Records Paint Dark Portrait Of Guard
Before Abu Ghraib, Graner Left a Trail Of Alleged Violence
By David Finkel and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 5, 2004; Page A01
In perhaps the most famous of the photographs, he is the one standing behind the now-iconic pyramid of prisoners, all of them naked and hooded as he looks into the camera and smiles.
In other photos, he is the one aiming his fist at a prisoner he has collared around the neck, kneeling on prisoners whose hands are tied behind their backs, and raising his left index finger in a "No. 1" sign as he squats next to a prisoner who is bruised, bandaged and dead.
These are the images the world knows so far of Army Spec. Charles A. Graner Jr., 35, who in the unfolding Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal has become the infamous guard of Abu Ghraib. But there are other, lesser-known images of him:
In 1991, he was a 22-year-old soldier in Saudi Arabia, calling home at all hours to see if his wife was there.
In 1992, he was working at a county prison in Pennsylvania with guards who acknowledge beating up prisoners as a means of control.
In 1994, he made a fellow prison guard sick by spraying Mace into his coffee.
In 1997, he was accused by his wife of threatening to kill her.
In 1998, when he was working as a guard in a state prison, he was accused by one inmate of slipping a razor blade into his food.
And in 2001, he was accused by his now-ex-wife of grabbing her by the hair, dragging her out of a bedroom and trying to throw her down the stairs.
These images come not from photographs or videos but from court records and interviews with people who have known Graner over the past 20 years, many of whom say they were shocked less by the abuse depicted in the pictures than by the familiar face at the center.
How did Graner become the man in the pictures? The man whose poses, smiles and coiled fist led to a presidential apology and affected the course of a war? Old friends and colleagues are not the only ones with questions. Multiple investigations have been launched into the Abu Ghraib abuse, as have court-martial proceedings against several soldiers who served as guards. Graner, who has been called the ringleader, faces charges of assault, maltreatment of prisoners, conspiracy, dereliction of duty, obstruction of justice, adultery and committing indecent acts.
Graner is secluded in Iraq and did not comment for this article. His parents declined to discuss him, as did his ex-wife.
His attorney, Guy L. Womack, says that Graner has been a good husband, a good father, and a good soldier who was following orders and did nothing wrong.
From interviews with people who had close contact with Graner at various points in his life, however, a portrait emerges of someone who went from "always smiling, always laughing" to angry by the time he left for Iraq. He went from bow ties in high school to black gloves with the fingers cut off when he was a prison guard. He went from calling adults "sir" and "ma'am" to reportedly telling an officer in Iraq to kiss his backside. He was "polite," "a gentleman," "by the book," "the guard of guards," "a jerk," "a moron" and "a dangerous man."
The portrait is one of snapshots rather than continuous streaming video. Snapshots, of course, are what illuminated Abu Ghraib. What follows are five more.
Persian Gulf War Prisoners
The first snapshot is from January 1991. Graner, 22, is somewhere in the Saudi Arabian desert, calling home to say he has safely arrived.
The person he is trying to reach is his wife, Staci, whom he married seven months earlier in a ceremony so small there was no best man. The place he is calling is Uniontown, Pa., a struggling coal town of 12,000 people in the southwestern part of the state, not far from where Staci was raised.
Graner was born two years and 17 days before her and was raised 40 miles to the north, in a Pittsburgh suburb. His father was an airline mechanic. His mother wrote in his high school yearbook: "Chuck -- You have always made your father and me proud of you. You are the best." After high school, he attended the University of Pittsburgh for two years, dropped out for unknown reasons, moved home, worked in construction, joined the Marine Forces Reserve and met Staci.
By spring 1990 she was pregnant. On June 15 they were married. On Nov. 23, visibly pregnant, she was saying goodbye as Graner's reserve unit headed for the Persian Gulf War. And in January, according to one of Graner's closest friends in Saudi Arabia, a fellow reservist named Leo Bonner, Graner was making the first of many attempts to call home.
And getting no answer, even though, back home in Uniontown, it was the middle of the night.
"Let's put it this way," Bonner says of how that call, and subsequent unanswered ones that he says he witnessed, affected Graner. "There were several people who had suspicions that their wives or girlfriends were not being faithful to them, and Chuck may have been one of them.
"You don't really know what's going on. Your imagination runs away with you," he continues, and then he answers a question about whether Graner was upset: "Who wouldn't be?"
Making it worse, Bonner says, were Graner's circumstances at that point: a sprawling prisoner-of-war camp in Saudi Arabia where his unit had been sent to guard thousands of Iraqi prisoners who began surrendering in droves as soon as the ground war began. "The scum of the Earth," says Joe Dugan, Graner's platoon sergeant. One night, when a sudden sandstorm obliterated the area where the prisoners' food was prepared, thousands of them began rioting. For hours, they set fires, rushed the concertina wire they were enclosed within, and threw whatever they could get their hands on. Finally, the Marines took their own rations and threw them over the wire to the prisoners, bringing an end to what Ross Guidotti, another reservist, calls "probably one of the most frightening nights of my life."
Months of such experiences changed every one of the reservists by the time they left Saudi Arabia, Dugan and others say -- some in positive ways, some not. There have been a high number of divorces and two suicides, including the suicide of one of Graner's closest friends.
Graner, who was variously described by fellow reservists as a good Marine and "a class clown," was changed, too, Bonner says, not only by the experience of being in a war but also by the unanswered phone calls home.
"I would not say that no one ever answered," Bonner says of the results of Graner's attempts, "but sometimes they did not."
The way Graner and others coped with what was going on in their imaginations was to joke around as much as possible, sometimes with each other, and sometimes with some of the prisoners.
Bonner remembers a day when, through a translator, a group of prisoners were taught to sing the lyrics "da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron," whenever a soldier pointed at them. He remembers how he, Graner and other reservists would motion in different directions when prisoners asked what direction Mecca was in, leading to the spectacle of people kneeling in different directions at prayer time. "We found that a little amusing," he says.
He remembers that after the riot, when the reservists handed out their boxes of rations, they deliberately did not bother to mention which ones contained pork.
And that's as far as it went, he says. No one got punched. No one was formed into pyramids. No one was abused.
Month after month, he says, Graner made phone calls, worried privately, joked around publicly and slept in a cot with a stack of photos of Staci nearby.
And then it was time to go home, a homecoming that Guidotti, who witnessed it and remembers it 13 years later, describes like this:
Their plane landed at the Pittsburgh airport. There was Staci. There was their four-month-old daughter. And there was Graner, seeing them and starting to cry.
Day Shift in the County Prison
Three years later, now working full time on the afternoon shift at the Fayette County Prison, Graner decided to play a practical joke on a new guard named Robert Tajc.
"He squirted Mace in this dude's coffee," remembers Carl Opel Jr., another guard. "Just to be a jack-off."
"It was a joke," says Tajc, who drank the coffee, became nauseated, vomited and went home sick.
This, say the guards, was the daily culture of the afternoon shift, where Graner worked until May 17, 1996, in a dingy, five-story prison crowded with drug users, child molesters and people awaiting trial on every conceivable felony charge. Unlike the night shift, which was typically sleepy, or the morning shift, which was busy with prisoner transfers to court hearings, the afternoon shift had a no-nonsense reputation.
"The second-shift guards, they did have an attitude," says John Stossel, 57, who worked as a guard at the prison from 1978 to 2000. "They were fighting a war as far as they were concerned."
How was the war fought?
"Did we kick people's asses in there? Yes, we did. I'm not going to deny it," says Opel, who was a guard at the prison from 1992 to 2002, when he was terminated for chronic lateness.
He describes how an inmate would be moved to one of the disciplinary cells on the first and fourth floors: "You'd have a group of about three or four [guards] that would go in and move this dude. Once you get him out of the [cellblock] and in the stairwell, you'd slap him around a bit, tell him, 'Listen up, if you're going to act up, you act up on midnight or you act up on day shift. You don't act up on afternoon.' " He describes what would happen to an inmate being transported by elevator, where there was no camera: "I've known people to lose teeth in there," he says. "I've kicked a few people's asses in there."
What Opel won't say is whether Graner, who wore black gloves with padding across the knuckles and the fingers cut off, was one of the guards who did this. "I can't say that," he says. "I stayed away from him because he was a jerk."
Jim Grassi, a guard who still works at the prison and considers Graner a friend, says: "I'm not going to lie to you and say no one was abused. But I can say this about Graner -- I never witnessed him hit an inmate, punch him, slap him."
Instead, Grassi continues, "he was by the book. Graner knew the policy and procedures manual better than the warden -- and the warden is the one who wrote it. When he was bored, he'd sit and copy the manual onto a notepad, just to know it better."
Why, then, would someone who goes by the book put Mace in another man's coffee?
"I don't know why. As a joke," Grassi says. "He didn't think."
He goes over the details of that day. Graner laughing. Tajc drinking. Tajc vomiting. Tajc going home.
Now he thinks about Abu Ghraib. "I don't know what happened," he says. "The only explanation I can think of -- Chuck was a real devoted family man. Chuck talked about his kids, his wife, mainly his kids. About a year before he left the prison, he and his wife split up.
"I know he took it really hard. You could just tell he was down. Real down. He wasn't himself."
A Suit Alleges Prison Abuse
June 29, 1998. At State Correctional Institution-Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania, the inmates are eating mashed potatoes. Horatio Nimley, who is serving time for burglary, takes a spoonful. His mouth fills with blood. He spits out a razor blade. He screams for help. At first the guards ignore him. Then they take him to the nurse. And then they punch him, kick him and slam him to the floor, and when he yells, "Stop, stop," one of the guards says, "Shut up, nigger, before we kill you."
These are the allegations contained in a lawsuit Nimley brought against Graner, five other guards and the nursing supervisor in May 1999 alleging mistreatment. By that point, abuse allegations had become common at Greene, which opened in 1993. Among the allegations over the years: Guards beat prisoners, spit in their food, showered them with racial epithets and wrote "KKK" in one beaten prisoner's blood. The allegations weren't without merit: In 1998, two dozen guards were fired, suspended, demoted or reprimanded.
According to a prison spokesman, none of the allegations involved Graner, who was reprimanded three times and suspended four times for showing up late for work and taking unauthorized leaves. The allegation against him by Nimley, which Graner denied, was found to "have arguable merit in fact and law" by a federal magistrate and was proceeding when Nimley got out of prison, stopped responding to motions and disappeared. For those reasons, the case was dismissed, leaving the merits of the case unresolved.
Another inmate, Nick Yarris, who was recently released from Greene after DNA tests cleared him of rape and murder charges for which he had spent 22 years on death row, says that the kind of abuse Nimley described in his lawsuit was common at Greene, and that Graner was involved.
Yarris says that in May 1998, he was assigned to pick up lunch trays left outside the cellblocks when a prisoner deliberately flooded his toilet. He says he saw Graner and four other guards pull the inmate out of his cell. He says the guards dragged the inmate by his feet and that Graner was holding a canister of pepper spray over the prisoner and saying, "We're going to go get some." He says that the inmate was dragged into another room out of his sight, and that the next time he saw him the inmate had been beaten and was being taken away on a gurney.
In addition to that one incident, Yarris says, Graner bragged about taunting anti-death-penalty protesters who would gather outside the prison, used racial epithets and once told a Muslim inmate he had rubbed pork all over his tray of food.
Another memory of Graner: Other guards, Yarris says, didn't seem to like him. He remembers what one guard said to Graner as Graner's marriage was collapsing under allegations of abuse.
"Yo, Charles, I heard you got a good left," the guard said mockingly. "You're the toughest wife beater I ever met."
Three Protection-From-Abuse Orders
"Sir, you are Charles A. Graner?"
On June 16, 1997, Graner was in court, being questioned by a judge.
"Are you in agreement with the consent order that would be entered in this case, that you would be ordered to refrain from abusing or harassing your wife?"
Staci was asking for a protection-from-abuse order, saying Graner had been threatening her. "On or about May 1, 1997, the Defendant threatened to kill the Plaintiff" is how her petition for relief began.
"That you would be ordered to refrain from any contact with your wife except such contact as may be necessary for the exchange of the children?" the judge continued.
Graner wasn't admitting to this. He wasn't admitting to anything. He was merely promising to stay away.
"I want to make sure that you understand what will happen in the event that you would violate this court order."
"Yes, sir. I know what will happen," Graner said.
The order was for six months. Graner honored it. But on Feb. 2, 1998, soon after the order had expired, Staci Graner was back in court, asking for a second protection-from-abuse order.
"He has engaged in physical abuse directed towards you?" the judge asked.
"Yes," she said.
"The last time being approximately two weeks ago?"
"Maybe 2 1/2 weeks."
"And what did he do?"
"Picked me up and threw me."
"How far did he throw?"
"A few feet."
"And what did he throw you into? The floor? Or furniture?"
"Furniture. And he also threw me on the bed. He also, he grabbed my arm and hit my face with my arm. I don't understand why he did that, but that's what he did."
And so a second protection-from-abuse order was issued. Then, on March 8, 2001, after their divorce was final, Staci Graner asked for a third one because of what had happened when she arrived home with their two children the night before.
"He was there," her handwritten narrative of what happened begins. "[We] had just gotten situated when Charles opened my daughter's bedroom door and came in. He asked me what I was doing and I said, 'I'm going to sleep in here, we're watching a movie together.' "[H]e slammed the door on his way out of her room," the narrative continued. "A minute later, he came back into Brittni's room and told my son, Dean, to go to his own room. Dean told his father that he didn't want to leave me and Charles yelled at him to 'Go to your room NOW.' Dean started to cry and ran to his room. Brittni started to cry also and was begging her dad to 'Please stop it!' "Charles followed Dean out of the room, came back into Brittni's room and yanked me out of Brittni's bed by my hair, dragging me and all of the covers out into the hall and tried to throw me down the steps. Both of the children witnessed this and were screaming at this point. He let go of me, turned around to the children and said, 'See what your mommy is doing to us?' Then he slammed their doors and had me cornered in between their bedroom doors. He forced me to go downstairs into the kitchen with him to 'talk'. . . .
"I ran past him and up the stairs to my kid's rooms and I went into Dean's room first (they were both in their own rooms screaming and crying for me). As soon as I got into Dean's room, Charles was behind me and told me to get away from my son. . . . He then grabbed me by my hair a second time, pushed me down, dragged me out of Dean's room into the hallway, into my bedroom, and started banging the left side of my head against the floor."
And so a third protection-from-abuse order was issued, based on a narrative that concluded with a final notation about what happened after Staci called the police:
"At about 1:30 a.m.," she wrote, "my friend, Kelle Martini, called me @ my mother's house. She informed me that Charles had called her twice in a row and was hysterical. She said she tried to calm him down by reminding him that he had two children to live for and he replied, 'I have nothing if she's not my wife, she's dead. As for the children, the moment they walked out the door with their mother I washed my hands of them.' Kelle replied, 'But you're their father, Chuck,' and he said, 'Those two no longer have a father.' "
The order was for a year. There was to be another hearing in spring 2002, but on Feb. 28 a letter arrived at the Fayette County courthouse saying that Graner wouldn't be able to attend.
"Cpl Graner will be unable to appear and protect his interests in this case until December 2002 because of his support with the training of the high volume of soldiers deploying overseas with Operations Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle," said the letter, which was written on U.S. Army letterhead.
"This letter is a special request in my capacity as a commander, charged with a mission supporting the national security of this nation, that you delay the proceedings to allow this soldier to perform his critical part in that mission."
Mustering for Duty in Iraq
One final snapshot, then, on Feb. 27, 2003.
Another departure. This one is in Cresaptown, Md., where there are doughnuts and coffee and hand-held American flags.
This time, there is no wife to say goodbye to Graner, who is now in the Army Reserve. His family now is the other soldiers waiting with him for the transport trucks.
There is Spec. Joseph M. Darby, whose anonymous note would first bring the Abu Ghraib abuse to light and who would tell investigators that Graner once said to him, "The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.' " And Spec. Jeremy C. Sivits, who would tell investigators that in one incident he witnessed, "Graner punched the detainee with a closed fist so hard in the temple that it knocked the detainee unconscious," and then said, "Damn, that hurts."
And Pfc. Lynndie R. England, who would tell investigators that Graner "would lean on [detainees], push them around, mostly he would yell at them and put them in physically controlling positions," and that she is pregnant with Graner's child.
Here come the trucks.
There are pictures taken, of course, because there are so many cameras.
And away goes Graner who in a few months, at least for the length of time of a snapshot, will be smiling in Abu Ghraib.
Staff writer Michael Amon and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company