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Hope faces its hardest test

THROUGH PRISON GLASS

Pamela Griffin long dreamed of the life they could share if her husband left prison. A federal indictment dimmed that vision. As the trial unfolds, her fears mount.

December 04, 2008|Joe Mozingo

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.

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