August 17, 2007 - News & Observer (NC)
Tight-Lipped 'Granny' Dies in Prison
By Mandy Locke
CLAYTON - Thirteen years after Alva Mae "Granny" Groves was locked up for conspiring to trade crack cocaine for food stamps, she's finally home.
It took death to free her. Federal prosecutors wanted the ailing great-grandmother behind bars for at least another decade as punishment for her role in the family scheme.
Groves will be buried today among generations of kin in Johnston County. She died last week at a federal prison hospital in Texas after being refused the privilege of dying at home under the watch of her children. She was 86.
"It's a relief she's dead, but it's a hurt, a real hurt we weren't with her," said daughter Everline Johnson of Red Springs. "What could she have hurt?"
Prison officials wouldn't comment on Groves' case, citing privacy concerns. In a brief letter that was mailed to Groves on her death bed, prison officials advised her that her crime was too grave to allow her to be turned loose.
Groves was tending her garden the day investigators stormed her double-wide mobile home and hauled her to jail. Within a year, she was sentenced to federal prison for 24 years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to sell and distribute cocaine and aiding and abetting the trading of crack cocaine for food stamps. She was 74.
'My Real Crime'
Groves' family says prosecutors came down hard on her mostly because she wouldn't help investigators build a case that could have locked up her children for life.
"My real crime ... was refusing to testify against my sons, children of my womb, that were conceived, birthed and raised with love," Groves wrote in a 2001 letter to November Coalition, a non-profit organization rallying support to free her and others sentenced to prison for long stretches on drug offenses.
Groves, who was caught up in the nation's aggressive war on crack cocaine in the 1980s and '90s, became the face of a movement to lighten prison sentences for non-violent crack dealers.
As the drug hit urban streets in the mid-1980s, Congress enacted tough penalties for dealers. Long mandatory minimum sentences are still in effect, although several bills pending in Congress could lighten those prison terms.
It isn't clear how much Groves knew about the crack cocaine being traded in her home. Her daughters swear she had no part in the scheme but didn't force her kin to do business elsewhere.
'She Was a Player'
Buddy Berube, the lead investigator for the Johnston County Sheriff's Office, insists Groves took part in the trade.
"She was a player, for sure," Berube said. "Not as big as her son, but when he wasn't around, she would take care of things."
All told, five family members were sent to federal prison. Her son, Ricky Groves is pulling a life sentence in Butner.
Three generations of Groves women landed at Tallahassee (Fla.) Federal Women's Prison in 1996. Groves' oldest daughter, Margaret Woodard, and Woodard's daughter, Pam Battle, also were convicted after the bust.
Groves was a sight in prison, said Garry Jones, a retired correctional officer who knew her in Tallahassee. The oldest inmate by at least a decade, Groves would sit beneath a tree in the prison yard, issuing stern warnings to younger inmates who flirted with correctional officers and wore tight pants.
She once came down on Jones, then a lieutenant at the prison.
"She told me that she'd spank me herself if I didn't do anything about these 'fast-tailed girls' having sex with the officers," Jones said. "She told me, 'I'm too old to be listening to all this moaning and groaning. You better straighten this out.'"
Eventually, the officers were caught and fired, Jones said.
Fellow inmates protected her, Jones said. They nicknamed her "Granny" and took turns pushing her wheelchair to pick up her daily regimen of pills. They made sure she had the lightest duties in the cafeteria -- rolling silverware and filling salt shakers, said Dorothy Gaines, a fellow inmate who was freed in 2000 after a pardon by former President Bill Clinton. Gaines also did time for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
Prison life took a toll on Groves. She despised the food, a poor substitute for the butter beans and peas she grew in her garden.
"She shrunk down to a bag of bones," daughter Louise Smith of Clayton said.
Her family tried to fatten her up during their pilgrimages to Tallahassee. Two or three times a year, dozens of relatives would pile in vans and cars and visit Groves in prison. Her daughters stashed country ham and biscuits in their bras to sneak them past prison officers.
'I Want to Die at Home'
Groves never imagined she'd die in prison, even though her sentence stretched long past normal life expectancy. She talked of planting a new garden, buying a red Corvette and meeting great-grandchildren who were born while she was locked up.
Groves took a turn for the worse early this year. Her kidneys started to fail after a long battle with diabetes. Prison officials sent her to a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, where she stayed until her death.
She wrote November Coalition about her fears of dying in prison: "I realize everyone has a day to die; death is a fate that will not be cheated. But I don't want to die in prison. I want to die at home surrounded by the love of what's left of my family."
Last winter, Groves' family asked again that their mother be freed to die at home. They wrote to the president, to congressmen, to every prison official they encountered. National organizations like November Coalition urged Groves' release, too. Jones, the former prison guard, even lent his support.
In May, a probation officer flew to North Carolina to inspect a bedroom Everline Johnson had prepared for her mother. Groves, hopeful, started to pack her scant items in a suitcase.
Permission didn't come. On July 19, as Johnson and her sister Debra Pettiway leaned over Groves' hospital bed and tried to remind her who they were, a prison official handed Johnson the letter denying her release.
She's grateful Groves never saw it.
Alva Mae Groves is survived by nine children: Margaret Woodard, imprisoned in Tallahassee; Louise Smith of Clayton; Joyce Session of Smithfield; Ruby McClamb of Smithfield; Everline Johnson of Red Springs; Conrad Groves of Smithfield; Ricky Lee Groves, imprisoned in Butner; Debra Pettiway of Selma, and Fontell Groves, imprisoned in Petersburg, Va. She is also survived by 36 grandchildren and more than 60 great-grandchildren.
Her funeral services will begin at 3 p.m. today at St. Peter's Church of Christ in Smithfield. Visitation will be held an hour before the service.
Alva Mae Groves Original Letter to the November Coalition
I am 86 years old and have been incarcerated since 1994. I was charged with Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute and Distributing Cocaine Base, and I was also charged with possessing a gun. The court sentenced me to 24 years in prison on these charges.
My real crime, according to today's laws of betrayal, was refusing to testify against my sons, children of my womb, that were conceived, birthed and raised with love, of which there were fourteen children in all -- nine girls and six boys. The government said I could have received a reduction in my sentence if I would have testified, but since I couldn't do such a thing, prosecutors then said I was a manager/supervisor in this offense, thereby raising my offense level by three points and increasing my sentence substantially.
Of course I didn't really understand all this talk about enhancements, acceptance of responsibility, and so on, that had to do with my sentencing. But I did understand that since I wouldn't turn against my own family that I was going to receive a very lengthy prison term. Never did I dream it would be twenty-five years.
On advice of my attorney, I accepted a deal for a sentence that also had me signing all appeal rights away. I was also denied a three-level decrease in my sentence for acceptance of responsibility because my attorney advised me not to speak without him present. As I say, I didn't understand all the legal jargon and totally relied on my attorney's assistance. I still don't understand how one can sign their right to appeal away when one hasn't even received their sentence. It's all beyond me. I know I sat there and watched while my whole family was buried by sentences of thirty years (my daughter Margaret), seventeen-and-a-half years (my granddaughter Pam) and my other sons, one who received a natural life. I still don't understand all of it.
When this all began back in 1994, I was 72 years old and lived out in a trailer in Clayton, North Carolina. That trailer sat on a lot belonging to my son, William Robert, where I lived with and cared for my two granddaughters, Fontara (11 years old) and Jasmine (9 years old), my youngest son's children. The only money I received came from SSI and what money I could earn selling eggs from my laying hens (I had about 100 chickens). I also cleaned houses when I was able, and sold candy bars and soft drinks to the kids coming from school in the afternoons.
We lived six miles out of town and there weren't any stores close by. My children were always welcome at my home and would come to check on me and help me as they could. My doors were always locked when I was gone, but my children had keys to get in. The day I was arrested I was working in my garden at my son's house about five miles from my home. I had woods around my own home and no place for a garden. I was working in this garden the day the Sheriff's department came and arrested me. While I was gardening five miles away, the police broke into my home. They said they had found drugs, but I don't believe that.
After I was arrested, they wanted me to testify against my son Ricky. I worked hard all my life and I raised my children to be responsible and to work for what they wanted. They all knew how I felt about an honest day's work. If any of my children, including Ricky, were doing anything less than that, they wouldn't have let know about it because they know how I feel. If I can tend my chickens, clean houses, and sell soda pops and candy to make money at 72 years old, they can all work too. I did the best I could to raise my children and grandchildren. But just as it is with anyone else's children, I had no control over what they did when they were grown and on their own.
When I was arrested I had $1,000.00 in the bank from selling eggs and candy. Most of it was deposited in change -- nickels, dimes and quarters - and the bankers substantiated this fact. I earned that money one egg at a time, one soda pop at a time, one candy bar at a time. It wasn't from selling drugs as the government contends.
Six of my family members are in prison because the government wanted my son Ricky. They offered me home confinement if I would testify against him, but he is my son, and I couldn't do that anymore than I could do anything else that would harm any of my children. When I refused to testify against Ricky in exchange for home confinement, the police got mad and said I was the drug kingpin and that my family was selling drugs for me. I think this was the only way they could justify, or try to justify, arresting a 72-year-old woman who sold eggs for a living. The government gave other people all reduced sentences for their statements. All these people belonged to the government. I've never even seen half of them.
I have now been in prison for close to eight years. As I unknowingly signed all my rights to appeal away, the only thing I could do was petition the President of the United States for a Commutation of Sentence. From FCI Tallahassee, I was transferred to the Medical Facility in Carswell, Fort Worth, Texas, due to health problems. My application for a Commutation of Sentence was submitted while there in February of 2000. I have since been transferred back here to FCI Tallahassee and my application is still pending.
I realize everyone has a day to die; death is a fate that will not be cheated. But I don't want to die in prison. I want to die at home surrounded by the love of what's left of my family. I do not have enough years left of my life to finish serving this twenty-four year sentence as I am already 80 years old. I'm appealing to anyone to write letters for me to the Pardon Attorney's Office in Washington while my application is still pending.