet life with his wife in the Midwest.
Prison officials gave him the choice all gang members were now given: “debrief” and become an informant, or stay locked up in the hole.
But becoming an informant put an inmate, and even his family, in danger. Robert told Pam he could not go down this path. He said he wanted to walk cleanly away from his life of crime. He did not want to be beholden to the government, “dancing for his dinner.”
Pam wrestled with guilt for leaving Robert in California. She wrote him as much as she could, and visited once a month. Under the new restrictions, they could see each other only through reinforced glass.
In Omaha, Pam worked long days at the Kutak Rock law firm. In her free time, she took tai chi classes and attended the opera. She went on camping trips with her parents and her brothers’ families. She made friends -- Jane, Peg and Claire. They got together to do jigsaw puzzles, which was an excuse to drink beer and gossip.
Pam did not live easily with her secret. As her friends shared the meaningful bits of their own lives, she had to fight the urge to jump in and share her own.
She wondered what would happen when Robert finally got out and lived with her. How would he fit in this world? How would her colleagues react?
The thought gave her a flutter of anxiety. But she missed him dearly.
Before the crackdown, they had three family visits in the prison apartment at Folsom. These were the sole occasions they had truly been alone. They cooked meals, watched television, slept together, did what newlyweds did.
Pam brought a giant crab one time for dinner, not thinking they would need a crab cracker, and Robert spent that evening making a mess of it on the floor with a can opener. It would be one of her favorite memories.
“I woke up with a vision of you in my head,” Pam wrote to Robert one evening at her kitchen table. “It was of you with your arms around me, and the focus of it was your smile -- you had the sweetest smile on your face. The me in the vision couldn’t see it, because she had her head on your shoulder, but the me having the vision could see it clearly. I’ve seen that smile before -- just a small one playing with the corners of your mouth, expressing a sort of happy preoccupation with the emotion in your heart. Ah yes, I love you, I Iove you so.”
Far from Omaha, investigators were building a case to keep Robert in prison for good.
The impetus had come on a blustery morning in February 1983, when Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide detectives pulled up to a small postwar-era home in Temple City. In a back room, a middle-aged man in cowboy boots lay face-down on a double bed -- with two gunshot wounds to the back of his head.
The victim was Richard Barnes, a 53-year-old mechanic and father of four.
Detectives learned that he had recently been spooked by threatening phone calls, and had taken to driving with a shotgun under his seat. They quickly concluded that Barnes was killed for something one of his sons had done.
Steven Barnes had dropped out of the Aryan Brotherhood and become a star informant. Three months before, he had testified for the prosecution in Robert Griffin’s murder case.
Authorities were floored that a prison gang would go after a family member to retaliate against a snitch. But the Brand, which had spread from California to prisons around the country, was building an ominous reputation that year. At the highest-security federal prison in the nation, in Marion, Ill., Thomas Silverstein, a Long Beach man convicted of murdering three inmates, slipped from his handcuffs, grabbed a knife and slaughtered a guard, stabbing him 40 times. Another Aryan brother pulled off the same gruesome stunt -- in the same prison, on the same day -- stabbing three guards, killing one.
With roughly 60 full members, the gang had been linked to dozens of murders.
The Los Angeles County sheriff’s prison gang unit, state corrections investigators and FBI agents began to compile a thick file of intelligence on the Brand and a roster of informants.
Members of the Brand and hangers-on were diving into protective custody in droves. Some feared they had been “greenlighted” to be hit. Others were drug addicts who couldn’t get their fix in the hole.
They told investigators the gang was streamlining its extortion, drug and gambling rackets in prison -- while trying to control the same activities on the outside, as its ally, the Mexican Mafia, had done in Latino neighborhoods in Southern California.
But brothers left few tracks. They encrypted letters in 17th century ciphers and used urine as invisible ink to order hits, the informants said. They employed girlfriends and wives to relay messages, pick up money, smuggle drugs.
Sheriff’s detectives couldn’t crack the Barnes case until a ranking member of the Brotherhood, Michael Thompson, sent word from San Quentin that he wanted to cooperate.
A big, handsome former football player from Tustin, Thompson had been convicted of murdering two marijuana dealers with a ball-peen hammer in 1973 and throwing them in a lime-filled pit in his backyard. He then married one victim’s widow.
Thompson told detectives the Brand reorganized in Chino in 1982, forming a 12-person council and three-person commission. Robert “Blinky” Griffin was voted onto both.
Thompson said the commission’s first order of business was to stop the exodus of defectors, starting with Steven Barnes. Aside from testifying against Griffin and another Aryan Brotherhood leader, Barnes was a jailhouse informant and key witness in the Hillside Strangler trial, and was set to take the stand against members of the Brand’s ally, the Mexican Mafia.
Thompson said that because Barnes was in protective custody, the Brand leaders decided to kill his wife, Sue, or another family member.
He said they gave the contract to a member from Eureka, Curtis Price. Detectives flew to Eureka and recovered evidence from Price’s home, including Richard Barnes’ address scrawled on a scrap of paper and a gun-cleaning brush with human hair in the bristle.
Thompson testified against Price, who was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to death.
The detectives wanted more. They wanted to go after the Brand the way the feds went after the Italian mob, with a racketeering case. They could indict the whole lot on charges that could result in sentences of life without parole.
But they would have to show the gang’s criminal acts were part of a coordinated plan.
For this, they had a piece of hard evidence.
Guards at San Quentin had intercepted a note smuggled in from Chino.
It was signed “Blinky.”
Pam and Robert decided they were going to have to fight to get Robert out of the hole: the Secured Housing Unit at Tehachapi. In 1987, she began to put together a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, an appeal for relief from unlawful detention.
“Sweet Companion,” she wrote to him. “It’s been a frustrating weekend -- of course, I wanted to spend it working on the writ, but we have to write another article for the banking magazine, and the deadline is Tuesday. So I figured I’d come in early Saturday and go full tilt and see if I couldn’t get most of it done Saturday night. No, no; it was everyone’s day to come by and chat.
“How I just want to have a little chat with you, my dear. Take me home, okay. You know the place -- way, way up in the mountains, nobody around but you, me, the night sky and the mountain lions.”
She filed her petition with the Kern County court in 1989, arguing that the state violated Robert’s rights by locking him in the hole, not based on bad behavior, but as a means to force him to become an informant. A judge denied the petition without explanation.
As Pam started on the appeal, guards put Robert in leg chains and handcuffs and loaded him on a bus headed to the remote North Coast.
Robert marveled at the mists creeping through the redwoods, the spuming sea, the craggy coast.
Just north of Crescent City, the bus pulled up to a series of low-slung concrete buildings set in a broad expanse of gravel, surrounded by two fences topped with concertina wire.
Pelican Bay State Prison, the state’s new supermax prison, did not loom with the gothic foreboding of San Quentin or Folsom. It could pass for a public storage facility.
But Robert would soon find that its effect on the mind was more insidious. This Secured Housing Unit -- the dreaded “shoe” -- would suspend California’s worst of the worst in an inert void. Isolation and automation would slowly break inmates down.
Guards walked Robert to a bare yellowish cell, 8 feet wide, 12 feet long. He was a 42-year-old man, looking at his new home. Pam’s little office at work was twice as big.
Robert would spend 22 1/2 hours a day inside this box, sometimes with a cellmate, sometimes alone. The walls and bunks were poured-concrete slabs. The door was a sheet of steel perforated with dime-size holes.
An officer with a wood-stock Ruger carbine watched from a glass-enclosed control booth down the hall.
Robert was allowed a few books and a small clear-case television that could not be dismantled to makeweapons. He kept the television on mute to remind him of a window.
He could spend a maximum of 90 minutes a day outside the cell, in another box. The officer in the bubble would buzz the cell door open, and Robert would walk alone down the tier, where another steel door would buzz open to an empty concrete yard smaller than a racquetball court. With 30-foot walls, no equipment and no other people, its sole feature was a drain.
Robert walked laps in the yard to clear his head. He could smell the storms coming in, fog banks, wood smoke.
Half the yard was covered by dirty plexiglass. The other half was covered with mesh to let in fresh air.
This was Robert’s square of sky from his favorite Oscar Wilde poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.
Writing to Pam kept his mind from picking away at its very existence. Narrating his days gave Robert’s thoughts actuality, confirmation he could still send a ripple into the real world.
She journeyed from Omaha to Pelican Bay every six weeks, flying to San Francisco, then up to Eureka, then driving up the coast. In the SHU visiting room, a guard pointed her to a visiting booth, where she wiped down the phone with disinfectant and cleared any lipstick smudges off the glass.
Robert sat on the other side, locked in a cage.
“What’s up, buttercup?” he would say. The first day, they would unload gripes from their daily lives they had kept bottled up since the last visit. Hers about work, his about prison.
After this catharsis, they were upbeat. Robert ate up news about his family, Pam’s parents, Pam’s travels.
Robert took in every detail of Pam’s observations. She had a child’s curiosity that brought the outside world to life. They talked about how the ocean washed the sand away along a nearby beach, and great white logs of driftwood emerged like petrified whales. Or about a radio program describing how caterpillars turn to liquid in the cocoon -- and come out as butterflies with the impulses they learned as caterpillars.
He was gaunt and pale now, suffering from a hypothyroid disorder and hepatitis C. His mustache was showing gray. He wore a goofy yellow jumpsuit with a bow at his waist, and oversized prison-approved glasses that gave a Woody Allen look to his narrow face.
She worried about him. She saw the stress in his face. He had done everything possible, in her view, to show his redemption.
He had not been written up for a rule violation for seven years. He had requested to have his gang tattoos removed. He put an ad in the local newspaper denouncing prison gangs and crime. He completed a correspondence course to become a paralegal.
None of it seemed to matter. His only way out was to become an informant .
Pam never questioned Robert’s motives for refusing to debrief, she would later say: She never wondered if he secretly held sway in the gang, relaying messages, ordering hits. She never worried if she was being manipulated for her legal help. She never questioned whether he was navigating a gray zone, doing just enough to keep his position of power and safety in the only place he had known for more than 20 years.
She saw the whole policy of rewarding inmates for information as inherently corrupt. Robert was still fighting allegations by informants in his murder case, 10 years after Steven “T-Bone” Gibson’s throat was slashed while he played pinochle in the yard in Chino. Robert was initially convicted of murder, but the jury found he did not wield the knife. The conviction was reversed on appeal for this reason.
At the retrial, an informant testified that Robert boasted after the murder about the correct way to slice open a man’s jugular vein, without the neck muscles interfering. He was convicted again, had it reversed again. The case was then dismissed by the court. Now prosecutors were appealing that decision.
Robert’s adversaries would never give up. Pam knew this.
She had every reason to ask what she had gotten herself into. She had made partner at the law firm. She had become an expert at navigating the regulatory labyrinth for banks that wanted to buy failed savings and loans.
She bought a quaint old brick home in the shady hills of mid-town Omaha, with a swoop roof, blond hardwood floors, two big ash trees.
But Pam and Robert were as intertwined in each other’s lives as any couple.
“The squirrels were certainly frisky this morning,” she wrote. “Sometimes they get to chasing one another around a tree trunk and it begins to look like a barbershop pole out of control. This morning I saw four squirrels going around like that at once. Enough to make you seasick, it is. . . . How are you this morning? I can’t believe it was last weekend I saw you -- I want more. It was really good though . . . . it really lifted the fog.”
“My Beautiful Angel,” Robert wrote, “I love you Pamela, and while we are getting started a bit late we could never allow the night to slip away without our conversation.”
Robert used the royal “we.”
“We picked up ‘Angela’s Ashes’ this morning, thinking we’d read a few pages before we worked out. We didn’t put it down until three thirty when our door was opened for yard. . . . This is one of the best memoirs we’ve read. . . . You can’t help but feel this great sadness, yet at times you’ll laugh out loud through your tears.”
Pam slowly, guardedly brought the people close to her into the know about Robert. Her parents were stoic but accepting. Her friends were delighted to have a priceless bit of gossip to discuss over jigsaw puzzles. Gerry Griffin was infuriated at first, but eventually made amends with the two of them.
Pam felt liberated as the tension of self-censorship dissolved.
She soon took a job as senior regulatory counsel at the Omaha branch of First Data Resources, the world’s largest processor of ATM and credit card transactions. In her off hours, she pushed ahead with their habeas petition, taking it to federal court.
On June 11, 1996, Pam stood before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
She was so nervous she had popped a beta-blocker pill to tamp down the adrenaline. She had never argued in open court, and federal appeals courts are daunting even for veteran litigators.
If she failed in this 20-minute hearing, the chances of getting Robert out of the SHU were nil.
She jumped into the marrow of her argument, her voice as flat and colorless as a banker’s seminar. She told the panel that forcing Robert to become an informant by holding him in the SHU was cruel and unusual punishment, and that he had no recourse to challenge his status.
Judge Mary Schroeder pointed out that a prison “classification committee” reviewed Robert’s case every year to determine whether he was an “active” gang member.
“The classification committee has no authority to release him from SHU,” Pam responded. “The classification hearing is totally purposeless.”
The attorney representing the state, Bruce Slavin, countered that the only way for a gang member to truly renounce the gang was by becoming an informant.
“There is every chance someone is going to simply say, ‘I may have been a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the past but I am not anymore, let me go back to the general [prison] population.’ Were he permitted to do so, he would just go back and immediately begin to carry out gang activity and. . . . “
Chief Judge Procter Hug Jr. interrupted. “But then couldn’t he be put right back in?. . . . In other words, it just appears to me that the person has no chance of ever getting out of there unless he goes to a very dangerous thing, probably, of ratting on his friends.”
The judges would not make their decision for nearly two years. When they did, they remanded the case to the trial court for review. But a clerk misplaced this order.
Pam would spend the next three years trying to get the case on a judge’s calendar.
The day before Halloween 2001, Pam drove through the redwoods from her splintered motel to represent Robert at a parole hearing at Pelican Bay.
She had reason to be optimistic. Recently, the warden and chief gang investigator determined they had no credible evidence Robert was still active in the gang. And his last parole hearing ended with the commissioner telling him he was “headed in the right direction.”
In the hearing room now, Robert was handcuffed to a table in his yellow jumpsuit, with a tattoo of a sultry vampiress slinking down his left arm. The panel went over his early criminal history, and his subsequent good behavior.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that somebody who has had no disciplinary in 16 years is doing the SHU in Pelican Bay when a half a day of debriefing gets you at least part the way out,” said presiding commissioner Brett Granlund.
Robert laid out his hopes for the future: moving to Omaha, working as a paralegal.
The deputy commissioner turned to Pam and asked what would happen if their marriage failed or she died. “Because as I understand it, his life has turned around since he met you.”
“Well, he has already had an offer, a job offer from an attorney,” Pam said. She didn’t mention that it was from her friend Jane.
The deputy said he needed to see a trade, like plumbing. Robert reminded them that he was 53 and that it takes three years of apprenticeship to get a plumbing certificate, and he couldn’t get it in the SHU.
But this wasn’t the real issue. He needed to debrief.
“Everybody seems to be in agreement that you’re not participating in gang activities,” Granlund said. “However, one reason that gangs are so dangerous and they do so much destruction and damage to people is the loyalty they instill in inmates that will never give up their homies.”
Robert tried to convince the commissioners that he had been out of the gang for more than 15 years and simply didn’t know anything relevant anymore.
He said he had done everything he could do to show he was no longer Blinky. “I didn’t develop a conscience until I was 32 years old,” he said, “but when I did develop it, it meant something.”
“OK,” said Granlund. “I believe you present yourself in an honest and sincere fashion and you have a giant hurdle in front of you, and that’s the conflict over the debrief issue.”
The panel denied him parole, not for one, but two more years.
Pam went back to Omaha, depressed. She and Robert used to talk all the time about a future together. Now, they did so less and less.
She wondered if Robert would be out of prison by the time she retired. She hadn’t kissed him in 15 years. Now she was 52, and watching her own parents grow old.
She did not want to end her life alone, and she didn’t want Robert to end his alone.
On Oct. 17, 2002, Pam’s clock radio sounded around 5 a.m. She lay in bed, summoning the will to get up. She was due at work for a 7:30 conference call.
She peeked out the window and saw a beat-up maroon car parked diagonally on her lawn, as if a drunk had driven off the road.
Pam ran down the creaky stairs and opened the front door.
A female police officer grabbed her by the arm. “Ma’am, please come with me,” the officer said.
Other officers poured in out of the dark. They were federal agents, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They were there to search the house.
Pam’s mind swirled. The drunk driver was a ruse -- these agents expected a showdown.
They handcuffed her. She prayed the neighbors would not wake up to see.
The two worlds she had managed to keep apart for 18 years were crashing together.
Once they determined the house was secure, the agents uncuffed her. She helped them find what they were looking for, every bit of correspondence between her and Robert.
The ATF suspected that Pam was secretly relaying gang messages for Robert. They called in a pickup truck. There were more than 44 boxes of letters.
A friend sent her an e-mail later that day saying she had seen something about an indictment on CNN. Pam found a government news release online. The Justice Department was conducting searches and arrests as part of a racketeering indictment against the Aryan Brotherhood filed by the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
“The 10-count indictment alleges that members of the AB committed 16 murders and 16 attempted murders,” the release said. “These crimes allegedly were committed on behalf of the AB to promote the gang . . . . and control drug trafficking, gambling and extortion in the prison system.”
Robert was one of 40 alleged members and associates charged. The news release said that “although he is no longer on the commission, Griffin maintains great influence within the AB.”
The next day, Pam called an attorney who had fought racketeering cases in California. He pulled up the news release on his computer.
“Oh, I see they’re asking for the death penalty against your husband,” he said.
Her throat tightened, like someone was gripping her neck. She couldn’t speak.
She plunged into despair. She wondered if agents were following her. On the phone, she wondered if they were listening. At home, she slept fitfully, waiting for them to come for her arrest.
But as months passed, the fear waned. The government found no evidence implicating her. She traveled with friends to Alaska and Palau. And she set out to help Robert’s attorneys fight the case.
As the trial approached, on a warm July day in 2006, Pam received an envelope from the U.S. District Court in San Jose, where her habeas petition had been languishing. She couldn’t bear to open it.
She shuffled through her other mail, until the curiosity got her.
Halfway down the page she saw six words in bold: Order Granting Writ of Habeas Corpus.
Her mouth dropped.
“The crushing conditions of the SHU present an overwhelming incentive for an inmate to embrace the risk of debriefing,” wrote U.S. District Judge James Ware.
He called Robert’s time in the SHU “a shockingly long period of time” and said the state “presented no evidence that he continued active [gang] participation while confined in the SHU. . . .”
“Further confinement is tantamount to indefinite administrative segregation for silence -- an intolerable practice in modern society.”
The judge ordered the state to release Robert from the SHU immediately.
Pam swelled with emotion. After a 17-year battle, she had won.
She couldn’t celebrate. Robert’s trial for racketeering was scheduled to start in a couple of months. If he lost, he could be executed.
On Thursday, the final installment in this series: Judgment.
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