NNM compound defendants detained in federal court

Judge rules defendants either pose danger or flight risk

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 9/12/18

A New Mexico Magistrate Court judge ruled Wednesday (Sept. 12) at U.S. District Court in Albuquerque that five adults arrested at a compound in northern Taos County last month will remain jailed as federal charges filed against them are prosecuted.

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NNM compound defendants detained in federal court

Judge rules defendants either pose danger or flight risk

Posted

A federal judge ruled Wednesday (Sept. 12) at U.S. District Court in Albuquerque that five adults arrested at a compound in northern Taos County last month will remain jailed as federal charges filed against them are prosecuted.

Judge Kirtan Khalsa determined following a several-hour pretrial detention hearing that Jany Leveille, 35, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, Lucas Morton, 40, Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, and Subhanah Wahhaj, 35, were either so dangerous or posed such a flight risk that no condition of release could guarantee their future court appearances or the safety of New Mexico communities.

All five defendants were charged with violating federal firearms and conspiracy laws Aug. 31.

Leveille, a Haitian immigrant who had allegedly been living in the United States illegally for about 20 years, was charged with transporting multiple firearms from Georgia to Northern New Mexico in December 2017. Her four co-defendants are accused of aiding, abetting and conspiring with the 35-year-old to commit the offense.

On Tuesday (Sept. 11), a grand jury in Albuquerque determined there was sufficient probable cause to support the charges.

Made with consideration to federal pretrial detention laws, Judge Khalsa’s decision Wednesday marked a clear-cut departure from Taos District Court Judge Sarah Backus’ Aug. 13 ruling to release the defendants on child abuse charges filed against them after their arrests at the ramshackle compound where they had lived near the Colorado border. 

Those abuse cases were later dropped after prosecutors with the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office failed to hold preliminary hearings within deadlines imposed by state rules.

Law enforcement raided the makeshift residence where the defendants had lived Aug. 3 to search for Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s missing 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, who was reported missing from his Georgia home in November 2017 and suffered from life-threatening seizures.

Initially, they found 11 other children, whom investigators said were clothed in rags and appeared to be starving. Three days after the assault, they found Abdul-Ghani dead, buried in a 100-foot tunnel investigators say was intended as an escape route in case law enforcement ever arrived at the property.

Investigators also said they identified a firing range, numerous firearms and ammunition at the compound.

At Wednesday’s hearings, prosecutor George Kraehe primarily relied on testimony from FBI Special Agent Travis Taylor, who recounted interviews conducted with two of Leveille’s six children who lived at the property, one 15-years-old and the other 13-years-old.

Much of his testimony was similar to what he had provided at the Aug. 13 pretrial detention hearing in Taos District Court for the original child abuse cases filed.

Taylor said the teens told him that Leveille had proclaimed herself a kind of prophet and leader for the others, claiming she was receiving divine messages from the “Angel Gabriel.”

According to Taylor, the children also said Abdul-Ghani had died during an Islamic prayer ritual some time in early 2018. Other evidence has indicated the boy's father and Leveille had denied the boy epilepsy medication, believing the medicines had caused the young boy to become "possessed."

Taylor said Leveille also told the teens the toddler would be resurrected as “Jesus Christ" and would then instruct the group as to which corrupt government institutions they were to either convert to their beliefs or destroy.

But defense attorneys noted a conflicting statement the children had provided to the agent during the interviews.

Referring to related transcripts, they noted that at least one of the children had more than once denied that there was any plan to carry out attacks.

All five defense attorneys later argued that Taylor had utilized coercive tactics to manipulate the children into providing answers that would support the allegations the adults were planning to carry out religious attacks. They said the interviews were often conducted without the presence of a legal guardian or another supervisor.

Other evidence Taylor referenced included a journal Leveille had allegedly kept at the compound, which provided other detail of the group’s plans to carry out attacks, Abdul-Ghani’s abduction and the group’s journey to Northern New Mexico.

As they traveled, they stopped in Alabama, where Morton owns property. Special Agent Taylor said a residence similar to the Northern New Mexico compound had been constructed there, but that no evidence of criminal activity had been discovered there.

A composition notebook titled, "Phases of a terrorist attack," found at the compound provided information on how to perform reconnaissance on a target, law enforcement response times to a terrorist attack and how to conduct a "dry run."

Taylor said other evidence indicated the defendants were preparing to carry out "jihad," and were attempting to recruit others to join what he said appeared to be a violent ideology.

According to his testimony, the adults at the compound had also cautioned the children to never speak of Abdul-Ghani, whose mother – Siraj Ibn Wahhaj's wife – reported missing last November. Kraehe said the warnings to the children indicated a clear knowledge the adults knew they were engaged in criminal activity.

Defense attorneys countered that the United States had failed to meet its burden to prove the defendants were either dangerous or a flight risk, stating that the prosecutor's sole witness had relayed information from others. They also said some of that "third-party" evidence only pertained to some of the defendants.

As an alternative to detention, they proposed their clients be transferred to La Pasada Halfway House in Albuquerque, but Khalsa said the facility's director had expressed concern that the "high-profile" nature of the cases would pose a danger for both the defendants and other residents living there.

Khalsa determined that the five defendants would be remanded into the custody of the U.S. Marshall’s Service and will remain in separate facilities.

Due to the possibility they may testify at trial, Judge Khalsa ruled that Leveille would not be allowed to have contact with three of her children. She said Leveille will, however, be allowed to participate in supervised visitations with her three younger children.

If convicted of the federal crimes, each defendant faces a statutory maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.

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