By Gannett Star Gazette
WHITE PLAINS — Among the many calls Phyllis Rodriguez received on the morning of September 11, 2001, one was from her son, Gregory, who worked for the investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald in the north tower of the World Trade Center.
“He left a message on our answering machine,” Rodriguez said. “He said, ‘There’s been a disaster at the Trade Center. I’m OK. Call Elizabeth.’ ” Elizabeth was Gregory’s wife.
He never came back. A day later, Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, told families that employees who were unaccounted for probably did not survive. A total of 658 people from the company died.
In January, Rodriguez boarded a military plane to travel to Guantánamo Bay. She was among five victims’ families selected from a lottery pool to attend the pretrial hearing of Khalid Sheik Mohammad and four others accused of masterminding the 9/11 attack.
Joyce and John Woods of Pearl River also made that journey in memory of their son, James, who was 26 when he died in the terror attacks. He was a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald. He, too, had left a message on their phone saying he loved them.
Rodriguez and the Woods agreed to share their experience of Guantánamo Bay with The Journal News. The hearings were the first time civilians were able to see the men behind the attacks that changed America. Rodriguez also is to give a talk next week in White Plains.
“The whole thing is a very emotional and frightening prospect because you will be observing something that is a piece of the puzzle,” Rodriguez said as she sat at her dining table. “Anything that stirs up the feelings from the 2001 attacks, right away there is a layer of anxiety and fear of being hurt all over again.”
When the families arrived at Guantánamo on Jan. 26, they boarded a ferry that took them to the other side of the bay, where the highly guarded base is. All were given plastic badges that identified them as a Victim Family Member and were taken to comfortable townhouses that would be their homes for five days.
Unlike the verdant, tropical setting they had expected, Guantánamo had a rough and arid landscape, “like the moon,” Joyce Woods said. Rodriguez described it as a “very boring suburban ghetto,” with no downtown, and a smattering of restaurants like McDonalds, a pizzeria and an Irish pub.
The pretrial hearings were held in a courtroom with the five defendants, the judge, and the defense and prosecution teams. The victims’ families and the press sat at the back, which was partitioned off by soundproof double-paned glass. Sound came through through television monitors that broadcast the hearing with a 40-second delay to ensure no classified information was inadvertently revealed.
The families felt anxious about seeing the defendants. Would the faces of the men accused of killing their children reveal some humanity? Would they show remorse?
In the end, all the families saw were the defendants’ backs. The men were already seated facing the judge when the families arrived, and the families typically left the courtroom before the defendants. The Woods said they didn’t feel threatened; Rodriguez said the experience was anticlimactic.
“I didn’t feel any emotions. It surprised me,” Joyce Woods said. “They didn’t look like monsters. They just looked like men sitting on chairs.”
The hearing itself was mundane, with prosecutors and the defense team quibbling over legal minutiae. Pretrial hearings set the ground rules for the trial. Defense attorneys attempt to get the best terms for the defendants while the prosecution tries to stop them.
The slow pace frustrated the families. But Rodriguez had other concerns.
She said she thinks a military trial is inherently unfair because it denies defendants the rights granted under the Constitution.
The military did not want to admit any evidence that the men were tortured at so-called black sites before being brought to Guantánamo, she said, and there were concerns the military was eavesdropping on conversations between the defendants and their attorneys.
An individual who was never identified also cut off the broadcast to the families, much to the annoyance of the judge, she and Joyce Woods said.
“What happens to these five accused to me is less important than our constitutional rights that protect the rights of minorities and the rights of accused,” said Rodgriguez, who is against the death penalty and acknowledged she felt empathy for the defendants.
“If we allow ourselves to lower our standards, then who is next? What happens to our dearly cherished ideals, which we are exporting?” she said.
But, she said, the government had assigned some of its top-notch defenders to the accused to ensure the trial was credible.
The Woods didn’t have a preference for a military or federal court as long as the accused faced American justice. They felt the military was ensuring all procedures were followed and the defense was offered all opportunities, if only to prevent a verdict being overturned on a technicality.
“The eyes of the world are upon them, and they know it,” John Woods said. “This might go down as the biggest trial in modern United States history.”
The Woods support the death penalty for the defendants.
“There is a part of this broken heart that doesn’t want them to be on this earth,” Joyce Woods said. “If anyone is deserving of the death penalty, they are.”
Though Rodriguez and the Woods didn’t know each other before the trip to Guantánamo Bay, they developed a deep friendship. The affection continues despite their difference of opinion over the trial.
“We all have different shades of opinions, but it doesn’t trump our bond,” Rodriguez said.
Joyce Woods agreed.
“We each have suffered a great loss. We are all looking for justice in different ways,” she said.