When Gaylen Grandstaff signed off on an online bargain in Russia, he had no idea what it would ultimately cost him: 608 days in jail; beatings by inmates; harassment from guards; and denial of treatment for serious medical issues.
"If I were doing something knowingly wrong, I never would have accepted the package," the 53-year-old Texan says by telephone from the Moscow apartment where Russian Customs agents stormed into his life on July 17, 2017.
Grandstaff -- who moved to Russia with his wife, Anna, in 2011 and worked as an English teacher -- had been nabbed in an operation targeting the recipient of the package. The reason: the $10 bottle of metal cleaner he says he added at the last second to his usual order of anti-inflammatory peptides he used to deal with complications from Crohn's disease.
When he opened the package he saw the peptides, but was surprised to find two bottles of mineral water and a bulletin from the Federal Customs Service.
The next thing he knew, he says, the apartment was teeming with agents, witnesses, and various functionaries. It was the beginning of what Grandstaff would come to describe as a judicial "circus" that has lasted two years -- and is not over yet.
He was eventually charged with smuggling a "large" amount of a psychotropic substance. Unbeknownst to him, Grandstaff says, the bottle of Magic Waterless Wheel Cleaner that an online wholesaler had offered to throw into his order for a discounted price contained gamma-butyrolactone, or GBL.
Smuggling GBL -- a common industrial solvent that can also be used as a recreational or athletic-performance enhancing drug -- is punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison in Russia.
In his letters to Anna, Grandstaff began depicting himself as Bear -- a cartoon character who shared the pet name his wife used for him. Making the connection even clearer, Bear is often seen wearing the blue flannel shirt given to Grandstaff by his mother-in-law.
Bear proved to be a powerful communication tool. The cartoons attracted the attention of outsiders with whom Anna had shared them -- notably, journalists covering his trial. And they also gave Grandstaff a way to circumvent censors and provide truer descriptions of the realities of jail.
While his letters were often heavily redacted if not thrown away entirely, if they included drawings they were more likely to reach Anna unscathed.
In one sketch, he tried to show his desperate desire for physical activity. A to-do list reveals his daily tasks: lying down; sitting; looking at the wall.
"Walking ha ha ha What is that?!"
Grandstaff spent weeks at Matrosskaya Tishina, the infamous federal remand prison located in Moscow's Sokolniki district that he believed was his only option for medical treatment.
But the thought of incarceration there conjured up memories of waking up covered in paint chips and of "smoke-filled air, coughing, and choking." Being exposed to cigarette smoke was a tough sentence for an asthma sufferer.
Grandstaff says he tried to keep Anna and representatives of the U.S. Embassy constantly informed in the hope they could influence the Russian authorities to improve his conditions.
But despite the gravity of his situation, Grandstaff tried to inject a little humor into his cartoons to avoid causing Anna unnecessary grief.
He sought to show Anna that they had not broken him, and that he still found time to enjoy the little things.
In one example, he juxtaposed an image of his torturous, hours-long journeys to court in a narrow metal compartment known as a "stakan" (drinking glass) with one showing him enjoying a "window seat" courtesy of a tiny hole in the door.
In another, he documented how the guards at SIZO-3, the Moscow remand prison where Grandstaff spent most of his incarceration, got back at him by taking him to exercise in a space flooded above his shoes with melting snow and ice.
But he balanced out that message with a cartoon showing Bear basking in a rare ray of sunlight.
Prosecutors argued that Grandstaff -- a 1.8-meter, 99-kilogram former fireman -- was too fit and had more energy than naturally possible at his age.
To help sell the idea they brought in an expert witness -- a powerlifter so huge that Grandstaff says he "looked literally like a cartoon" -- to imply that the American used drugs for sport.
"Before my trial began I held onto the belief that the court would be interested in the facts. I thought that the court would clearly see my innocence once everything was presented. It wasn't long before my thinking changed."
In sketches he made of the court scene, Grandstaff mocks the quality of the witnesses who were brought forward.
A detective and an officer from the Customs Service answered many questions with "I don't remember."
A postal worker said he recalled seeing a weapon in the package after it was opened by Customs, leaving Grandstaff to think that perhaps the man thought he was testifying in a different case.
And the powerlifter, whose arms Grandstaff says were "larger than my leg," is shown insisting that he was, in fact, no expert on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs, and that he had never used steroids.
Bear, watching from the sidelines, can only ask: "Seriously?"
From the beginning, Grandstaff's defense team argued that the case should be thrown out. Grandstaff was never informed of the contents of the cleaning solvent he was buying, his lawyers say, and was not criminally liable for it entering the country.
Knowing this, investigators could have closed the criminal case within days, Anton Omelchenko, one of Grandstaff's attorneys, told RFE/RL.
Other arguments factored into the defense's case: Crohn's disease precluded Grandstaff from being held in custody under Russian law; he was attacked by 25 fellow inmates; attempts were made on his life; he suffered numerous injuries, for which he had been denied adequate medical treatment.
One cartoon that Grandstaff calls "Contented" belies the reality behind it.
One employee of SIZO-3 who oversaw food brought by inmates' families was particularly hostile toward him.
"In a very simplistic way, I tried to capture the ridiculous nature of my trial. I hoped that people would start asking questions so the court would realize this was not going to take place in secret."
Every time Anna delivered food when the woman was working, Grandstaff says, his food was broken into bits and cut into small pieces. It would then "all be mixed together in the same bag," he writes, "so what I received looked more like garbage than food."
"On one occasion she was especially mean and I received my food destroyed as before, but also with hair and other debris in it -- even maggots were in the bag."
Aware of the journalists who were showing up at his trial, Grandstaff went to the jail warden and vowed to tell the media about the incident.
"Contented" showed Anna how her next delivery was received: "The tomatoes, carrots, and apples were still packaged. The cereal was still in the box, and I was happy, enjoying a cup of coffee," Grandstaff writes.
August 9, 2018, stands out as a particularly horrific day. That was the day Grandstaff's heel became caught in a missing piece of step leading up to the prison vehicle that was to transport him to court.
He says he fell back violently, twisting his knee and causing his head to hit the concrete.
Despite the severity of the fall, Grandstaff was transported to his court hearing without medical attention. There, Grandstaff says, his lawyer was told he would be taken to a hospital after the hearing.
He wasn't -- Grandstaff says it was 17 days before he received medical treatment, and even then it was minimal. "I had no idea they could be so barbaric," he says.
After finally receiving some pain medication, Grandstaff was able to resume light exercise. But jail authorities told Anna that he had been examined, and no injuries were found.
He sent a letter showing that his health was improving -- he was even able to do push-ups.
"Unfortunately," Grandstaff tells RFE/RL, "everyone involved including police, guards, and medical staff...have done everything possible to cover up the incident, rather than provide much-needed medical treatment."
On March 18, Grandstaff received a welcome surprise: the judge in Moscow's Solntsevo district court who had ruled on his case from the beginning was releasing him from custody, citing his health and many of the inconsistencies the defense had consistently highlighted.
Grandstaff was free to return home until prosecutors could clarify their case, but he is still not free.
His visa has expired; he cannot work; he cannot leave the country until his case is resolved; and he still faces up to 20 years in prison if eventually found guilty.
The reprieve has given him time to get knee-reconstruction surgery, however, and time to work on his book and to prepare for whatever comes next.
"I am not going to cower and hide," he tells RFE/RL. "They took 608 days of my life, and I am not going to be quiet."