Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, right, talks with Jon and Linda Grant about their harrowing ordeal after being arrested in Tanzania, Africa.
By Samantha Weigel
Daily Journal staff
As Jon and Linda Grant sat across from U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier thanking her for helping them escape from Tanzania, it’s hard to imagine anyone would think the 72- and 65-year-olds were capable of anything that would warrant a 20-year sentence in foreign prison.
But the Foster City couple said that’s exactly what they faced while trying to navigate a corrupt court system earlier this year and it cost them nearly $70,000 to make it home.
While traveling through Africa, the retired dentist and his wife were thrown into jail and charged with poaching after they purchased what they thought, and asked multiple times to ensure, was a legal piece of artwork made out of a giraffe bone.
But the intricately engraved 18-inch bone bought at a souvenir shop within a wildlife refuge ultimately had the unsuspecting couple each facing a 20-year sentence and $150,000 fine for poaching.
Jon Grant said it’s still hard to believe that what he was carrying happened to be illegal in Tanzania — their final destination after a two-week cruise and a weeklong safari in South Africa. And unbeknownst to them, Tanzania’s national animal is a giraffe.
Despite other countries and customs agents allowing them to travel with it, in Tanzania the couple was accused of killing a giraffe, cutting off its leg, then intricately engraving it within a matter of days. Quickly, their passports and belongings were taken away before being sent to jail and eventually prison.
“I don’t even think I have the appropriate words to describe the fear,” Linda Grant recalled, later noting even embassy officials and Tanzanian tour guides couldn’t believe the couple was being charged. “Everyone realized that this is the most trumped up charge on Earth, but we got caught up in this [corrupt] system.”
Between bribes, legal fees, government fines and new airfare, the couple said it cost them more than $70,000 to escape from Africa.
The Grants are no strangers to traveling — Jon’s been to 132 countries, Linda’s visited 100 countries and, for the last 15 years, the humanitarian couple worked with the Rotary to distribute 400,000 wheelchairs to the disabled in developing countries.
They’d also been to Africa several times. So Jon Grant said wasn’t as though he didn’t know what to ask before purchasing the bone.
“Is it legal?” “Are you sure I can take it through customs?” he asked of the seller and when he showed it to a tour guide. Jon Grant said he even kept part of it unwrapped so he could easily show customs agents it wasn’t ivory, an obviously illegal contraband.
But while making their way through one airport customs proved flawless, their final stop in Tanzania was the beginning of a long nightmare, the couple said.
“Right from the beginning, everyone said ‘we’ve never heard of anything like this. This is crazy. You’re being charged with poaching for having a souvenir in your suitcase,” Jon Grant said, emphasizing the couple in no way endorses illegal killings or poaching.
He too recalled being in custody with uniformed juveniles with AK-47s hung around their necks keeping watch over the Americans who were denied food and initially, Jon Grant’s medication.
Their tour company tried to intervene and eventually got the head of a Tanzanian tour guide association to get involved — thousands of dollars were shuffled to judges and prosecutors to move up court dates and, after three days being locked up, the couple was able to bail out.
But then it was another nearly three weeks of making court appearances and staying with the wealthy head of the tour guide association who thankfully, had access to money and knew the scheme. But despite bribing multiple officials, one didn’t bite, Jon Grant said.
They were seriously facing 20 years in a Tanzanian prison as new state officials sought to make an “example” and put a firm foot down on poaching. But after reaching out to their friend and Foster City Deputy Mayor Charlie Bronitsky, the ball got rolling.
Ultimately, Speier’s office got involved and was able to connect with the U.S. ambassador who finally convinced prosecutors to reduce the charge against Jon Grant and drop the charges against Linda.
But it could have been much worse, they said, if Speier, D-San Mateo, hadn’t gotten involved.
The couple recounted their story to Speier in her district office Friday afternoon and the congresswoman encouraged them to visit the Capitol and testify to officials who could help.
“It’s truly alarming that that kind of gaff can go on and I’m convinced that they ID’d them as Americans that might have a few dollars and they were going to take them to the cleaner. And our country, we can’t allow that to go on,” Speier said. “I’m going to call the State Department and ask to meet with the appropriate officials about this because it’s untenable. Otherwise I think we’re going to have to basically say, ‘don’t buy anything in these countries.’ And then their economies are going to tank, so we really need to clear this up.”
Although the couple said they don’t imagine they’ll be traveling anywhere requiring a passport any time soon — a disappointment for the duo that has spent much of their relationship visiting foreign nations — their spirits remain bright.
They’ve been home for nearly two months. Jon Grant recovered after having a four-day hospital stay prompted by the stressful trip, and they’ve had to take a line of credit out on their home to pay back the head of the tour association $62,000 — half of which covered the court fine and the remainder went to bribes and legal fees, they said.
Ultimately, they said they came forward with their story as a cautionary tale for others who travel.
Linda Grant urged people to visit the State Department websites of countries they travel to and make sure to know the rules and Jon Grant said the bone he didn’t even get to keep sure wasn’t worth the harrowing ordeal.
“It’s ruined our perception of fun travel. I think the message is, you get into these countries where they can just do anything they want,” Jon Grant said, noting they were initially denied an attorney and phone call to the embassy. “I think it’s important to get the word out to people that are traveling, especially in Tanzania, there’s no rules there, you have no rights.”
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