Judge: NM compound defendants can be released pending trial

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj sits in a Taos Courtroom on Monday.(Roberto E. Rosales via pool)

TAOS – A state District Court judge ruled Monday that prosecutors in the case against five adults found living on a makeshift compound with 11 malnourished children failed to make the case for keeping the defendants in custody while they await trial.

Judge Sarah Backus said the state, despite assertions by prosecutors that one of the defendants was training the children to attack various institutions with guns, didn’t prove the group was a danger to the community.

After hearing nearly four hours of testimony Monday afternoon, Backus set bond for each of the five defendants at $20,000. It’s a “signature bond,” meaning no money is required up front and would be due only if the defendants violate conditions of release.

The defendants are required to be under GPS monitoring, cooperate with the state Children, Youth and Families Department concerning the care of their children – who are all in state custody – and obtain suitable housing instead of returning to their remote, ramshackle compound where they lived in what officials described as filthy conditions.

The defendants will be allowed only supervised contact with the children.

Left to right: Jany Leveille, Lucas Morton, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and Subhanah Wahhaj were released from jail pending trial. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, Lucas Morton, 40, Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhanah Wahhaj, 35, are charged with multiple counts of child abuse.

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is facing the additional charge of being a fugitive from justice in a kidnapping case out of Georgia. Morton had been charged with harboring or aiding a fugitive.

In the Georgia case, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the son of a well-known Muslim imam at a mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y., allegedly never returned from a trip to the park with his 3-year-old son in December.

The state argued that the 11 children at the compound were being trained to use guns as they prepared to attack teachers, law enforcement and others in institutions that the group considered corrupt.

There was testimony that one of the children at the compound was armed when law enforcement arrived on Aug. 3, but Leveille, one of the women defendants, told the child to stand down.

State District Court Judge Sarah C. Backus ruled Monday that five defendants from a ramshackle Taos County compound raided Aug. 3 can be released. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But Judge Backus, while saying she was concerned by “troubling facts,” particularly the discovery of a boy’s body at the compound, said the state had not shown by clear and convincing evidence what the Muslim group’s plan was.

Siraj Wahhaj jokes with his attorney, Tom Clark of Santa Fe, after a judge ruled that he and four other defendants from a Taos County compound raided Aug. 3 can be released from jail after a Monday hearing. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Defense attorney Tom Clark of Santa Fe said, “The judge didn’t hear a single fact about child abuse,” the primary charge against the defendants at this point.

The body, believed to be Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a missing boy whose fourth birthday was last week, was found Aug. 6 at a tunnel in the compound near the community of Amalia, close to the Colorado border.

FBI agent Travis Taylor testified that one of the children now in state custody told him that before the boy died, prayers were said over him to remove bad spirits. Abdul-Ghani’s mother had reported to police in Georgia that he took medicine for seizures and had other medical issues.

Prosecutor John Lovelace said the boy died in February during one of the rituals.

Taylor said he was told that the dead child was supposed to be resurrected as Jesus and identify for the group the institutions that were to be attacked.

During such attacks, Taylor said, “When they approached the individual, they would tell them their message. If they didn’t believe the message, they would be killed or detained until they believed the message.”

Defense attorneys stressed that the guns found at the compound are readily available at retail stores and that the group made no aggressive moves when law enforcement officers raided the site on Aug. 3.

“If these were white people of the Christian faith who owned guns, this wouldn’t be as big of a deal,” said attorney Clark. All the defendants are black.

In May, law enforcement began investigating reports that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and others were living at the compound in Amalia.

Hujrah Wahhaj talks to Siraj Ibn Wahhaj during a court hearing in Taos Monday after a recent raid on a remote Taos County compound. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

A distress call, originating from someone inside the compound – identified at Monday’s hearing as Subhanah Wahhaj – that was obtained recently by law enforcement officials in Georgia and relayed to authorities in New Mexico, said that the group was starving and in need of food and water.

While the compound had been under surveillance by the FBI, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe has said it was this message that prompted him to initiate the Aug. 3 raid of the compound.

Along with the children and adults, officers found a cache of weapons and ammunition, but not the missing Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj.

The body of a child found in a tunnel at the compound on Aug. 6 has not yet been confirmed as the missing boy by the state Office of the Medical Investigator. But the boy’s grandfather says that family members have told him the body is that of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, an assertion supported by testimony on Monday.

More details

Taos County Sheriff Hogrefe testified that the defendants didn’t cooperate or obey commands when officers arrived Aug. 3, but acknowledged the two men taken into custody that day were arrested without incident. He said that when he first made eye contact with Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, he was putting down an AK-15 semiautomatic rifle. The three women were arrested later.

Hogrefe said that a makeshift shooting range discovered at the compound was designed for short-range handgun tactics, like shooting from cover. Taylor said the children reported undergoing tactical training. Officers found books about combat and weapons.

Hogrefe also said that officers saw children holding ammunition boxes and that one child had on a holster.

When the child’s body was found Aug. 6, it was in a side tunnel off a bigger tunnel at the compound, wrapped in plastic and cloth, the sheriff said.

There was testimony that all three of the women defendants are the mothers of children, ages 1-15, found at the compound. Leveille is the mother of six of the children. Subhanah Wahhaj, who had four children at the site, is seven months pregnant.

Timothy Hasson, a prosecutor for the Taos District Attorney’s Office, said Siraj Ibn Wahhaj took several firearms classes in Atlanta in 2015. He also went to Saudi Arabia and when he returned, took his young son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, who was disabled, off medication, Hasson said.

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