Updated Aug. 16, 11:30 a.m.
Taos District Court Judge Sarah Backus denied motions at a hearing Monday (Aug. 13) to hold five defendants charged with abusing 11 children at a ramshackle compound near Amalia, New Mexico.
She made the decision in spite of testimony that alleged the defendants had been training the children to attack government institutions they deemed at odds with their beliefs.
While Backus acknowledged during the hearing the “troubling facts” presented by the state, she said prosecutors had failed to show sufficient evidence of the alleged abuse or any definitive plans to carry out an attack.
“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot,” Backus told a packed courtroom, “but the state hasn’t shown to my satisfaction, by clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was.”
Public fallout following her decision came quickly. An outpouring of anger has come from around Taos County and throughout the nation.
In spite of the judge’s decision to release the defendants, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the son of controversial Brooklyn Imam Siraj Wahhaj, will remain in the Taos County jail on an outstanding Georgia warrant for allegedly abducting his 3-year-old son in 2017. The 40-year-old also faces one count of custodial interference.
His father was included on a federal list as one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but no link was ever definitively established. The connection to the famous imam may have contributed to law enforcement’s suspicion that the residents at the compound held “extremist” beliefs.
A second defendant charged in the high-profile case will also not be released due to other circumstances. Jany Leveille, 35, a Haitian native, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday, (Aug. 14), according to Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, less than 24 hours after Backus made the ruling to grant her release.
The three other adults accused, Lucas Morton, 40, Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35, will be placed on house arrest and will be required to wear GPS ankle bracelets as their cases are processed. Backus set a $20,000 unsecured appearance bond for each defendant.
Officials would not comment as to the timing of their actual release. It was unclear as of press time Wednesday (Aug. 15) where they would stay since they are not allowed to return to the compound.
Morton was also charged with one count of aiding a fugitive for allegedly assisting Siraj Ibn Wahhaj in evading capture.
The defendants will be allowed to see their children, who have been in the custody of the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Division since Aug. 3, when law enforcement raided the makeshift dwelling of tires and a half-buried trailer where they lived near Amalia. The defendants are forbidden, however, to discuss their cases with their kids, who may testify as the cases progress.
Two of the children, one 13 years old and another 15 years old, have already provided critical information to authorities about their lives at the makeshift compound.
Information provided by one of the children caused alarm Wednesday when the state filed motions to hold the defendants without bond: that the adults had been training the kids to carry out school shootings.
But the current charges of child abuse aren’t necessarily related to those allegations, a team of defense attorneys argued on Monday.
Prosecutors Tim Hasson and John Lovelace of the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office devoted a significant portion of Monday’s lengthy hearing to the uncharged allegation that the group had planned to carry out shootings. While they drew Backus’ attention to evidence that may prove important as the cases move forward, their attention might have strayed too far from the crimes the defendants are currently charged with.
They called on FBI Special Agent Travis Taylor, who testified that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj had set out for New Mexico with Leveille, his son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, and eight other children.
Not long into their trip, they were involved in a single-vehicle crash in Chilton County, Alabama.
A responding officer found numerous firearms and body armor in the car with them, according to Taylor. Wahhaj told the officer he worked for a security company and even provided a web address, but the officer could not find any such website.
Morton later arrived in a white box truck, picked them up and took them to the property near Amalia in Northern New Mexico, where they began building the compound law enforcement raided in early August.
Taylor testified that two children rescued from the camp told him Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille had conducted Islamic rituals on the abducted child.
According to the child’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, her son suffered from seizures and had trouble walking. Ramzi sent pleas to her husband to return the child, telling him the toddler needed medicine. The father, however, believed the boy suffered from a spiritual affliction, which he was convinced could be remedied through an Islamic ritual known as a “ruqya.”
The children said Wahhaj would read two verses from the Quran while holding a hand to his son’s forehead. They said Abdul would choke and foam at the mouth during the ritual, which is described in a book found at the Amalia compound, titled “Sword Against Black Magic and Evil Magicians.”
During one ritual conducted in February, one of the child witnesses said the toddler’s heart stopped.
The children told Taylor that the boy’s body was ceremonially washed and wrapped in cloth, they said, according to Islamic custom. The remains were moved to different locations of the camp until they were finally placed inside a 100-foot tunnel investigators found at the property last week.
During a search of the property last Monday (Aug. 6), investigators unearthed the remains of a small boy inside the tunnel, but as of press time Wednesday, had not identified them as the missing child, Abdul-Ghani.
Investigators found firearms and ammunition inside the tunnel. At its end north of the property, a ladder propped through an upper opening served as an exit. The tunnel’s full purpose, however, is still unclear.
According to the FBI agent’s testimony, Leveille believed the boy, Abdul-Ghani, was her own. She and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj were convinced that the child would be resurrected as “Jesus” after he died. The boy would then instruct the other children on “corrupt institutions” they were to attack, the agent relayed to the courtroom Monday. Leveille told the children she had received messages about the dead boy’s future from “the Angel Gabriel,” a religious character, the agent said.
The children told him they were to target schools, law enforcement agencies and financial institutions. Leveille told the kids that targeted individuals who did not accept their beliefs were to be detained until they were converted. Otherwise, they were to be killed, according to the interviews.
The child witnesses told the special agent Siraj Ibn Wahhaj had instructed them in tactical weapons training, including speed reloads, tactical reloads, moving and shooting and “room clearing.” The FBI agent said room clearing is sometimes used defensively, but is more often used as an offensive tactic in combat situations.
Investigators also found a book on the property that described how a person could “physically and psychologically” prepare for killing other people. A CD provided instructions on how to create an “untraceable AR-15 rifle.”
A letter sent to Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s brother, Muhammed Wahhaj, asked the relative to bring “money and guns” to New Mexico, where he could die as a martyr.
Hasson said the communication was further evidence that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj would be a danger to the community if ever released. But defense attorneys argued the letter fell outside the scope of the hearing.
Another exhibit, photographs taken of a handwritten journal that allegedly contained other details about the group’s plans to stage attacks, was successfully barred from the hearing entirely when the defense objected. They reasoned the evidence had not been introduced soon enough to prepare an adequate defense.
Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera testified that he had provided sniper cover during the Aug. 3 raid of the compound.
He told the court the dwelling had been fortified with defensive structures, such as mud walls designed to make entry difficult and tire walls filled with mud that could stop bullets. Miera said his team uses the same structures when they conduct shooting drills.
“These tires are highly effective at stopping small arms ammunition when it comes to penetration,” he said when asked about the wall that circumscribes the compound.
The defense also disputed this claim, however, arguing the information presented was irrelevant at the hearing. One attorney contended the tire wall had merely been used to block the wind on the high plains near Amalia. They also pointed out that an armed conflict had never been carried out by the residents at the compound even when law enforcement stormed the home Aug. 3.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe organized the raid. He testified that he hadn’t planned to be a part of the on-the-ground operation but ended up playing a pivotal role in the arrest of Siraj Ibn Wahhaj.
Hogrefe said eight members of his special operations team and three agents with the New Mexico Office of Superintendent of Insurance were heavily armed when they assaulted the property. They had prepared for possible violent resistance based on FBI intelligence, he said.
The federal agency conducted aerial surveillance of the compound for about two months prior to the Aug. 3 raid, but hadn’t moved in due to a lack of probable cause, Hogrefe said in earlier statements.
A message believed to have come from within the compound asking for food was intercepted by Georgia police and relayed to the sheriff. Hogrefe said the message gave them the probable cause they were looking for.
At Monday’s hearing, it was revealed that the message came from Subhannah Wahhaj, who asked the recipient of the message to keep her request secret.
On the morning of Aug. 3, the sheriff took a position at the roadway to provide cover for the rest of the team, which split up to assault the compound at different points of entry. When one teammate became separated from the group, however, Hogrefe crossed into the property to provide support. Together, they assisted in arresting Wahhaj, who was hiding inside a half-buried trailer with some of the women and children.
Hogrefe said the accused child abductor did not immediately cooperate and had been armed with an AR-15 rifle. The sheriff found the loaded weapon within the man’s reach after making the arrest. Children inside the trailer were also holding ammunition, another team member said. Hogrefe described a tense and difficult effort to force Wahhaj to eventually surrender.
Morton also resisted law enforcement during the arrest and failed to cooperate with the investigation, according to Hogrefe’s testimony. The sheriff reiterated that none of the adults initially offered any information about the missing child, Abdul-Ghani.
While Hogrefe described the compound as “filthy and disgusting” while on the witness stand, he left out certain details he had cited in charging documents, such as the presence of broken glass scattered on the ground, pits and a shortage of food to feed the children who lived there.
Prior to the hearing, the sheriff had gone on record describing the kids as “emaciated” when his team placed them in protective custody, but didn’t go into such detail at Monday’s hearing.
In closing statements, public defense attorney Aleksandar Kostich argued that defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj did not have a criminal history. He said the state had failed to meet its burden to prove his client was a danger to the community.
Another defense attorney argued the allegations and presentation by the state were woven with fundamental prejudices given that all of the defendants are “black and Muslim,” as opposed to “white and Christian.”
The defense made an appeal to Judge Backus, stating the women desperately wished to be reunited with their children.
But Hasson and Lovelace said all of the evidence indicated a clear danger to the community: the child witnesses who claimed they had been trained to kill people, the items describing combat training and the squalid conditions at the property. They said they had presented more than enough to keep the defendants in jail until trial.
“The evidence as a whole says this family was on a mission, and it was a violent one,” Hassan told the court.
When Lovelace took a turn at the microphone, he said, “We have one child dead already,” in a final appeal to the judge.
But by the end of the hearing, Backus said the state had provided relatively little evidence or testimony to support the 11 counts of child abuse filed against the defendants. Specifically, she said details regarding the condition of the children taken into protective custody was all but absent from the hearing.
Instead, she said Hasson and Lovelace had spent time on evidence related to allegations that may require their own filings. The evidence of the plans to carry out attacks, she noted, had come from a third party.
The judge said the state had not met its burden as defined by the New Mexico Supreme Court and reminded the courtroom that pretrial detention rules in New Mexico were altered in 2016, ad ding greater detail as to what the state must present to hold defendants until trial.
“The Constitution has always read that the defendants are innocent until proven guilty,” Backus said.
Deputy district attorney Ron Olsen said Wednesday his office intends to appeal the ruling.
Reporter Jesse Moya contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. For more, check back here at taosnews.com.