Wednesday, 20 September 2017
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Sue EllenEight years ago this week, former Algarve resident Sue Ellen Allen was sentenced in Phoenix, Arizona to a lengthy prison sentence that turned out to be both horrific and hugely uplifting.  She told me yesterday: “I have so much to celebrate this year. It is a miracle I am alive and I live in constant gratitude.”

In 1994, Sue Ellen and her husband, David Grammer, were indicted by a grand jury and charged with defrauding US investors of around 1.1 million dollars.  After pleading not guilty but believing they had little chance of acquittal, they absconded. In 1995 they were tried and convicted in their absence.

The fugitive couple lived under false names in the Silves area of the Algarve until the summer of 2002. Former friends alleged the Grammers had defrauded them of invested monies and threatened to turn them in to the authorities. Sue Ellen, who was suffering from cancer, decided the game was up. She called the US Embassy in Lisbon.

“With only two more chemo sessions to go, our cozy world, our three dogs and four cats, vegetable garden, fresh food and pillow-filled world collapses,” she recalls in her recently published memoir that contains much fascinating detail.

“Yes, we are living in Portugal illegally. Yes, we are blackmailed with violence and exposure unless we pay a very large sum of money that we do not have.

“I suppose we could have fled, but we agree it is time to go back. I take a deep breath and pick up the phone to call the American Embassy in Lisbon.  'Hello, my name is Sue Ellen Allen and I’m wanted in the state of Arizona for business fraud.'

“There is a very long silence. Finally, the person on the other end asks for my information.
'I’ll have to get back to you.'  Six phone calls and three days later, on Friday, the FBI calls from Madrid and we agree to meet them in Lisbon on Monday afternoon at two o’clock at the American Embassy.”

Sue Ellen and David assumed that they would be arrested and spend the night at the Embassy, but that didn't happen. The FBI agents who had flown in from Madrid said they had no jurisdiction in Portugal and so the Grammers could spend the night where they pleased. The flight left at eight the next morning and it was up to them to be there or not. They stayed in a Mövenpick Hotel, split a BLT sandwich and each had a rum and coke.

“How naïve we are,” continues Sue Ellen in her memoir. “We cannot begin to conceive what is in store for us. With cancer, life is frightening, but the penal system is a spiral into hell.

“At the Embassy in Lisbon we are treated humanely; in New Jersey, things are still civilized. In Arizona, however, the good manners stop. The sheriff there prides himself on running the toughest jails in America. It is designed to strip you of your dignity, self-esteem, and sanity. Into this I walk with balding head, collapsed veins, and trembling heart.”

Sue Ellen and David were each sentenced to 10 years in jail. Sue Ellen served six years and nine months. David served seven years and four months. Both were released on parole. In her memoir, Sue Ellen describes her period in prison as “an unbelievable journey”.

The memoir is entitled The Slumber Party from Hell. “It wasn’t all hell,” she admits. “It was never heaven, but there are memories I would not trade, memories that will guide and define the next part of my life.”

The death of her cellmate, Gina Panetta effected her profoundly “Gina’s death started this memoir and Gina’s death started the next part of my life. She gave me my passion and my purpose,” writes Sue Ellen.

Together with her cellmate's parents she founded an organisation called GINA's Team. The organisation is active in promoting education and self-sufficiency for incarcerated women and men in US prisons, at no cost to the taxpayer.

“We bring volunteer community leaders, speakers and educators into prisons to teach life skills subjects. Our volunteer programs provide inmates with much-needed tools for re-entry, provide community members as role models and allow volunteers to see inmates as human beings.”

While the death of her cellmate gave inspiration, there were times in prison when Sue Ellen was so depressed that she contemplated suicide. Her life was in danger anyway due to cancer. But she emerged from behind bars in March this year in an extraordinary resolute and optimistic frame of mind.

Last weekend she wrote in a blog: “In September, 2002, I had a mastectomy. If you’ve read my book, you know it was a horrific experience that I equate to being alone in the deepest, darkest hole. On November 23, 2010, I had a second, preventative mastectomy and I equate this experience to being in a sun-filled meadow of flowers and sweet breezes, with family and friends surrounding me.

“The first surgery was performed while I was an inmate in our local jail. The second was performed at the Virginia Piper Centre in Scottsdale, Arizona. I have come full circle. It’s only been two weeks and I admit I don’t feel fantastic, but I know it is a miracle that I am alive. There were so many things the jail denied for my healing and comfort. This time, I was stunned with the attention and details to make sure I was cared for in every way so the healing would begin immediately.”

Sue Ellen, now 65, describes her experiences since leaving the Algarve as a story about turning pain into power. “I believe we must take the pain, the grief, the fear and the anger from our journeys and turn it into power. Turn the pain into power, not power for ourselves - power to help others who are lost or hopeless or terrified or angry, power to comfort and love.”

 

Comments  

+1 #7 cheryll 2017-09-01 21:29
I admit that I do not have knowledge of Sue Ellen ' s crime for which she was convicted; just now learning of her from watching a t.v. show. However, I do know about the prison system in Tucson, Az. because I worked there for 4 years at the Wilmot prison. I witnessed people at their best and at their absolute worst; both prisoner and staff. This is what I know : if the public is tired of the amount of crime which permeates their community, then demand change within the penal system. If a dog is running lose in the streets and is biting people, then the dog has to be removed for the safety of not only others, but the dog itself. While caged there are two options. .poke at the dog with a stick, yell at it, take frustration and fear out on it....strong arm it. Or, show what compassion is, teach it not to bite, change the dog's behavior. Eventually the dog will be let loose. ..which one do you want in your neighborhood? The one who continued to be abused? Or the one who turns out to be a good companion? Just saying.
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0 #6 LauraL 2017-08-30 05:16
Debra, I can see why you're upset, though aren't you doing the same thing you deny in the first place when you "assume" none of the earlier commenters are doing nothing, just sitting back. It's not a matter of what people are doing, but more about the facts. Sue and her husband did behave unethically, did escape the punishment. They went to jail. This is a fact and it has nothing to do with all the rest of the story. You are absolutely free to choose to accept and overlook this, as well as others assessing and reaching an opposite decision. Based on the tone of your words, the cognitive dissonance in your mind is almost palpable. Neither Sue is a force of nature nor others are superior. It's for your own good if you try to look at things at a more realistic level, devoid of any grandiose "schemes" magnified by emotions.
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-4 #5 Debra Keough 2017-08-20 12:23
David Sand, Lyndon, and Joe....I've spent the last hour and a half trying to fit everything I want to say into a box of 1,500 letters. And what it boils down to is this: not one of you know Sue Ellen, obviously, yet you feel comfortable saying things like "You're a disgrace" and "You calculatingly defrauded", "put on a pedestal and profit from this". And you say that she is " a testament to the american desire to achieve the good life without the effort." How dare you make such assumptions and judgements?? You see, I DO know Sue Ellen, very well, and I've watched her and David put their social security checks back into keeping Gina;s Team going. And I've watched her work for 18 hours straight to get something done. And she's done more to reduce the rescividism rate than any government agency ever has. I call her my Force of Nature,. But becaiuse you read some biased article, you think that you're superior enough to sit in judgment of HER?? and here;s my judgment...it's easy to sit back and talk about what's wrong with the american people, but what are you doing besides being hypocritical?? Meanwhile, Sue Ellen is out there DOING something about it. She's putting in the long hours and the money and the heart to try to fix a broken system. And frankly, when it's all said and done, Sue Ellen is going to be remembered for everything she's accomplished and the people she's helped, she will have DONE something.Not one single one of you with your judgments can say that...ever..
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+3 #4 David Sand. 2017-05-19 14:02
You're a disgrace. We're supposed to feel sorry for you?
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+1 #3 Lyndon 2017-05-14 16:54
Seriously, I understand your personal experience was not good. But you made a choice. You behaved unethically to those who trusted you. Trust. You deserved your punishment which is fitting. I had a child who stole something at 16. He was naiive and young. You weren't. You calculatingly defrauded people just like yourself which is reprehensible. That you are now put on a pedestal and profit from this is a testament to your calculating manipulative nature. The reason there is a prison problem is because there are so many americans looking for a fast track to the top without putting in the effort required to achieve success. You are a testament to the american desire to achieve the good life without the effort. Your equation is poison.
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+4 #2 Joe 2017-05-06 21:23
How about the poor people that were defrauded?
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+4 #1 Leroy 2017-05-06 12:34
Turning lemons into lemonade
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