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.
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