MOSCOW -- Standing at border control in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in early April, Gaylen Grandstaff wasn't sure what was about to happen.
Falsely charged by Russian prosecutors with large-scale drug smuggling for ordering a bottle of solvent cleaner online, he had spent nearly two of those years in a Moscow jail while on trial, an ordeal that ABC News chronicled in a documentary film last year.
A court released him and twice found the charges against him to be unfounded. But police had refused to let go of the case.
So as he’d walked towards passport control, Grandstaff thought at best he might likely be turned back—at worst he was taking steps back towards prison.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Grandstaff is finally back in the United States—out of Russia at last after the coronavirus pandemic granted him a sudden opportunity to leave, which unfolded in dramatic fashion.
“It was like something out of a movie. You would never believe something like this could happen in real life,” Grandstaff told ABC News by phone the morning he landed outside Russia.
On April 9, he boarded a flight chartered by the U.S. embassy to London to repatriate Americans stranded in Russia by the virus lockdown. Denied an exit visa and facing renewed efforts to try him, Grandstaff and American officials had no certainty he would be allowed out.
But early that morning, the plane landed in Heathrow Airport and Grandstaff walked off the ramp onto British territory. For the first time in three years, he felt safe.
Grandstaff, 53, had been living in Moscow for seven years with his Russian wife Anna, working as an English teacher, when he was arrested at their apartment in July 2017. Days earlier, he had ordered a $10 cleaning product from the Chinese website, AliExpress. But the cleaner contained gamma-butyrolactone, or GBL, an industrial solvent that is banned in Russia and many other countries as a narcotic.
Grandstaff, who suffers from Crohn's disease, said he had been upsold the product by the Chinese vendor while buying medication and had no idea it contained GBL. But Russian police charged him as a large-scale drug smuggler, an extremely serious offense that carries a 10 – 20-year prison sentence.
Grandstaff was sucked into Russia's justice system, where conviction is essentially guaranteed—less than 1% of criminal trials end in acquittal-- and where manufacturing evidence is routine and procedures intended to protect defendants rights are frequently ignored. He was held in grim conditions in Moscow pre-trial detention centers, abused by guards and twice seriously assaulted by inmates. Prohibited from writing in English to his wife, he began illustrating his jail experiences by depicting himself as a cartoon bear.
His case appeared to become one of tens of thousands of suspected fabricated drugs cases in Russia. As a judge would point out two years later, police presented almost no evidence Grandstaff had knowingly purchased the GBL. Prosecutors twisted facts in the case, called farcical expert witnesses and at least one witness said her testimony had been distorted.
In March last year, the judge abruptly acknowledged the case’s problems. She sent it back to prosecutors for further investigation and released Grandstaff in the courtroom. He credited his unexpected release to his lawyers and the presence of the media that had covered trial.
Free to move around Moscow, Grandstaff hoped then he would soon be able to leave for the U.S. But instead -- as often happens in Russian criminal cases -- he became trapped in a bureaucratic limbo as prosecutors refused to drop their efforts to jail him.
Because Russia’s justice system is heavily geared towards conviction, when prosecutors provide insufficient evidence, instead of dismissing a case, a judge can send it back for police to gather – or potentially manufacture—more. In practice, there is little to prevent cases from hanging over accused’s heads for years.
In December, a second court confirmed Grandstaff’s release and that there was insufficient evidence to charge him. But police still refused to formally close the case against him.
While he had been in prison, Grandstaff’s Russian visa had expired and because the case remained open authorities refused to give him a new one. It meant he couldn’t leave. If he attempted to depart Russia he could be detained at the airport. And police could use that as an argument for his alleged guilt. He was trapped.
Once a case is open, Russian prosecutors are incentivised not to reverse-- keeping conviction quotas up is rewarded, while dropping charges is treated as an unnecessary failure. Russian rights experts suggested during Grandstaff’s trial that was a key reason for his continued prosecution.
Grandstaff said police officers overseeing the case told him that admitting the case was wrong would be too embarrassing.
“One of them was actually honest with me and said, ‘the problem is you’re an American and you spent two years in prison',” Grandstaff said. “'There’s too many people and departments who will be held responsible.'”
Dropping the case would also mean having to pay Grandstaff thousands of dollars in compensation.
This spring, prosecutors requested new court dates to renew the trial. It seemed Grandstaff’s ordeal was starting again.
Increasingly convinced he was going to be jailed again, Grandstaff began considering more desperate measures. He said he arranged with two friends to drive him across the border to Ukraine or Belarus. But that was scotched when Russian troops moved into the areas for exercises, he said.
Then the pandemic hit. Russia closed its borders and halted virtually all flights in and out. Hundreds of U.S. citizens were stranded in Russia.
“I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do, man?’,” Grandstaff said.
But on April 8, his phone rang. A consular official from the U.S. embassy told Grandstaff there was a chartered British Airways flight to repatriate Americans leaving at 5.30 am the next morning. He said they wanted to offer to try to get Grandstaff on it.
“They were like, ok, we don’t know if this is going to work,” Grandstaff said. “We’re just going to try it.”
Head swirling, Grandstaff packed a bag and he and his wife drove to the airport. Embassy officials, including the ambassador were already there to help dozens of U.S. citizens trying to get home.
The embassy had been encouraging U.S. citizens to register for the repatriation flights. As an American and with formally no charges against him Grandstaff was eligible but embassy officials didn't know whether he might be stopped. The embassy said in the weeks before it had repeatedly asked Russia’s foreign ministry whether he was permitted to leave, but had never received any response. There was concern that in attempting to leave that night Grandstaff was taking a risk.
“That was a risk that I think we were all aware of,” a U.S. government official told ABC News later. “That him showing at the airport might trigger a new chain of events that might be unpleasant for him.”
An embassy official watched Grandstaff as he walked to the desk. Grandstaff said the border officer stared in disbelief when he presented his passport—it showed he had been in Russia without a valid visa for two years.
The immigration officers pulled Grandstaff out of the line. Grandstaff just kept repeating since he was married he had simply never needed to renew the visa, he said. An embassy official and Grandstaff’s wife joined the conversation. After more haggling, a Russian foreign ministry duty officer appeared, and said he needed to make a call.
“In my mind honestly I’m thinking, they’re calling the authorities they’re coming to arrest me,’ Grandstaff said.
When the official reappeared, he seemed more relaxed, Grandstaff said. He told Grandstaff he would be able to leave, he just needed to pay a standard fine for overstaying his visa. It was about $20.
Hardly able to believe it, Grandstaff paid the fine. The official printed off an exit visa. It meant Grandstaff would be leaving Russia legitimately.
The negotiating had gone on all night—the flight was already boarded. Grandstaff rushed to the gate.
As the plane lifted off, the embassy staff in the airport broke out wine to celebrate getting the flight full of Americans out.
Back on US soil
Grandstaff had not visited the U.S. since 2015 and had not lived there in 9 years. In normal times it would have been like returning to a different country.
“There was a big void there," Grandstaff said. "But on the other hand, it was home. And I really felt it. I literally for the first time in years, I felt like, well, I can just walk outside, I don’t have to worry."
But the country he landed into in April was under coronavirus lockdown. After flying into a deserted New York, and spending two nights in a hotel, he managed to fly on to his next destination. (Grandstaff has asked ABC not to identify his current location.)
There could be no immediate homecoming welcome—Grandstaff had to go into quarantine for two weeks.
It didn’t matter though, he said.
“I spent seven or eight weeks in a solitary cell, you know, so what’s this?” Grandstaff said. He checked into a residential complex with grounds he could walk in. Friends dropped food on the doorstep. He went out to watch the sunrise each morning.
Without the pandemic, he also doubted he would now be home. At a time when much of the world was locked down, it was perhaps the only moment he could have got out. “It was necessary,” he said. “With it being a chartered flight by the U.S. government. Having U.S. government officials there. And they wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for the virus.”
After two weeks he was finally able to meet his parents. Grandstaff’s father is 80 and currently undergoing chemotherapy. Neither of them had believed they were likely to see on one another again.
“Every now and then it creeps in,” Grandstaff said. “Like my dad, all of a sudden he’ll just be, ‘Man I never thought this day was coming.’ And it’s true. It’s been surreal. It still is.”
Grandstaff’s happiness was still tempered. His wife Anna couldn't join him on the flight. Her U.S. visa had expired a few days before. She and Grandstaff have been married nearly 13 years and she had had a conditional green card card but had not renewed it.
Grandstaff has pressed U.S. migration authorities to speed up the process for her to reapply and in June he said the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and State Department agreed to expedite his request to allow Anna to apply to become a permanent resident.
The next step is for the embassy in Moscow to arrange a visa interview. But such interviews were already often taking over a year to schedule and with the pandemic the embassy has halted them entirely, except for emergency visas.
It means the Grandstaffs don’t know when they will see each other again.
Asked when Anna Grandstaff might receive an interview, the embassy said “given the uncertainty of the current situation, it is impossible to estimate when full services, including immigrant visa services, will resume.”
The couple though are hugely relieved Gaylen is out of Russia. Grandstaff said he believes police were determined to unjustly convict him and he would have been imprisoned if he had not left.
“I escaped out of the lion’s mouth, are you kidding me?,” Grandstaff said. “I’ve got scratches from his teeth, man."