The IGA supermarket in Lynndie England's hometown of Fort Ashby, WV (population 1,354), was boarded up on an August afternoon, and an Authorized West Virginia WIC Vendor sticker on the front door was faded and peeling. A hawk flew low overhead, and insects buzzed in the still, 87-degree air. Kansas's "Dust in the Wind" blared from the radio of a rental car: "All we are is dust in the wind. Nothing more than dust in the wind." Three decades after its release, the song resonates here in the parking lot.
"How many people pay attention to the cashier in the grocery store?" says Lorraine Boles, 71, who works across the street at Fort Ashby Books. "I have a slight picture of one of the girls who worked there -- the one I think was Lynndie. She had a pretty smile."
England grew up in mobile home down the road from the IGA in a dirt-and-gravel patch of land situated off Route 46, behind a sheep farm, next to the windowless Roadside Pub. On summer afternoons, the trailer park smells faintly of manure. Her parents, Terrie and Kenneth, and her two-year-old son, Carter Allen, live here in a $200-a-month rented trailer. Her sister, Jessie Klinestiver, her brother-in-law James, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Allee, live in a mobile home yards away.
Terrie, 46, a former housekeeper with Dawn View Center, a retirement home down the road from the trailer park, has pale eyes, deep etches in her face, and three gold rings on her left hand. That afternoon, she stood in her doorway for a moment, smoking Bronco Lights, and invited me inside the trailer.
Echoes of Abu Ghraib
The one-stoplight town of Fort Ashby has a frozen-in-amber quality that makes it seem like a small town in the 1970s. The main hangouts are 7-Eleven and Evan's Dairy Dip. And a Cumberland, MD radio station, 106.1 WKGO ("Go 106.1" plays not only "Dust in the Wind" but other mid-1970s hits. Heart's "Magic Man" played three times in one 26-hour period.
The Fort Ashby Public Library is located near the IGA parking lot. It is the site of a Brown Bag Program for low-income families. More than 20 men, women, and children stopped by the library one August afternoon and paid $5 for a month of subsidized groceries. They carried away cardboard boxes full of applesauce, soup, cooking oil, KitKat bars, Pace salsa, and other items. The median family income in Fort Ashby is $32,375, according to data provided by librarian Cindy Shanholtz, who helps coordinate the Brown Bag Program. But many survive on less. Kenneth makes $1,500 a month as a railroad utility worker when he doesn't put in overtime, says Klinestiver, 27. She was heavily pregnant with a second child and dressed in an oversized T-shirt and a navy baseball cap.
Nobody in the England family, including both sets of grandparents, parents, and children, has a bachelor's degree. Klinestiver made it the furthest. She did half a semester at Potomac State College in Keyser, WV, hoping to study accounting, before she dropped out. Meanwhile, the men in their family work the night shift -- Kenneth at CSX, a railroad company; their younger brother, Josh, 21, at Wal-Mart; and Jamie at Pilgrim's Pride, a chicken-processing plant in Moorefield, WV.
Kleinstiver says they played cops and robbers, carrying pop guns and shooting them off as they ran through the tall grass, as children. "Lynndie was always the cop. That was her big thing," says Kleinstiver. "That didn't work out too good."
England's ticket out of the trailer park was the U.S. Army. She signed up at age 17 in a Pittsburgh recruiter's office in December 1999, according to documents from her March 1, 2005, court-martial United States v. Lynndie R England. She did it over the protests of Terrie. "I joined because I wanted to. And I wanted to pay for college," England says. (I had several lengthy conversations with England over a two-day period in the brig in August 2006 -- her first interview in prison and to date her only print interview.) "I didn't think there would be a war. But I was ready to go if there was one."
Long before England was deployed to Iraq, Terrie tells me, she and her sister worked the same shift as cashiers at the IGA. England met a stock boy, James Fike, and fell in love. They got married in March 2002. Like many people in eastern West Virginia, England and Fike applied for jobs at Pilgrim's Pride. At the factory, England made $10.50 an hour, more than twice a cashier's wages.
Fike worked in Breast/Debone, and England worked in Marination. The plant is located on a narrow, two-lane road clogged with logging trucks, motorcycles, and Chevrolets, across from an antiques store called Tony's Flea Market. In front of the store, a dusty ceramic chicken and a $25 chicken-shaped, amber-colored glass serving platter are displayed. Black smoke pours out of steel pipes at the plant and, depending upon which way an orange windsock is blowing, the place smells like gasoline fumes, decaying carcasses, or a Tender Roast.
As a mixer in Marination, England noticed that unhealthy-looking chicken parts were being sent down the line. She told her supervisors, but they ignored her. Her sister recalls her walking over to her station and taking off her smock.
"I said, 'What are you doing?'" Klinestiver says. "'We've only been at work for an hour.' She said, 'I quit,' and walked out the door."
"I didn't like the way management was doing things," England explains. "People would take the good chicken off and put the bad chicken on. Management didn't care."
It was worse in Live Hang -- located in Pilgrim's Pride Moorefield Fresh Plant next door. During her shift as a cashier at the nearby Dollar General Store, Barr describes the plant's slaughterhouse. Workers grab the chickens, fasten hooks on their claws, and hang them upside down from a conveyer belt, she explains. Then chickens are transported to the "kill room," where, Barr says, "They go through an electrical shock. There's a big saw where their necks go across." Workers in Live Hang earn an extra 25 cents an hour -- a compensation for occupational hazards they face. "You get pooped on when you work there," she says.
A People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) activist was hired as a plant worker and conducted a secret, eight-month investigation of the plant from late 2003 to early 2004. He described how workers would stomp on chickens, soaking the room in blood. Yet the supervisor did not seem bothered, telling workers to curb their behavior only on the days when they were being watched by inspectors. "Don't kill the birds in the improper way because we have inspectors here today," a supervisor once told workers.
On November 13, 2003, according to the investigator, two hundred chickens "were slammed against the wall" by employees. "Several hours later, many of the birds were still alive." Three days later, a worker "twisted the neck of a live chicken until the head popped off; he then used what remained of the bloodied body of the chicken to write graffiti on the wall." In addition, a worker "squeezed two live chickens so hard feces squirted out of them. [He] directed the feces into the eyes of seven other live chickens, exclaiming, 'They shit all over us every day.'"
On July 25, 2004, a Los Angeles Times op-ed appeared under the headline: "Echoes of Abu Ghraib in Chicken Slaughterhouse." Several employees were fired. But no one was prosecuted.
Klinestiver says the employees did more than beat the animals. "They told me that people there actually fucked chickens," she says. "They'd grab the beaks and rip them apart and make them bigger. Then they shoved their sexual parts into their beaks. Besides being overly gross and sexual, it was like morally wrong." (Efforts to reach the factory workers who spoke about the sexual abuse were not successful, and the claims could not be substantiated.)
Klinestiver and England were both shocked by the behavior of coworkers at the plant. And England had even protested shoddy plant standards. She was a whistle-blower.
"A lot of people complained about it," England says defensively. "It wasn't just me." When I ask her why she didn't stand up to the abusive practices at Abu Ghraib, she falls silent and looks at her hands.
Meet Charles Graner
After leaving her job at Pilgrim's Pride, England, then 20, got a job as an army administrative clerk in Cresaptown, MD. She processed the paperwork of Graner, 35, for the 372nd Military Police Company when he arrived in November 2002. "He was funny, the jokester," she recalls. Other times, he was raunchy. "An outlaw," she calls him. Their affair started in March 2003 while they were stationed in Fort Lee.
"After Lynndie joined the army and was working as an orderly in the U.S., she didn't know anybody. She was a really quiet girl," Janis Karpinski, a former commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, tells me. "Enter Charles Graner. He's much older, and he's full of himself. He's just got that kind of personality."
"She was blown away," Karpinski says. "She felt like someone was finally talking to her. Paying attention. He seemed far more experienced and worldly than anyone she knew. It only took a few, short conversations. She was enamored with him."
"Graner was the total opposite of Jamie [Fike]," says Kleinstiver. "Lynndie told me, 'He's real open. He likes to do stuff. Wild stuff.'"
England brought Graner home to speak with her parents in early 2003. He walked into the trailer and looked around at the three-bedroom unit with a linoleum-covered floor, the living room decorated with a painting of a red covered bridge and a framed print of a deer. Two plastic fly swatters and a wooden plaque bearing the message "I [heart] Kentucky the Bluegrass State" hung from a paneled wall in the kitchen. "I said, 'Charles, you're more than welcome to sit down,'" Terrie recalls. He remained standing. "We were just like, 'There is something wrong with this guy,'" says Klinestiver. "I don't know what. Maybe when he was born, something fell out of his ear that was supposed to be attached to his brain."
Graner has admitted to beating his former wife, Staci Morris, and dragging her by her hair across a room. He was accused in a federal suit, Horatio Nimley v. Charles A. Graner, filed on May 25, 1999, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, of injuring an inmate, Horatio Nimley, while Graner was working as a prison guard at Pennsylvania's State Correctional Institution-Greene. On June 29, 1998, according to the suit, Graner and another guard hid a razor blade in a side dish of mashed potatoes that was served to Nimley. He bit down on the razor, slicing the inside of his mouth, and bled profusely.
In March 2003, England went with Graner and another soldier to Virginia Beach. Their friend took a picture of England performing oral sex on Graner. In addition, Graner took a series of pictures as they engaged in anal sex, showing the progression of the sex act, "minute by minute," says Hardy.
"Everything they did, he took a picture of it," says Hardy. "She was asked why she let him. She said, 'You know, guys like that. I just wanted to make him happy.' She was like a little plaything for him. I think the sexual stuff -- and the way he put her in those positions -- was his way of saying, 'Let me see what I can make you do.'"
After the Virginia Beach trip, they rented a car and drove to see her family in eastern Kentucky. Terrie, Kenneth, and her paternal grandfather were hunting turkey together in Daniel Boone National Forest. England sat with Graner and her parents at a picnic table. She asked Graner to show the Virginia Beach pictures. He handed a packet to Kenneth. Her father opened the envelope, looked through the pictures and handed them to Terrie. "'He said, 'You might not want to show them to your dad,'" Terrie recalls.
Terrie looked at the photos and could not believe what she saw. The photos depicted nudity and sexual scenes. "I was really bent out of shape," she says.
Graner flaunted his affair with England, and the photos were passed around among the soldiers in their unit. Military rules forbid soldiers from taking lewd photographs. Also, England was married to Fike. Her affair with Graner violated army rules. Neither England nor Graner got in serious trouble, though. Several weeks later, they got ready for their deployment to Iraq and were eventually stationed at Abu Ghraib.
On January 15, 2005, Graner was sentenced to ten years for assault, indecent acts and other detainee-related abuses at Abu Ghraib. Eight months later, England was sentenced to three years for mistreating prisoners.