WASHINGTON - WNBA star Brittney Griner tried to call her wife nearly a dozen times through the American embassy in Russia on the couple’s fourth anniversary on June 18, but they never connected since the phone line at the embassy was not staffed, Cherelle Griner said Monday.
The couple has not spoken by phone in the four months since Griner's arrest in Russia, where she remains jailed. That was to have changed Saturday, when a long-awaited call was to have finally taken place after getting Russian government approval. But the day came and went without any contact, leaving an anguished Cherelle Griner to wonder what went wrong and to suspect at least initially that Russian authorities had thwarted the call.
On Monday, she said she learned from her wife's lawyers a more distressing truth: Brittney Griner had actually tried to call 11 times over a period of several hours, dialing a number she'd been given at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, which the couple had been told would then patch the call through to Cherelle Griner in Phoenix. But each time, the call went unanswered because the desk at the embassy where the phone rang was apparently unstaffed on Saturday.
"I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up," Cherelle Griner told The Associated Press in an interview, recounting how an anniversary she had eagerly anticipated was instead spent in tears. "I'm pretty sure I texted BG's agent and was like: ‘I don't want to talk to anybody. It's going to take me a minute to get my emotions together, and just tell everybody I'm unavailable right now.' Because it just knocked me out. I wasn't well, I'm still not well."
The State Department said Monday that "we deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error." The department reiterated that it has no higher priority than the safety of Americans overseas and that it remains in regular contact with families of hostages and wrongful detainees.
For Cherelle Griner, the experience has exacerbated already simmering frustrations about the U.S. government's response to her wife's case. Though U.S. officials have repeatedly said they are working behind the scenes to get the two-time Olympic gold medalist home from Russia, she said she is "very pissed" about the snafu, especially since the call had been on the schedule for two weeks and yet no one warned her during that time that it might be logistically impossible because of the weekend.
She added: "I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call."
Cherelle Griner said a contact in the U.S. government had apologized to her for the error. She said she's since learned that the one number Brittney Griner had been given to dial typically processes calls from prisoners on Mondays through Fridays but not weekends, which is why no one was there to transfer the call.
"But mind you," Cherelle Griner said in the interview, "this phone call had been scheduled for almost two weeks — with a weekend date."
Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained at a Russian airport on Feb. 17 after authorities there said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
The State Department in May designated her as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator. Russian state-run news agency Tass reported last week that her detention had been extended until July 3.
Cherelle Griner said she was still hoping to talk to or meet with President Joe Biden, but "at this point it’s starting to feel like a no."
So far, Cherelle Griner says she's had to rely exclusively on others' assessments about her wife's condition. Lawyers and consular affairs officials have been able to speak with the basketball star, but her wife has not.
On the evening before the call, she went to sleep at 5 p.m. so that she'd be awake and alert at midnight to receive the anticipated call from Russia to Phoenix that never came.
"This was such a big moment because this would have been the first time where I truly could tell if she’s OK," Cherelle Griner said, describing it as a "life-or-death" opportunity to discern how her wife was actually holding up. "This would have been the first time for me to actually just hear her in real time and to truly know if she’s okay or to know if she's seconds away from not being in existence anymore."
Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury walks hand and hand with wife Cherelle Watson after defeating the Dallas Wings at Feld Entertainment Center on August 10, 2020 in Palmetto, Florida. (File photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Feinberg reported from New York. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.