Aunt recalls family tragedy in book on childhood justice - Albuquerque Journal

Aunt recalls family tragedy in book on childhood justice

She remembers how hungry her brother’s children were, how they gobbled up chunks of Thanksgiving turkey she gave them as she arranged the meat on a platter for the family that holiday in 2012.

The four children, ages 2 to 15, were the last ones still living with her brother, their father, Greg Griego, and Regina Griego recalls that they always seemed hungry, but even more so that day. The oldest of them, a shy boy who stood 5-foot-8, was little more than 100 pounds. She worried that her brother’s family was struggling since he had lost his job as a church pastor months before.

“That’s something I regret,” Regina Griego said. “I wish I had done more to help. I wish I had gone into their home more. I wish I had known more.”

Two months later, Greg Griego and his wife, and three of those four children were dead, gunned down in their South Valley home by that oldest, shy boy.

His name was Nehemiah Griego.

The senseless slaughter shocked the community and eventually splintered the extended Griego family: Some believed Nehemiah Griego was a damaged 15-year-old who needed time and treatment to heal the wounds of a traumatic childhood and allow his brain to develop fully; others believed he should never be free again.

Nine years later, it is the case that still comes up during my discussions of juvenile justice and second chances for children who commit horrific crimes while their brains are not yet fully developed.

“Nehemiah Griego’s brain immaturity does not take away from the pure evil he exhibited,” a reader named EA wrote in response to my latest column on juvenile justice just this past January.

Regina Griego details in a new book the tragedy that shocked the community and splintered her family in 2013 when her then-15-year-old nephew Nehemiah Griego shot and killed his parents and his younger siblings. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Regina Griego, his aunt and guardian after the murders, counts herself among those who do not see her nephew as evil or hopelessly irredeemable, but as the tragic product of generations of abuse, poverty and neglect in her family.

Her memoir, “Sins of the System: Trauma, Guns, Tragedy, and the Betrayal of Our Children,” released in February, is her way to continue to heal, to sort out this complex story and emotion, and to decry a broken justice system and the frayed safety nets that failed to save her nephew and others like him.

The book is a brutal, yet brave and thoughtful, look at the horror that broke upon her family in the early hours of Jan. 18, 2013, and details the nightmarish journey through a flawed judicial system that provided therapeutic care in fits and starts, and then not at all.

“I want readers to see how tragedies such as what happened to my family happen, and how relevant they are to society today,” said Regina Griego, a retired Sandia National Laboratories engineer turned author, speaker and advocate for gun safety and juvenile justice. “We think when bad happens something must have gone terribly wrong. Well, there’s more than one thing that can go potentially wrong.”

Nehemiah Griego spent six years in the juvenile justice system and was ruled amenable, which meant he was due to be released when he turned 21. His release date was scheduled for March 20, 2018.

But, contrary to what many in the public believed, even supporters of his release – including Regina Griego – knew he was not yet ready to enter society. Arrangements had been made, the book details, to send him to a therapeutic setting out of state to continue his treatment.

But, after the state appealed the amenability ruling, the case returned to state District Court and, in 2019, state District Judge Alisa Hart ruled that Nehemiah Griego should serve three concurrent life sentences for the deaths of his three siblings, and seven years for killing each of his parents, those sentences running concurrently, but consecutive to the life sentences. The state had asked for 120 years.

Nehemiah Griego will be 52 before he becomes eligible for parole.

In her sentencing memorandum, Hart lamented that she would have considered giving Nehemiah Griego probation in a locked treatment facility, but such a place does not exist in New Mexico.

“Sins of the System” by Regina M. Griego, Ph.D.

“She chose to throw a child away,” Regina Griego said. “She erased six years of work the state had paid for and sent him away, even when we offered an alternative at a public adult treatment center (Mental Health Co-op in Houston) that we were willing to pay for and had already accepted him.”

Regina Griego said the family remains split, despite the initial promise many of them made to stand by Nehemiah Griego as they believed his father, his final victim, would have. Greg Griego spent much of his adult life preaching redemption to jail inmates and gang members, and he knew something about that second chance after his own experience with incarceration and being a gang leader.

His childhood, like that of Regina Griego and their other two siblings, was one of violence and poverty. One incident of his horrific abuse detailed in the book is especially heartbreaking.

Her brother’s deep wounds, as well as the wounds of their parents and the parents before them, Regina Griego suggests, were transmitted to his children, especially Nehemiah Griego.

Nehemiah Griego

“Hurt people hurt people,” she writes in the book. “Traumatized people pass on the trauma. … It is tempting … to deny or hide family secrets, but exposing them and admitting them is part of the hard work of healing our society.”

Regina Griego said she and those of her family who support Nehemiah Griego’s redemption have never defended his actions.

“Our position has always been that there is a reason for an adult court system and a juvenile court system,” she wrote in a letter to family in 2016 that is included in the book. Both systems, she contends, are flawed.

That is one of the main purposes of the book – a call to action on how New Mexico deals with its juvenile offenders. “What are we becoming as a society to treat children this way?” she asked. “Who failed them? Adults failed them in many ways.”

Regina Griego said she has not received pushback from estranged family members, but has received a positive review from one member: Nehemiah Griego.

He is currently in a North Carolina prison, where he was moved for his safety because of the notoriety of his case. Even so, the notoriety followed him. Regina Griego said he’s been stabbed eight times so far in prison.

“He’s scared to death, but he’s holding his own,” she said.

Nehemiah Griego turned 25 last Sunday. He is still almost always hungry.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com.

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