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Griegos: Give Him a Second Chance

The Griego family at the wedding of Vanessa Lightbourne, oldest daughter of Greg and Sarah Griego. In back, from left: Nehemiah, Greg, Vanessa, Sarah and Annette. In front: Jael, Zephaniah and Angelina. (Courtesy of the Griego family)
The Griego family at the wedding of Vanessa Lightbourne, oldest daughter of Greg and Sarah Griego. In back, from left: Nehemiah, Greg, Vanessa, Sarah and Annette. In front: Jael, Zephaniah and Angelina. (Courtesy of the Griego family)
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Also from A1: “About the victims

In the early morning hours of Jan. 20, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego sat in an interrogation room at Bernalillo County Sheriff’s headquarters in Downtown Albuquerque and gave a detailed confession of how he had killed his parents and three younger siblings the day before.

The only others in the room were BCSO investigators.

Right outside the room, Griego’s 21-year-old sister, Vanessa Lightbourne, was asking to be allowed access to her brother. She says her request was denied.

Meanwhile, four more adult members of the Griego family say they were outside the building, trying unsuccessfully to get in, to get to Nehemiah, to get an adult seated next to him during questioning.

The killings have sparked intense media coverage; public grieving, especially for an Albuquerque megachurch community; and a localized version of the fiery national gun control debate. On Tuesday, the Griegos sat down with the Journal for their first in-depth interview.

They say they have many concerns about the case.

The circumstances surrounding Nehemiah Griego’s confession rank near the top.

Through a spokesman, Sheriff Dan Houston declined to comment for this story. But according to the charging documents, BCSO detectives read the teen a Miranda warning and asked whether he wanted an adult or a lawyer present. He declined and agreed to speak with investigators alone, the documents state.

His family says Nehemiah was in no condition to give a statement to authorities, especially not alone.

“No lawyer, no adult, no access to any family members, (he) makes a statement, if that’s not damaging enough … for us the hardest thing is that became fact,” said Eric Griego, the boy’s uncle and a former state senator.

The family objected to the way Houston and BCSO investigators have publicly revealed details of the confession – presenting them as fact and as evidence that the teen had planned to go on a killing spree after slaying his parents.

“As far as we know, that whole narrative that he was going on this grandiose shootout was based on a scared 15-year-old in the middle of the night, in the sheriff’s department, no parent, no adult, no lawyer, saying ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” Eric Griego said. “Should he have said it? Of course not. If any of us would have been there, we would have just told him to shut up.”

Eric Griego added: “With what we’ve all learned about brain development, something must have gone wrong with his brain.”

Above all else, the Griegos want everyone to know they are united in standing behind Nehemiah. They don’t dispute that the boy killed five family members. But they don’t want him tried as an adult.

Under New Mexico law, Griego will automatically be sentenced as an adult if convicted of first-degree murder. The charges against him all carry 30-year sentences, although a judge can give him less time.

New Mexico law automatically transfers 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds into the adult system as “serious youthful offenders” if they are charged with first-degree murder. The statute was created in 1993 and amended to include 15-year-olds in 1996.

Redemption for all

The Griegos say theirs is a family that believes no one is beyond redemption, no one beyond repair.

The belief stems from personal experience: Greg Griego, who authorities say was the last one killed in the family’s South Valley home when Nehemiah ambushed him with an AR-15 assault-style rifle, had fallen into a life of drugs and gangs after a stint in the 82nd Airborne Division and was later “transformed” when he became a Christian while in jail in California in the early 1990s.

“We all know what my dad and Sarah (Griego, his wife) would’ve wanted,” said Annette Griego, Greg Griego’s eldest daughter. Greg Grigo had five children before he met his wife, Sarah, with whom he had five more.

“We have spent our lives watching them live their lives for others. And we know that, more than anything else, they would’ve wanted Nehemiah to be given a second chance, and that’s what we want as well … If my dad were here, my dad would stand by Nehemiah.”

The surviving family members also have taken exception to media portrayals of Greg Griego’s family as an insular, secluded lot.

Nehemiah Griego and his siblings were home-schooled, yes, but they spent countless hours at their church and interacted with similarly situated children, according to the Griego family.

There was plenty of love in the household, family members said. Greg Griego’s family loved music, dancing, playing games and spreading the Christian gospel together. They were always together.

Nehemiah Griego had entered into a quieter, awkward stage, as many teenage boys do, his family said. But no one noticed anything that could have predicted what would happen on the 2800 block of Long Lane SW in the early morning hours of Jan. 19.

He was interested in wrestling and music, he was affectionate toward his siblings and he had plans to follow in his father’s and other family members’ footsteps and join the military.

They say that what caused Nehemiah Griego to kill five family members – whether it was a yet-undiagnosed mental illness or something else – remains a question mark.

“For the sheriff to tell us he had a little disagreement with his mother before he decided to kill her – the absurdity of that makes him out to be this complete sociopath, and that doesn’t make sense,” Eric Griego said.

Family members say they have visited Nehemiah in the juvenile lockup, but declined to discuss those meetings and how he’s doing.

Always a leader

Greg Griego, according to his family, had always been a leader. People followed him – whether it was in the neighborhood near Avenida Cesar Chavez and Eighth Street SW where Greg Griego grew up with a brother, two sisters and a mother who refused welfare despite poverty, or at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, where he spent 13 years as a jail minister.

That leadership extended to the way he raised his children and ran his household, according to the Griego family. Greg Griego was old-school.

He liked his daughters to have long hair because he thought it looked pretty, said the eldest, Annette Griego, and he liked his sons to be tough.

Greg and his wife, Sarah Griego, were loving but strict parents, according to the family. From a young age, the children were involved in the church community at Calvary of Albuquerque, where, until a recent falling out, Greg Griego had spent several years as a pastor.

The children weren’t allowed to date until reaching a certain age, family members said. That assertion contradicts BCSO statements that Nehemiah had a 12-year-old girlfriend. Officials say the boy exchanged text messages and a photograph of his dead mother with the girl on the night of the killings.

Family members said they weren’t aware of the girl. They had never seen her at family events, and they were positive Greg and Sarah wouldn’t have allowed their son to have a girlfriend.

Nehemiah Griego spent much of Jan. 19 with the girl after the killings, according to BCSO. Deputies say she knew what the boy had done, although Nehemiah told different versions of a story about how his family died to others. The girl is not facing any charges at this point.

Greg Griego also wanted his family to know how to protect itself. According to family members, would-be burglars had entered the Griegos’ home years ago while Sarah Griego was home with the couple’s children. She managed to scare them away by calling out from another room that she had a shotgun.

After that, Greg Griego bought guns, including those his son would later use to kill him and the other family members. He taught his family – including his wife and Nehemiah – to shoot them.

The guns weren’t kept under lock and key, according to the surviving family members, because Greg Griego wanted Nehemiah to have access to them if needed to protect the family.

Journal staff writer Deborah Ziff contributed to this report

— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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