What makes a man take credit for a crime he didn't commit? Peter Savodnik on the curious case of an American soldier who sent himself to a Russian prison During his trial at the Industrial Regional Court in Khabarovsk, seven time zones east of Moscow, Christopher Garner sat in a cage. This is common practice in Russian courts, where the state is portrayed as patriotic and duty-bound, and the accused is often reduced to the status of a dog - and it was especially true in the case of Garner, an American serviceman accused of murdering a Russian citizen. Garner, then 30, was a US Army specialist who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he was based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Neither his war record, which was incorrectly said to prove that Garner was a spy, nor his home address, which was correctly said to be a training ground for some of America's elite special forces, helped his cause. In court, he kept a Bible at all times. His hair was, by then, shoulder-length, which made him look like a pale surfer, and he relied on translators to tell him what the prosecutors were accusing him of, what his lawyers were saying in his defence, and what the three judges were asking him. By the time he was convicted of strangling Alexander Kaminsky and sentenced to nine years at the Mordovia Penal Colony, once a major Gulag hub, Garner had learnt some "thug's Russian", as his attorney put it, and he could understand what was happening in court. What remained incomprehensible was how he had got there in the first place: there was no evidence linking Garner to Kaminsky's body - no strands of hair, no dried blood, no witnesses. And there were many people, including one of the cops who had arrested him, who believed he was innocent or had acted in self-defence. The problem was the defendant. Long after he'd been sent to prison and more evidence had emerged pointing to his innocence, Garner refused to say anything in his own defence. Besides the prosecutors, the only person who seemed convinced Christopher Garner was guilty of murder was Christopher Garner.
Khabarovsk is one of the few provincial cities in Russia that is truly charming. The city, home to a half-million people, teems with two- and three-story pre-revolutionary buildings and wide brick sidewalks. The outskirts are circumscribed by river and forest. There is a renovated Orthodox church, with gold onion domes and white façades, and a smaller one, more colourful, overlooking a boardwalk that abuts the Amur River. On the other side of the river, just beyond the trawlers, tugboats and vaguely etched hilltops, is China. One evening, Stanislaw Albov, who was one of the two detectives who travelled from Khabarovsk to Moscow to arrest Garner and his wife, Svetlana, and who later testified in court on Christopher Garner's behalf, drove me to the apartment where Alexander Kaminsky had been killed. It had rained for most of the afternoon, and there were deep puddles in the middle of the street. Everything looked blue. Outside the apartment, at 11 Kalarasha Street, Albov said that, from the beginning, the police and Interior Ministry officials in Khabarovsk "wanted me to lie". Albov, who served in the army in Chechnya from 1996 to 1997, continued: "But I remember, on the flight back to Khabarovsk from Moscow, I was looking into this guy's eyes, and I was thinking that this guy's just a soldier - simple, decent, honest - and I was thinking, 'There is no way he did this.'" The apartment was in a five-story building called a "khrushchovka", after Nikita Khrushchev. No one was home. Albov said he didn't know who owned it now. It had belonged to Svetlana Garner's aunt, Lyuda Shirokovo, and she had bequeathed it to Svetlana. Christopher and Svetlana Garner had come to Khabarovsk in early September 2006 for Lyuda Shirokovo's funeral. The night before they were to fly home, via Moscow, they went to the apartment so that Svetlana could retrieve some personal effects.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. According to Garner's confession, it was while the Garners were at 11 Kalarasha Street that Kaminsky turned up. He was drunk and angry, and he wanted the apartment. He said he'd been living there - he said he'd been Shirokovo's boyfriend, although that's probably not true. Kaminsky, 56, was a petty thief. He was part of the orbit of Svetlana's extended family, one of many surly fixtures who flitted in and out of their lives. (According to Albov, Ludmilla Latysh, Svetlana's mother, was a bootlegger in Khabarovsk before she moved to the United States with her daughter.) Kaminsky was poor, filthy and always somewhere between slightly and very inebriated; given that most Russian men do not live past their late fifties, his health was almost certainly poor. Albov remembers that Kaminsky was a small man and an epileptic. In his confession, Garner said that Kaminsky, in the middle of a red-faced rant, produced a piano wire that he apparently planned to use to kill Svetlana. He took a swipe at Svetlana, and a fight broke out between Garner and Kaminsky. Garner wrested the piano wire from Kaminsky and then used it to strangle him. He would say, in his written confession and in court, that he did this to defend his wife. Svetlana refuses to discuss the case. After her husband was indicted, she returned to the United States and moved with her three sons (one from a previous relationship) to Sacramento, California, to be near her in-laws. When I contacted her by phone, she had only one thing to say: "My husband is the most honourable, decent, wonderful man in the world." When asked if he was guilty of murder, she repeated herself. She said she couldn't say more because of the US Army, and then the State Department, and then the Russians. She suggested I try her husband. "There's a phone in his cell," she said once. "If he wants to talk to you, he'll answer." This number, not surprisingly, didn't work. In a recent e-mail, Svetlana wrote: "I am not willing to talk about the situation created, because my husband and his parents think that it is not a good idea - period!!!" Garner's parents, Steven and Gail Garner, also refuse to speak. The first time I reached Steven Garner on the phone, it was September 2008, and he said he didn't want to talk to reporters because of what they were doing to Sarah Palin. "They're ruining her, the whole media," he said. He added that "people", presumably in Washington or Moscow, had told him not to discuss the case. "They're working behind the scenes. I can't afford to do anything that might hurt that." He did not reply to several follow-up e-mail messages. After Kaminsky was killed, the Garners stuffed his body into a bag and called a cab; they put the bag into the trunk and drove north, out of the city and into the forest. It would have been cool outside, and the sky, the endless sweep of trees, would have felt gargantuan, infused with a red-purple glow. It was now midnight. Garner could not understand how he had arrived at this particular juncture, in a cab in a forest in the wilds of distant Russia, his wife next to him, the body of the man who had tried to kill her in the trunk. Svetlana was chatty. Garner was practically catatonic. Garner would tell the cops, his lawyers and the judges that he just wanted to tell the police what had happened. He thought everyone would understand. Svetlana insisted this was a bad idea, and she was probably right. They drove several hours before they stopped and the Garners got out and dumped the body by the side of the road. Svetlana wouldn't say why they had driven so far to cover up Kaminsky's death and then not bothered to bury the body. Albov shook his head. "F****** idiots." The Garners drove back to Khabarovsk and then to the airport. Eight hours later they landed in Moscow, and headed to the international terminal to board their flight to New York. By now, the police in Khabarovsk knew that a woman from a village north of the city had stumbled on a body. They also had received a call from a cab driver who said he'd found a blood-drenched blanket in his trunk. The driver had mentioned something about an American. At passport control, the Garners learnt that Svetlana's documents were not in order - Svetlana did not yet have a green card, and the couple had left the United States before she had the right to travel freely. The Garners rushed to the US embassy, in the centre of Moscow, only to learn it would take a few days to process whatever needed processing. It was at this point that Christopher Garner, panicking, confessed to killing Kaminsky. Embassy personnel recommended Garner turn himself in to the Russian authorities, and accompanied him to the Krasnipresnenskaya militsia station, where he repeated what he had told the Americans. An embassy official confirmed all this but declined to say more. It was as if the Garners did everything possible to avoid escape. "He could have taken a bus to Kiev. Or Estonia. Or he could have said nothing," Albov said. It would have been wiser, Albov opined, for them to have left the body in the apartment. "No one would have found out for a few days or a week, until someone in the building reported the smell. When the cops showed up they would have just thought he'd died from drinking or whatever. They wouldn't have cared. [Kaminsky is] a f****** criminal, a tiny unimportant f*** who died, and they would have been angry that he'd died and that they had to take care of the paperwork. No one would ever have come looking for any killer because he's nobody. He was nobody."
In early 2007, an Air Force attorney, Captain Stephen Wall, arrived in Khabarovsk. Garner had been arrested four months earlier and was sitting in jail, awaiting trial. "He was ecstatic to see us, to see Americans, to know what was going on," Wall said. "My impression was he was kind of nervous, but he had a positive attitude- He was very involved in his case, very proactive. He seemed like a good guy, like an honest guy. I didn't know what to expect, but he wasn't what I was expecting." Wall thought he'd be in Khabarovsk four days. He spent nine months there over the course of a year. It is US policy to send an attorney to observe trials involving military personnel accused of serious crimes. Wall had been tapped because he knew some Russian. His job was to do what he could to make sure Garner received a fair hearing; it was not, he stressed, to be Garner's lawyer. But there were problems from the start. Garner's father had found a Moscow attorney, Alexey Zavgorodny, on the internet. But Zavgorodny, Wall said, was more interested in milking the United States government, which was covering the legal fees, than in defending Garner. (Wall believes Zavgorodny tried to have him killed, outside a Khabarovsk cafe, shortly before he had Zavgorodny removed from the case. Albov and Viktor Kobzar, Zavgorodny's co-counsel, could not confirm this, but said it was entirely believable.) In a handwritten letter to the president of the Moscow Bar, dated June 28, 2007, Garner wrote that he'd had a "terrible experience with one of your lawyers," noting that "the last two days [of his trial] Zavgorodny's face was red in colour like a common street drunk and the last day he distinctly smelled of alcohol and was falling asleep while court was in process." Wall then turned to Kobzar, Zavgorodny's co-counsel. Wall had qualms about Kobzar, but there were few alternatives. He didn't drink too much. He hadn't threatened anyone's life. But, Wall said, he was erratic and self-serving, and there were times he seemed a tad crazy or confused. When we met in his office, on the first floor of an apartment building in Khabarovsk, Kobzar said he wasn't interested in responding to the many accusations that had been levelled against him. He said he was thinking of writing a novel about Garner. "Christopher Garner never killed anyone," he declared. "I'm positive - 100 per cent. He was a victim of a game - his wife's game. Garner meeting this woman in a bar in South Korea - this was a great tragedy, the greatest of tragedies." After Garner was convicted, Wall fired Kobzar and asked another lawyer who had been involved in the case, Maria Kamanskaya, to handle Garner's appeal (which has, so far, gone nowhere). Kobzar said Kamanskaya was hired because her father was a prominent attorney in Khabarovsk. Further complicating Wall's task were the secret police, or bezopasniy organiy, (literally "security organs"). "It was clear they were paying very close attention," Wall said, but tellingly refused to go into further detail. Kamanskaya, the attorney, said, "I was told my phone was being listened to by the FSB" - the secret police - "but my father, he's well known here, so they can't do anything to him." Boris Kamansky, who has been a lawyer for 40 years, said it was easier doing his job in the Soviet Union than in post-Soviet Russia. "Then there was a law, and everyone was afraid to break it."
In October 2007, the Industrial Regional Court convicted Garner of murdering Alexander Kaminsky. The only evidence was Garner's multiple confessions. In a sign of how Russians viewed the case, Argumenti i Fakti, a Moscow tabloid, ran a story with the headline: "Spy Given Nine Years." Three months later, Stanislaw Albov, improbably, flew from Khabarovsk to Seoul and then Los Angeles, to see Svetlana Garner. After visiting Disneyland and Universal Studios, he took a bus to Sacramento. From the bus station, Albov called Svetlana's apartment. Ludmilla Latysh, Svetlana's mother, answered the phone. Albov knew Ludmilla - he said he'd arrested her once for distributing homemade vodka - and she told Albov to come over. The following night, Albov said, he and Svetlana bought a bottle of Absolut and sat around the apartment drinking. (Albov, as if to demonstrate his pro-America bona fides, repeatedly disparaged anything having to do with his country, including Russian vodka.) "And then I said, 'Tell me the truth. Tell me what really happened,'" Albov said. "And she told me that she did it. She started to cry - she was worried I was still in the militsia or working for the FSB and I was going to arrest her and bring her back to Russia - and she said Garner had covered for her. Svetlana didn't want him to say what happened, so he said he did it, and he thought everything would be OK." I asked Albov how he thought Kaminsky had been killed. "He is not a big man, and Sveta, she's not a petite girl, and he had this wire, and she grabbed it from him, and he's hitting her. Probably, he wanted to kill her, and she pulls it around his neck and yanks it as hard as she can. She didn't want to kill Kaminsky. She just wanted to stop him from hitting her. But she's a girl. She doesn't know how to do these things." Albov continued: "Svetlana said Kaminsky had one of his seizures while she was strangling him, and she pulled the wire tight again - she was scared and, like I said, a fool - and she thought he was unconscious. She slapped him. She threw water on his head. She was trying to wake him up and, after a few minutes, she realised he was dead." Garner was not in the apartment when this happened, Albov said. His stomach had been bothering him and he'd gone to a kiosk a quarter-mile down the road for a Pepsi. According to Albov, Kaminsky was already dead when Garner returned.
Albov's story was hard to believe. Russian police make $300 a month - maybe. With bribes, they can make much more, but the trip to California must have cost a few thousand dollars. And why would Svetlana confess? The next day, Albov gave me a folder. Inside were his passport, with an American visa and stamps from the Los Angeles airport dated Jan 10, 2008, and ticket stubs from his bus trip and flight, on Asiana Airlines, from Khabarovsk to Seoul, and from Seoul to Los Angeles. Svetlana Garner dismissed Albov. "About Stanislav," she said by e-mail, "we let him stay in our house because we nice people and he wants to attend the us army - when he left he robed us /stolen golden whatch and some necklesses and my wedding ring five carat dimond - The army people forbit me to talk to you and they said they would take care your guys if you hurt us in any way." (A Ft Bragg spokesman declined to comment.) Albov denied stealing anything from Svetlana. Stephen Wall said Albov told him what had happened when he returned to Khabarovsk. Wall, who was wrapping up his work on the Garner case at the time, said he was sceptical - he thought Kobzar might have paid for the trip, or Albov might be working for the FSB - but he asked Garner about it anyway. Garner had not yet been transferred to Mordovia, and Wall and Maria Kamanskaya went to the jail. "We're speaking through the glass, on the phone, and I say, 'Albov said he went to California, and Svetlana said she did it. Albov told me. Tell me. You've got to tell me.' And Garner broke down, bawling, tears, just lost it. I've never ever seen, in all my visits, he'd never done that. He was like, 'What am I going to do?' He thinks they're going to go take his wife back to Russia." I had spent a year trying to figure out why Christopher Garner had taken the blame for a crime that he may very well have not committed. Was it love? Had Svetlana deceived him, as Albov seemed to believe? (Wall said Svetlana had to be coaxed into returning to Russia to testify for her husband. Most everyone who met her during the trial said she acted "strangely" and "unconcerned".) Had Garner deceived himself? If there had indeed been a tug-of-war between the hardened post-Soviet Svetlana and the childlike American Garner, he would have been helpless. He wouldn't have even been aware that there was a tug-of-war. But the seemingly ineluctable force that had driven him to the police and then back to Khabarovsk and, finally, to prison, was mystifying, as if a compact had been forged, a secret exchanged, as if there were some combustible subtext of which no one save Christopher Garner was aware. He was either criminally stupid, or he knew something no one else knew. I took an overnight train from Moscow to Zuybova Polyana and arrived at 8:30am. At the station, I found a cabbie, and he drove me to a grocery store where I bought some chocolates and a bottle of Ruskiy Standart. Then we drove to IK-22, the prison for foreigners in the web of jails known as the Mordovia Penal Colony. As you wend through the forest, there are occasional indications that people are being imprisoned nearby: walls, fences, barbed wire, clusters of militsioneri with automatic weapons. But there are no signs or checkpoints to make clear you are now in a place that does not exist on most maps. An unnamed village borders IK-22, and when we stopped there were roosters crossing the mud outside a retractable metal wall with barbed wire on top. Twenty feet away was a three-room building, and inside were three women. I said I wanted to see my friend Christopher Garner. The women nodded. "The American," one of them said. One of the women, Tanya, stood up and disappeared through the doorway I had just come through. I sat down at a pupil's desk. I was in a classroom - the walls were filled with drawings of rifles, hand guns, grenades and bulletproof vests. There was a handmade poster with Polaroid snapshots of the "guard of the month". An hour later, Tanya returned. "Let's go," she said. We walked through a doorway and then another doorway, and she pointed to a woman on the other side of a thick, yellow-green glass, and she said, "Give her your things." I wanted to present the warden with the vodka and chocolates. Tanya shook her head. I walked in front of Tanya down a long, dim corridor. She opened a door, stepped inside an office and picked up a phone. "The friend is here," she said. When she hung up, she said, "He says he doesn't have any friends." I said he must have forgotten me. "That happens here," she said. "You should be prepared for this." I had seen photographs of Garner, but I didn't recognise him when he appeared a moment later. When I extended my hand, he looked confused. We sat on the couch. Garner removed his cap. His hair was very short; his hairline, receding. He was in military fatigues. He was a shadow of his former self - grubbier, distant, with a hollowed-out look and thick dirt beneath his fingernails. He had been confined to his very own house of the dead. The Russians sat in Tanya's office and spoke in whispers. "Do I know you?" he said. I shook my head. I told Garner I was a journalist. "I can't answer any questions," he said. I told him this was his chance to tell the world what had happened. "I can't answer any questions," he said. "I take orders from my employer, the United States Army." I mentioned Captain Wall, Svetlana, his parents, Kaminsky, Khabarovsk. "I can't answer any questions," he said. Then he looked at me for a moment. "Who are you?" he said. He asked me this several times. "Who are you?" I wished he would lower his voice. "You don't want to say anything?" He smiled. "Anything?" I said. He stared at me for several seconds. Then he said, "Are we done?" This lasted six minutes. I retrieved my chocolates and vodka and proceeded through the ancient doors into a white sky. Outside, two guards were smoking. One of the guards flicked ash at a rooster. A woman, standing on the front steps of a peasant house, yelled at the guards. "Now you are free," Tanya said, closing the door behind her. Garner remained inside, alone with his secret - and probably smiling.
Peter Savodnik is a writer based in New York. His book on Lee Harvey Oswald's time in the Soviet Union will be published by Basic Books in 2011.