97 days ago, Brittney Griner’s wife woke up at around 2am to her phone buzzing.
“Baby, wake up! They have me in this room!” Cherelle Griner said Brittney texted her. “I do not know what’s up.”
Confused and alarmed, Cherelle asked who “they” were. Brittney replied that she was taken into custody while passing through customs in Moscow and that Russian authorities would confiscate her phone.
The last thing Cherelle had to say to Brittney was call her when she could.
“The call never came,” Cherelle said.
Cherelle shared this story during her first public interview since Brittney’s arrest more than three months ago. In a recorded conversation with Robin Roberts that aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday morning, an emotional Cherelle spoke about how challenging this ordeal has been for her and urged President Biden to do whatever it takes to get Brittney home quickly bring to.
“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, I want you to do it.”
Brittney has been behind bars since February 17, when she was flying to Moscow and Russian customs officials allegedly found e-cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. She is under investigation for the large-scale drug trafficking and faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison if convicted.
Earlier this month, the US State Department classified Brittney as “wrongly detained.” This means that her case is now being handled by the Office of the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs and that the US is now more aggressive in its efforts to negotiate her release and bring her home.
While Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has pushed US-Russian relations to their lowest point since the Cold War, the two countries continue to keep channels of communication open. That was proven last month when the Biden administration carried out an unexpected prisoner swap, swapping former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US
Cherelle said she is in touch with the families of Reed and Paul Whelan, another former Marine the US says is unjustly detained in Russia. Whelan was arrested in December 2018 and later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.
“Even though they’re separate people, separate roles, no connection other than what they’re going through in Russia, obviously I want him back too,” Cherelle said. “You don’t want someone to be there going through what they’re going through.”
Although Brittney’s family and friends were initially instructed to remain silent about her situation in hopes it could be quickly resolved behind the scenes, their strategy has changed since the US began labeling them political prisoners. In recent weeks, the WNBA has honored Brittney with special BG42 floor decals, and players and coaches have spoken out in her favour.
“It’s comforting to BG,” Cherelle said through tears. “It lets her know she’s not forgotten.”
When Cherelle first got the news of Brittney’s arrest, she admits she lay on the couch for a week and “cried my eyeballs out.” Afterwards, she said she managed to pull herself together and even earn her JD from North Carolina Central University School of Law.
Cherelle hasn’t heard Brittney’s voice since the day she was arrested, but they communicate through occasional heartfelt letters and second-hand conversations with Brittney’s Russian attorney. When Brittney heard Cherelle was speaking to Good Morning America, she let her attorney know that she wanted her agent to send Cherelle a bouquet of red roses.
Cherelle said she did not speak to Biden directly, but had a recent conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. When asked by Roberts if she felt Blinken was being honest when he said Brittney was “top priority,” Cherelle admitted she wasn’t sure.
“You say she’s your top priority, but I want to see it,” Cherelle said. “And I want to see that it would be me who sees BG on US soil.”