WASHINGTON – WNBA star Brittney Griner tried nearly a dozen times to call her wife through the US Embassy in Russia on Saturday, the couple’s fourth anniversary, but they never got through because the phone line at the embassy is not busy was, Cherelle Griner said Monday.
The pair have not spoken on the phone in the four months since Griner’s arrest in Russia over drug allegations. That was to change on Saturday, when a long-awaited call finally took place. But the day came and went without any contact, and Cherelle Griner agonized over what had gone wrong and suspected, at least at first, that the Russian authorities had thwarted the call.
On Monday, she said she learned a more staggering truth from her wife’s lawyers: Brittney Griner had tried to call 11 times over a period of several hours, using a number she was given at the US Embassy in Moscow, the said the couple would then put the call through to Cherelle Griner in Phoenix. But each time the call went unanswered because the counter at the embassy where the phone rang was apparently unmanned on Saturday.
“I was desperate. I was injured. I was done, fed up,” Cherelle Griner said in an interview with The Associated Press, recounting how an anniversary she’d been eagerly awaiting was spent in tears instead. “I’m pretty sure I texted the agent at BG and said, ‘I don’t want to speak to anyone. It’ll be a minute before I sum up my feelings and just tell everyone that I’m unavailable right now. Because it is like that just blew me away. I wasn’t well, I’m still not well.”
The State Department said Monday, “We deeply regret that due to a logistical error, Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife” with families of hostages and wrongfully detained people.
For Cherelle Griner, the experience has added to an already smoldering frustration at the US government’s response to her wife’s case. US officials have repeatedly said they are working behind the scenes to bring the two-time Olympian home from Russia and consider her case a top priority. But Cherelle Griner said she remained “very upset” about Saturday’s ordeal, given that the call had been scheduled for two weeks and no one had warned her in that time that it might be logistically impossible because of the weekend.
She added: “I find it unacceptable and I have no faith in our government at the moment. If I can’t trust you to take an after hours Saturday call, how can I trust you to actually negotiate on my wife’s behalf? return home? Because that’s a much bigger request than getting a Saturday call.”
Cherelle Griner said a US government contact apologized to her for the mistake. She said she’s since learned that the one number Brittney Griner was supposed to dial, usually Monday through Friday but not weekends, handles calls from prisoners.
“But mind you,” Cherelle Griner said in the interview, “this phone call was scheduled for almost two weeks — with a weekend appointment.”
She added: “I find it unacceptable and I have no faith in our government at the moment. If I can’t trust you to take an after hours Saturday call, how can I trust you to actually negotiate on my wife’s behalf? return home? Because that’s a much bigger request than catching a Saturday call.
Cherelle Griner said she still hopes to speak to or meet with President Joe Biden, but “at this point it’s starting to feel like a no.”
Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star who plays for Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at a Russian airport on February 17 after authorities there said a search of her bag found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
The State Department in May declared her unjustly detained and placed her case under the oversight of the President’s special envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator. Russian state news agency Tass reported last week that her detention had been extended until July 3.
Cherelle Griner says she had to rely solely on other people’s assessments of her wife’s condition. Lawyers and consular affairs officials have been able to speak to the basketball star, but her wife has not.
The night before the call, she went to sleep at 5 p.m. so that she would be up and up at midnight to receive the expected call from Russia to Phoenix, which never came.
“It was such a big moment because for the first time I could really tell if she’s okay,” Cherelle Griner said. “This would have been the first time for me to actually hear her in real time and really know if she’s okay or if she’s just seconds away from not being there anymore.”