A quarter-century marriage to a man behind bars
First of Three Parts
The summer after her first year of law school, Pamela Dowden dug a red calico sundress out of her closet and left her apartment in Sacramento. It was a hot, shadeless morning. She drove her orange Datsun pickup out of town as Phoebe Snow sang a wistful version of “Don’t Let Me Down” on the radio.
She threaded through hills of dry grass and oaks, pulling up to the gray battlements of Folsom State Prison. A guard escorted her through the east gate.
Pam looked at the 30-foot-tall granite walls, the iron-strap gates, the gothic watchtower looming like some storybook witch.
She smiled when she saw Robert in the visiting yard.
“Hi, Bait,” he said, wrapping his powerful arms around her.
“Bait” was short for “dragon bait,” which is a princess. It came from their favorite Tom Robbins novel, “Still Life With Woodpecker,” about a love affair between a liberal princess and an outlaw.
Robert “Blinky” Griffin wore jeans and his prison-issue blue shirt. At 36, he had one of the fiercest reputations in the California prison system. Wide shoulders, hard low brow, walrus mustache, tattoos hemorrhaging down his forearms.
At 34, Pam was slight and fair with reddish brown hair and hazel eyes. In Robert’s arms, she looked like a porcelain figurine. Yet more than anywhere else, she felt safe there.
“You really wanna do this?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
They stepped into the visiting yard before the siren was tested at noon. Robert’s friends gathered around. The best man was Kirk “Spanky” Smyth, who had recently been caught passing through the metal detectors with Buck knives in his rectum. Today he was loaded on smack and rubbing his face red.
Pam invited no one. This was her second marriage, and the circumstances that brought her to it required too much explaining. She did not want anyone to question her judgment -- or sanity. She did not tell her parents in Kansas, her two brothers or any friends. This was where the secret half of her life would begin.
“We are gathered here in the presence of witnesses for the purpose of uniting in marriage Robert Lee Griffin and Pamela Dowden,” began a prison counselor named Denny Wipf.
From Tower 10, a guard looked on with a .30-caliber rifle, capable of a 1,000-yard shot.
“I remind you both to remember that love, loyalty and understanding are the foundations of a happy and enduring home. No other human ties are more tender and no other vows more important than those that you now assume.”
This summer day in July 1984, Pam could not imagine what those vows would endure.
She would become a partner at a respected law firm in the Midwest, then senior regulatory counsel for First Data Corp., the world’s largest processor of financial transactions.
He would be identified as a leader of one of the nation’s most violent prison gangs, the Aryan Brotherhood. Prosecutors would say he earned the name “Blinky” because he could order an inmate’s death with the blink of an eye.
She would buy a home on a street shaded by ash trees in a suburb of Omaha.
He would spend 12 years in a windowless, 8-by-12-foot cell in California’s harshest prison, Pelican Bay.
She would take yoga classes, attend the opera and travel with friends to the Galapagos, Palau, Peru and Alaska.
He would be transported to a Los Angeles courtroom with a steel box over his handcuffs and a hood over his head -- to be tried in one of the largest death-penalty cases in U.S. history.
In a physical exile, they would share the closest of bonds. Their correspondence would fill boxes, and they would chat on a prison phone through bulletproof glass for hours at a time.
She would not only stand by Robert, she would embark on a two-decade legal quest to get him out.
“If you both keep these vows, your home will be happy and full of joy,” Wipf said that day in the prison yard.
Robert put a gold band on her finger. A friend in the prison crafts shop had made it, inscribing runic symbols for “DM” and “DB,” Dragon Man and Dragon Bait.
“With this ring, I thee wed,” Robert said.
There was a kiss, but no dancing or cake. For her wedding night, she drove back down U.S. 50 to her apartment, made dinner and went to bed alone.
Pam came from a tight-knit Methodist family in Shawnee, Kan. Her father, Skip, was a heavy-equipment operator with a quirky independent streak Pam admired.
As a child, she got good grades and blended in. She loved to play the piano and read. But her inward, watchful way guarded an adventurous soul. When Pam followed a boyfriend to Kansas State in 1968, she sparked at the flux of ideas and unconventional personalities.
She was drawn to people who were different. She loved to debate a wannabe Black Panther in her dorm just to hear his ideas. But her interest in classes was haphazard, and she dropped out after her second year. She took a job at a bar and wondered where circumstances would take her next.
One night at the bar, she met Gerry Griffin, a soldier from nearby Ft. Riley just back from Vietnam. She wore no shoes on their first date, then beat him at a game of pool. He was irked, but asked her out again. Soon he asked if she wanted to move to California. She said sure.
They moved into a duplex in Laguna Beach, and Pam took a job cleaning rooms at the Saddleback Inn. Gerry’s family lived in a ranch home in Anaheim, and Pam’s buoyant presence was warmly welcomed into it.
His father, Tug, was a railroad engineer and union leader from East Texas. He was clever, funny, bull-headed -- and kept in check by Gerry’s equally assertive mother, Donna.
Family get-togethers burst with fiddles and guitars, singing and plenty of embellished stories. Pam played the piano.
In quieter moments, the family reminisced or complained about Gerry’s younger brother, who was in state prison for an armed robbery.
His name was Robert.
Pam had met Robert once when the family visited him at his high school graduation in prison at Tracy, near Stockton.
Donna always said he was the most sensitive and considerate of her three children. But outside the house, he was defiant and stirring a fury of trouble. He started smoking weed and popping barbiturates at 12. He first stuck his arm with a needle full of heroin at 14.
Arrests added up: narcotics, burglary, assault. In the 11th grade, he punched a teacher and was sent to a boys detention camp in Trabuco Canyon. When he got out and landed in more trouble, his probation officer gave him a choice between jail and the Marines. Robert made it through basic training, but was kicked out for twice going AWOL on drug jags.
By the late 1960s, he was robbing convenience stores to buy heroin. In 1969, he was caught for a $150 heist in Fullerton. He was convicted and entered the state prison system March 20, 1970, on an indeterminate sentence of six months to life. He was 21.
Inside, gangs such as the Black Guerrilla Family and Mexican Mafia ruled the yards. White inmates were generally outnumbered. The tougher bikers and street hoods banded together to meet violence with violence.
Robert was quickly identified as a “prime motivator” of a group of “Nazis” and “outlaw bikers” who tried to set fire to fields at the state prison in Soledad so they could kill a black guard or inmate during the disturbance. The alleged plot failed, but he was transferred to a maximum-security wing at the California Institution for Men in Chino.
There at Palm Hall, he came upon the most virulent whites in the system. They called themselves the Aryan Brotherhood.
There were only a couple of dozen “made” members. But they reigned over the white population, with many associates to do their bidding. Any member who backed down or failed to carry out a hit could be marked for death, “put in the hat.”
They adopted a shamrock as their symbol, with a 6 on each leaf forming the biblical mark of the beast. They would take the nickname the Brand, after a gang of outlaws in Louis L’Amour’s cowboy books.
They didn’t ask Robert if he wanted to join. They congratulated him for being chosen.
Robert became a made member in 1972. It was the most violent year ever in the prison system, and the corrections department sent him to the crucible of the madness, San Quentin.
Four guards had been slain there the year before. Now the “bulls” regularly opened fire from the catwalks. Everyone lined up by race. Any who intermingled risked an ugly death.
Robert marveled at the old fortress, festering in the wet wool fog off San Francisco Bay. Concrete spalled off the crenelated walls. Robert unrolled the mattress in his cell, and mice scattered everywhere.
For a criminal, this was the big time. Inmate trusties ran the joint, hawking food, smokes, drugs, knives. For a price, they could hook you up with electricity, furniture and hot water.
Robert’s cell soon had stereo speakers, a bucket seat from a sports car and a bed that hinged against the wall for more living space.
One day Robert ran into a childhood friend named John “Butch” Calfy. They quickly reestablished their friendship.
Robert introduced him to the other guys in the Brand. “This dude is my brother on the streets, and he is my brother in here,” he said.
Calfy was accepted into the Brand.
Robert would be responsible if his protege didn’t live up to the code.
In Southern California that year, Pam and Gerry got married and bought a home in Mentone in the boulder-strewn foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. She was 23. She began taking classes at Cal State San Bernardino to finish her sociology degree.
She took up the chore of writing Robert regular letters from the family.
Her first letters were filled with idle chat and family news. Soon she found herself drawn to Robert in the way she was drawn to the wannabe Black Panther in the dorms at Kansas State.
She found in Robert someone craving to express himself. Pam didn’t realize how much she needed to do the same.
In college, she developed a paralyzing fear of speaking before groups. She wanted to chime in during class discussion, but as she opened her mouth, adrenaline would overwhelm her.
She was too embarrassed to talk about the phobia. Gradually, she confided in Robert.
He pointed out how much courage she had just to take the classes. And he put her sense of shame into the broader perspective of human failure that he was locked up in.
Their letters became a forum for each other’s internal struggles.
Robert had started trying to educate himself and loved to discuss history and philosophy.
At times, his letters had a wistful, Holden Caulfield tone, as if he knew he was narrating his own tragicomedy. Or they read like the pedantic musings of a college freshman. Sometimes they had a jive rhythm. “Love ya and Ride Easy,” he signed off.
“The hanging room is dreary as hell,” he wrote in 1974 about the old, derelict gallows. His long looping strokes looked as if they were set to paper with a quill. “It may sound morbid but that’s become my room for contemplating the universe. The thirteen steps lead to it, and the fourteenth gets you there. . . . Man, you don’t know how good it is to be up here where there’s not another soul. . . . Peaceful it is Poppy!”
In another letter, Robert rhapsodized about the John Denver song “Rocky Mountain High,” and then a Wordsworth poem about nature’s moral superiority over man’s intellect.
Wordsworth “felt with nature there was no need for books but in here I live and see it through books. . . . To say you can’t miss something you’ve never had would be a lie. Even more so when it seems to be getting further from reach with each day. I guess I’m feeling a might low girl but sometimes I feel I died five years ago.”
For Pam, there was an intimacy getting to know a person just through writing. In this little abstract space they shared, there were no awkward moments, no nattering to fill time.
Still, the repellent aspects of Robert’s life barged in now and then. He would let loose racist dogma. His early reading was heavy on the philosophy of dominance, Nietzsche and Machiavelli and intellectualized notions of white superiority and nativism.
Pam sent him a wider range of reading and debated him on it. And when she didn’t feel like combating him on a point, her silence let him know how ridiculous he sounded.
She sent him feminist and mystical books: Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” Carlos Castaneda’s “Teachings of Don Juan” books, Maurice Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness,” and later Marilyn French’s “The Women’s Room.”
Robert read and discussed them, but any influence they had on his thinking in those early days was subtle at best.
He flaunted his outlaw life, marring his skin with tattoos -- shamrocks, 666, AB. He led strikes. He sparked disputes with guards. He shot heroin, smoked pot, drank pruno.
In October 1974, word reached him that his friend Calfy had backed down during an attack, easing into his cell as black inmates swarmed an Aryan brother named Buzzard Harris.
Two months later, Robert and a brother named Ronald Krueger followed Calfy into his cell after a workout to confront him about the story. They sat on the bed.
Robert would later say he noticed that Calfy’s bags were packed -- a sign he was taking a dive, turning informant.
Calfy got up to grab some food.
Robert threw a headphone wire around his neck.
The two struggled on the floor. Robert ratcheted the garrote tighter. It snapped, and Krueger started stabbing Calfy. They kicked Calfy in the face until he passed out.
Another inmate walked in, grabbed one of Calfy’s art pencils and drilled it into his head.
When they were done, they threw him against the toilet. He didn’t move.
Robert tore off his denim shirt to leave the evidence behind.
When the guards got to Calfy, they didn’t see the most gruesome wound. In the infirmary, they noticed the corner of his eye -- and the tip of the pink eraser.
Calfy was unconscious for three weeks.
When he woke up, he told investigators that he couldn’t remember the details of the assault but that it couldn’t have gone down without Robert’s approval.
They asked if he was going to lie on the stand to protect his “brothers.”
“If a man stabbed you in the back, knocked all of your eye out, and kicked all of the taste buds out of your mouth, you goin’ to stand there and lie for him?” Calfy asked.
“Well, I don’t know. Are you?” an investigator said.
Calfy testified against Robert and disappeared into protective custody.
At a pretrial hearing, a prosecutor asked Robert if he had ever heard of the Aryan Brotherhood.
“Yes, I have heard it mentioned, yes,” Robert said.
“You are not a member of that group, though?”
“No sir, I am not. . . . I do not think that organization actually exists, except maybe on paper and in the minds of the prison administration.”
Robert was convicted of assault on an inmate and sentenced to life, as was Krueger.
“We’ll win on appeal,” Robert told his family in the visiting area.
They were devastated. He didn’t have a shot at parole for 10 years now. Gerry couldn’t even speak on the ride home.
Pam was saddened about Robert, but didn’t write him off. She saw him as tragic -- adolescent, addicted to drugs and stuck in a place where violence and survival were inseparable.
Part of him was trying to grow out of it. Another part was staying behind. She tried to ignore this part. It was not her nature to probe or judge. She was naive, still the flower child with long red pigtails, trusting that a fundamental goodness would prevail.
She found herself acting as a mediator between Robert and his family, who didn’t buy the claims of innocence they’d heard for years now. She defended him when they disparaged him. Yet she struggled with her own doubts.
“You see, Robby,” she wrote, “I find myself defending you sometimes, when people might get discouraged about you, and sometimes I get out-debated, and it leaves me worrying a bit.
“I do trust you at what you say, and when somebody shoots holes at it, I’m at a loss. You know, more than once, I’ve been told I’m a fish, gullible, and easy to take advantage of, so maybe I’m a little too defensive that way. In some cases, when I think I’m being conned maybe, I just let it ride, sometimes it doesn’t matter. But I value your friendship very highly, Robby, I feel I have to bring any doubts out front, so I can dispose of them, you know?”
Over time, Robert began to talk more freely about the pain he was causing his family.
He thanked her for opening his eyes.
“You know the story of the mouse that took the thorn out of the lion’s foot and from then on them were two best friends in the jungle?” he wrote her. “Well, that may be a piss poor way to put it but that’s something in the way it is.”
Pam got her bachelor’s degree and found a job as a secretary for a civil engineering firm in San Bernardino -- typing plans and specs for sewage treatment plant sludge scrapers. It was stultifying work.
Her personal life wasn’t much more engaging. Gerry became a railroad engineer like his dad, and was off on the tracks a lot. They lived out in the scrub among chicken ranches and orange groves. When she and Gerry talked, their words seemed to ricochet off each other.
She felt like she was living in a trance.
“Maybe it’s just being alone so much,” she wrote Robert. “I guess I’ve never had so much of that before. I mean, I’ve always valued my privacy, but I’ve always valued my associations with people too. . . . Anymore, seems like when I want to be with a friend or friends, all I can do is sit down and write a letter.”
Robert was transferred to Palm Hall at Chino in 1979. Pam was happy to visit him on weekends. She brought burritos -- it was all the guards would allow -- and talked.
They discussed anything, in careening, free-rolling conversations. She talked about going to law school. He encouraged her. Sometimes they sat on the pavement and paged through a book together. She would leave the prison feeling emotionally replenished.
This made it more frustrating when he’d fall back into his cowboy routine.
She winced at the self-mythology that he and his friends bolstered in each other. They were gladiators in their own minds. She groaned inside when they disparaged men outside prison as “not real men.”
One day he showed up at the visiting yard, clearly high, jabbering prison rhyming slang.
“Weep and wail” means jail. Twist and twirl means girl. Storm and strife means wife.
She cut the visit short. What was she doing anyway?
But he sensed her dismay and cut down on the bravado. In June 1981 he told her he quit heroin. She could see the change in his behavior. She felt like he did it for her.
Pam knew his going clean removed an obstacle in an intensifying relationship she dared not categorize. His gaze made her stomach flutter.
One day, in a poem to herself, she wrote:
He converses as if driven
by some unquelled hunger,
Some hunger or hopeless passion,
Some inside wheel that must turn,
gears meshing with his deepest self.
As if driven in starvation to this morsel,
His words are ravenous,
His eyes ravenous;
Filling slowly to a calmness,
A floating, smiling calm.
She spent more and more time with him. Visiting days were like parties in the park, with all his friends and their relatives, girlfriends, children and wives.
One day when she got back to Mentone, Pam learned that a dear friend from college had killed herself. The two had stayed in touch, and each time they saw each other it was as if they were back in the dorms together. Pam found herself crying, day after day.
The death knocked her out of her trance. She looked at where she was. She was sleepwalking through her job. Her marriage was inert.
In February 1983, Pam took the LSAT and told Gerry she wanted a divorce.
Coming Tuesday: Fighting for freedom
The perils of parenting through a pandemic
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