The Prison Mirror

John Paul Granillo went from big-time bank robber to community builder

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The plan was fairly simple: As John Paul Granillo walked inside the bank just after closing to pick up his then-girlfriend, a third member of the group would use a gun to scare the bank manager into putting as much money as possible into a pair of backpacks.

During the robbery, Granillo and his girlfriend, Rosanna Naranjo, who worked at the First State Bank in Santa Fe, played the role of victims in the attack. Arthur "Rudy" Cornelius, the man with the gun, even pretended to force Granillo to tie up the bank manager with a phone cord.

The scheme was successful—at first.

Cornelius walked out with $327,000.80 in cash and stashed a chunk of it at the home of Granillo's grandmother. The trio, aged in their late teens and early 20s at the time, divided up the money later on.

Everyone with a memory of it says it's plenty likely that the heist, pulled off just after 5 pm on April 27, 2004, amounted to one of the largest bank robberies in New Mexico history.

The FBI quickly figured out that Granillo and Naranjo were in on the robbery. After agents arrested the couple on April 30, 2004, Granillo would not see the New Mexico sky as a free man again until a decade later.

He spent the entirety of his 20s in federal prison.

Now 36, Granillo sits in his sunny kitchen in Santa Fe surrounded by paint bottles, several half-finished canvases, his kids' toys and a massive stack of papers and photos—the discovery from his court case for the bank job.

"I have to work on being a good human every day and actually talk to myself to say, 'Hey, this is what you have to be,'" Granillo tells SFR. "Do the math. I was 30-something. To come out [of prison] and to say 'You've rehabilitated or just changed overnight' would be ridiculous."

Seven years after he stepped out of prison, Granillo has made an impact on Santa Fe's Southside. He helped found the Alas de Agua Art Collective, set up art programs in local schools, got married and had his first child.

That's a lot of change, even if it didn't come overnight.

In the fall, Granillo will contribute pieces to the Museum of International Folk Art's exhibit on prison art, including one of the backpacks used to steal the money.

"We brought [Granillo] in because he dedicates himself to using art as a catalyst for change, to help youth and keep them out of the system or prevent youth from going into jail in the first place," says Nicolasa Chavez, curator of the Latino, Hispano and Spanish Colonial collections at the museum.

To piece this story together, SFR spent several hours interviewing Granillo, people involved in his criminal case and folks who work in the art world with him now, as well as reviewing more than 100 pages of court and family records.

The change came from within—and from the people and circumstances around Granillo as well.

When the bank case landed in US District Judge William P "Chip" Johnson's courtroom in Albuquerque in the summer of 2004, Granillo had a well-known face at the defense table with him.

Gary Mitchell has been a New Mexico fixture for decades, representing defendants in some of the state's most high-profile, high-stakes cases.

Mitchell recalls that a parade of friends and family members showed up in court to plead with Johnson for a reduction in prison time from the life sentence prosecutors sought. In the end, Mitchell was able to secure 11 years behind bars for his client.

"This was a man who realized he had a drug problem and was going the wrong direction in life, and he wanted to take care of that," he tells SFR when asked for his recollections of the case. "Apparently he did and continues to do exactly that."

Granillo lived just outside the Plaza and a far cry from tourist attractions. His life took a turn with a terrible decision as a young adult, the kind that can change and ruin lives. It included crushing family drug addiction, crime—even relatives who also robbed banks—and seemingly insurmountable poverty.

But while Granillo shows up to discuss his past without flinching, he's just as unblinking in describing what he is now: a reflection of how a person can turn around, even amongst violence in federal prison—then be placed back in Santa Fe to change things for the better.

Two minutes from the Plaza

Granillo has always been an artist. It started with drawing and spray painting graffiti. Anything to get away from whichever family member he was living with at the time.

"When you walk into a house and your grandma's fucking shooting heroin and your uncle's over there helping her and things are going crazy, yeah, I'm gonna go draw for a bit," Granillo says. "As a kid, I didn't know what to do. So I drew. I drew a lot."

As a child and teenager, he was shuffled back and forth from Santa Fe to Pojoaque, between his mother's and father's sides of the family. He spent much of his youth just a two-minute walk from the Plaza, on Hillside Avenue, a street that looked a lot different two decades ago. It used to be made up of Hispanic and Latino families: the Chavezes, the Trujillos, the Romeros. Now, it's lined with million-dollar homes, some owned by people from a far-away coast.

In Granillo's time, everybody was "dirt poor," but it felt like a neighborhood, he says. They shared food, shelter, running water and transportation. Everybody took care of one another.

There was another side of it, too, Granillo says: mariachis playing until 4 am, drugs and alcohol, a penchant for crime. He grew used to it, until eventually there came a time when school didn't feel normal anymore.

"I felt more normal when I went home because other kids didn't live the way that we were living," Granillo says. "We stayed on our side and they stayed on theirs. … Everybody has this idea of Santa Fe, of this great tourist mecca, capital of art and all these fine things. Gentrification comes in and 'We're going to help the people' and all of these things. But that's not what I saw."

The images of his childhood aren't of nights strolling along the Plaza, the grand cathedral silhouetted against the Sangres after a $30 dinner. In his memories, he's huddled in a van with his family, waiting to get free food from St. John's United Methodist Church.

"I felt like downtown, outside of our neighborhood, kind of wasn't our neighborhood," he says. "It wasn't a place where we were wanted. It sets the base for my whole story."

Granillo eventually made it to Capital High School before dropping out when he was about 17. There had been numerous suspensions for disrupting class. Despite "amazing" teachers who tried to keep him in school, court-ordered therapy and a love of art, he didn't see the point. In the end, the education system didn't know quite what to do with him.

Then, he met Rosanna Naranjo.

The case and the notebook

The teenagers met in therapy. Naranjo was one year younger than Granillo. He found her sharp demeanor and attitude attractive from the start. They began dating and moved in together on the Southside with her mother, not far from the kitchen where he tells his story.

It wasn't long after Naranjo started working at the First State Bank that Granillo proposed the robbery to her and Cornelius.

Alongside Granillo, SFR sifts through court documents and Polaroids of a 20-year-old Granillo in a prison jumpsuit, then comes across a worn black-and-white notebook. It's full of handwritten notes his mother kept during the case: a painfully direct look into how the ripples of the bank heist lapped over other people's lives.

Granillo's mother writes of crippling fear, regret over the missed opportunity for a last hug, a broken heart seeing Granillo in handcuffs and a feeling that she "died" when the FBI found some of the stolen money in the trunk of Granillo's younger brother's car.

June 2, 2004: Her son was upset because Naranjo wouldn't look at him during the arraignment. June 6: She misses her son. June 14: She'll quit her job and use her retirement savings to pay for Granillo's lawyer.

The final entry documents Granillo's pending guilty plea.

Also on Granillo's kitchen table are photos of a bag filled with the stolen money and the burned-out getaway car in Diablo Canyon. The bag overflows with US currency—a contrast to the average take in a bank robbery: according to the FBI, just $4,000 in 2018, more than a decade after Granillo and Company's ripoff.

While it's impossible to determine whether the First State job was the biggest in New Mexico history, it's "definitely the largest anyone here has heard of in recent memory," says Frank Fisher, spokesman for the Albuquerque division of the FBI (Fisher adds that "robbing a bank is not worth it," just in case this story inspires any ideas).

Judge Johnson tells SFR he doesn't remember the specifics of the case, likely because it didn't go to trial and Granillo probably didn't appear in his courtroom more than a few times. But the amount of money struck him as significant when he reviewed the court file at SFR's request.

So did Granillo's transformation.

"I certainly commend him on turning his life around," the judge says.

Cornelius and Naranjo were both sentenced to prison terms for their roles in the robbery. Granillo says he has not spoken to either of them since, and SFR was unable to locate either of them.

Granillo's mother's notebook and the stacks of court documents and law enforcement reports don't offer what only Granillo can tell: how nine years, 10 months and 16 days in prison, chunks of which he says were spent in solitary confinement, changed him from an inciter of violence into a community activist, professional artist and family man.

Prison reflections

From the Torrance County Detention Facility to the infamous supermax prison in Florence, Colorado and finally to New York, where he finished out his sentence, Granillo did what he could "to survive." That meant joining together with the other New Mexicans and Southwest-based inmates in prison while learning the often complicated gang system with its many rules, spoken and not.

Granillo remembers a time when he "thrived" in prison, working out agreements between his syndicate and others, getting to know Pablo Escobar's pilots and Machinegun Johnny and eating Thanksgiving dinner with John Gotti Jr.

But it also meant meting out prison justice when someone broke the rules, even friends. In at least one instance, Granillo says his decisions led to a friend being seriously injured.

It is what finally broke Granillo.

"You learn to be this macho guy, this idea of masculinity, and we don't cry and we don't tell our feelings," Granillo says. "I started thinking about myself, like 'who are you?'"

Uneducated. An animal. A savage. A mean person. It's what he saw in the prison mirror every day, and he was OK with it—until one day he wasn't.

"I remember shaving my head and I would look in that mirror, and that mirror had all kinds of scratches and scuffs in it and writing from before," Granillo says quietly, hunched forward at his kitchen table. "I'd look at that and say, 'Why am I here? Who are you?… What was the last good thing you did?'"

For four days, Granillo tried to think of one thing he had done in his life for no other reason than to be a good person. When he couldn't, something else broke. Within three weeks, he had his GED and began the preparation to pass syndicate leadership to someone else.

"It was being nice to myself," Granillo says. "How do you be nice to yourself when all you've learned was to do wrong? How do you even be nice to another human being? So I said, 'I'm going to give myself a shot.'"

Reflections in the community

On a cold morning, SFR meets up with Granillo and his son at Alas de Agua Art Collective's first official home, a roomy storage space off Airport Road. It's filled with art and toys, and there are multiple community events already planned for the coming months.

Seven years ago, stepping out of prison deep in debt and just starting his journey to changing himself, Granillo couldn't have imagined founding and running an art collective. He started the nonprofit with Israel Francisco Haros Lopez, another local artist.

It was a long road leading up to the recent opening of Alas de Agua's space. For three years of his prison term, as a form of punishing himself, Granillo did not paint or draw, or even write in cursive. But after that hard look in the mirror, he began painting again and says he "perfected" his art while incarcerated.

Once back in Santa Fe and still on parole, Granillo spent hours painting murals and working with kids for free under the New Mexico Mural Project. From that grew Alas de Agua, more options for local kids, a partnership with the Museum of International Folk Art and a headfirst dive into using his art as political activism.

"There is a clear and evident line of division from Airport Road, the Southside of the city, the middle of the city and downtown," Granillo says. "But what about the rest of the city that needs help? …Alas de Agua is creating this space for these kids to be able to say, 'I own that. That's my land. I don't have to stay on Airport Road. I can make it into a museum.'"

Haros Lopez, who has worked with Granillo for the past several years, thinks his colleague's presence inspires the people he works with because of the life he's lived, not in spite of it.

"He grew up in these streets and knows what it means to want something like this that can help our youth find their voices, find their truth," Haros Lopez tells SFR via phone. "To see other Chicanos in front of them that are being positive and active in the community. To be that mirror for them, especially young Chicano males."

For Granillo and Haros Lopez, doing what they can for the Southside is most important, despite financial struggles as they start Alas de Agua in the new space.

"If we feel like there's so many things that are missing on the Southside… we could sit here and complain about all those things and we could wait or we could just go out there and do stuff," Haros Lopez says. "That's why [Granillo] is such a beautiful force to be around, 'cause whenever I have an idea, he's the first one there to want to follow through on it."

Knowing what he means to the Latino, Chicano, Hispano and Southside communities helps keep Granillo on track with his life and continuously reflecting on himself and his motivations, as well as one of his main goals: Keeping kids like himself out of the criminal justice system using art and community building.

Chavez, the Museum of International Folk Art curator, hopes the autumn's upcoming exhibition, called Between the Lines: Prison Art and Advocacy, featuring some pieces by Granillo, will advance his goal. The soft opening date for the first stage of the exhibit is July 2, with a larger public opening Oct. 4 and running through July 11, 2021.

"It's not just about art saves the world, it's about looking at how it can be used to help," Chavez says. "We're also looking at people that get out of prison and how one can adjust back into society versus going back into the prison system again."

Chavez says she hopes the exhibit will put the "human being" back into words like felon and prisoner, as well as bring light to major obstacles that former inmates face upon reintegration: dealing with trauma, finding work, getting an education and learning how to deal with people outside of a cage.

That's part of what Granillo is working on. He is still paying restitution to the government for the money he helped steal that April evening. The restitution feels like an almost insurmountable financial burden at times.

But Granillo thinks of his story as a reflection of New Mexican life, good and bad, and that it says multiple things about the city of Santa Fe. He hopes for more attention on healing family structures, self-improvement and strengthening the education system, so that there can be more nets to catch kids like him before they fall onto dark paths.

"If everybody can sit there and do something bad together, I guarantee everybody can sit there and do something good together," Granillo says. "There is a way out and there's a way to change and there's a way to help people and there's a way to be a good person and to believe that things will get better. At the end of it all, I would say hope. What can you give the community? Endless hope. Because I can't give you a dollar. I can't give you things, but I can give you hope that things can get better."

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