Ninety-seven days ago, Brittney Griner’s wife awoke around 2 a.m. to the buzzing of her phone.
“Babe, wake up! They have me in this room!” Cherelle Griner said Brittney texted her. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Confused and alarmed, Cherelle asked who “they” was. Brittney responded that she had been taken into custody going through customs in Moscow and that Russian authorities were about to seize her phone.
The last thing Cherelle got to tell Brittney was to call her when she could.
“The phone call never came,” Cherelle said.
Cherelle shared that story during her first public interview since Brittney’s arrest more than three months ago. In a taped conversation with Robin Roberts, which aired Wednesday morning on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” an emotional Cherelle spoke about how challenging this ordeal has been for her and urged President Biden to do whatever it takes to bring Brittney home quickly.
“I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She’s a political pawn, ” Cherelle told Roberts. “So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
Brittney has been behind bars since Feb. 17 when she flew into Moscow and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She is under investigation for the large-scale transportation of drugs and faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison if convicted.
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department reclassified Brittney as “wrongfully detained.” What that means is that her case is being handled by the office of the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and that the U.S. is now being more aggressive in its efforts to negotiate her release and bring her home.
While Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine has brought U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point since the Cold War, the two countries continue to keep channels of communication open. That much was proven last month when the Biden administration carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange, swapping former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.
Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom after a hearing just outside Moscow on May 13. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at the Moscow airport in February after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were allegedly found in her luggage. (AP)
Cherelle said that she has been in contact with the families of Reed and Paul Whelan, another former Marine who the U.S. considers wrongfully detained in Russia. Whelan was arrested in December 2018 and later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges.
“Even though they’re separate people, separate roles, no connection besides what they’re going through in Russia, I obviously want him back, too,” Cherelle said. “You don’t want anybody to be there, going through what they’re going through.”
Although Brittney’s family and friends were initially instructed to stay quiet about her situation in hopes that it could be resolved quickly behind the scenes, their strategy has changed since the U.S. characterized her as a political prisoner. In recent weeks, the WNBA has honored Brittney with special BG42 floor decals and players and coaches have spoken out on her behalf.
“It comforts BG,” Cherelle said through tears. “It lets her know she’s not forgotten.”
When Cherelle first got the news about Brittney’s arrest, she admits she laid on the couch for a week and “cried my eyeballs out.” After that she said she picked herself up and even finished earning her JD from the North Carolina Central University School of Law.
Cherelle has not heard Brittney’s voice since the day of her arrest, but they communicate via occasional heartfelt letters and second-hand via conversations with Brittney’s Russian attorney. When Brittney heard that Cherelle would be speaking to “Good Morning America,” she sent word through her attorney that she wanted her agent to send Cherelle a bouquet of red roses.
Cherelle said that she has not spoken directly to Biden, but that she recently had a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. When asked by Roberts if she felt Blinken was being truthful when he said Brittney was a “top priority,” Cherelle admitted she wasn’t sure.
“You say she’s top priority, but I want to see it,” Cherelle said. “And I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil.”