Taos judge slammed for refusing to hold suspects

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Judge Sarah C. Backus. (Roberto E. Rosales via pool)

SANTA FE — The Taos County Courthouse was closed about 3 p.m. Tuesday after the judge who is allowing the release of five adults arrested at a remote northern New Mexico compound — who were accused by prosecutors of training children to carry out armed attacks — was barraged via telephone, email and social media.

There have been threats of physical violence against District Judge Sarah Backus, said Barry Massey, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“One caller said she wished someone would come and smash the judge’s head,” he said. At least one caller threatened violence against all staffers in the courthouse.

No one was allowed to enter the courthouse after 3  p.m., but Massey said staffers remained at work inside and a civil trial not overseen by Judge Backus continued. News reporters were told to leave.

Backus — who on Monday denied a state motion to keep the Muslim compound defendants in jail with no bail — pulled down her own Twitter account Tuesday amid the social media furor.

“You let jihadist (sic) out after what they have done? You better believe we aren’t going to let you rest until you are disbarred you horrible sick sorry excuse of a human,” said one tweet to the judge that matched the sentiment of many others.

Hundreds of posts, some of which used the hashtags #sarahbackus and #judgesarahbackus, called for her to be removed from the bench or be disbarred. Others posted her picture, address and contact information.

Twitter critics linked her Monday court decision with her being a Democrat and said she would be held responsible if the defendants commit dangerous crimes while released.

Backus was appointed to her judgeship by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in 2011.

Amid the controversy over Backus’ decision to let the defendants out of jail, Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, released a statement saying, “A judge’s responsibility is to follow the law — not popular sentiment that may develop from incomplete or misleading information.”

Pepin said the New Mexico Constitution provides that defendants can be held in jail before trial “only if prosecutors show by clear and convincing evidence that they are so dangerous that no release conditions will reasonably protect public safety.” In this case, Pepin said, the judge “ruled that prosecutors failed to meet that burden.”

Five adults from the ramshackle compound — 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.

Eleven children were taken into state custody after the Taos County Sheriff’s Office raided the site near the Colorado border on Aug. 3. The body of a boy, believed to be the missing son of Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, was found there three days later.

The raid took place after authorities were provided with a web posting from one of the women inside the compound that went to a friend, saying the group was broke and starving.

After a long hearing Monday, Judge Backus ruled that, despite the assertions by prosecutors that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj was training the children to commit violence and the discovery of the body, the state didn’t prove the group was a danger to the community.

She set a light bond — a $20,000, unsecured signature bond — with house arrest in new accommodations and other restrictions for each defendant.

None of five was released Tuesday.

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj won’t be let go in any case, because he is wanted on warrants out of Georgia for allegedly kidnapping his son, his lawyer said at Monday’s hearing.

In another development, Jany Leveille — described in testimony Monday as a leader in the compound group who “translated” messages from God — was transferred to the custody of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Leveille is a native of Haiti, according to the Taos County Sheriff’s Office.

Hearing arguments

At the Monday hearing, prosecutors argued that some of children at the compound were being trained to use guns in preparation for attacks on educational, law enforcement and other institutions. That information came from two teenagers, ages 13 and 15, who were interviewed by an FBI agent.

The agent testified that he was told that the children were undergoing firearms and tactical training to attack “corrupt” institutions that would be identified by the dead boy, who was to be resurrected as Jesus in the coming months.

Prosecutors also cited a letter inviting another person to come to the compound and follow Allah until “he makes you die as a martyr”; the guns at the compound and books about combat found there; weapons training and a trip to Saudi Arabia undertaken by Siraj Ibn Wahhaj; and the “magical thinking” shown by accounts from children who lived at the compound.

Defense lawyers said the group wasn’t aggressive when officers raided the compound and had guns that could be purchased readily at retail stores.

“This might be a custody case, for all we know,” said defense lawyer Tom Clark of Santa Fe.

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

She also noted that while the defendants are charged primarily with child abuse at this point, she had heard little about how the 11 children at the compound had been treated.

“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot, but the state hasn’t shown, to my satisfaction, by clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was,” she said from the bench.

She said the people in the compound were living in an unconventional way, but that many in northern New Mexico do. She also noted that no one in the group has a criminal record except Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, who is accused of kidnapping his child from the boy’s mother in Georgia.

Gov. Martinez is among those criticizing Backus’ ruling.

“I strongly disagree with this decision,” she said. “Unfortunately, it highlights for the entire nation how extreme the New Mexico Supreme Court has been in dictating pretrial release for all kinds of dangerous criminals.”

The state Republican Party also weighed in.

“Judge Backus has put New Mexicans at risk by releasing suspected terrorists back into the community,” said state GOP Chairman Ryan Cangiolosi.

‘Rituals’ cited

There was extensive testimony Monday about why the defendants came to New Mexico from Georgia and “rituals” performed on the dead boy, believed to be Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, the son of Siraj Ibn Wahhaj.

The boy would have been 4 years old last week.

FBI agent Travis Taylor testified Monday that the children he interviewed told him that Reveille had received a message from God through the angel Gabriel that the group should move from Georgia to New Mexico and perform a ritual on Abdul, who was disabled and suffered from seizures, to remove “demons.”

“Jany (Reveille) thought Abdul was already dead and could only walk and move because of the demons inside him,” Taylor said, describing what he heard from the compound children. “Once the demons were gone, he would become Jesus.”

The boy’s mother has told police in Georgia that she was afraid that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj would stop giving the boy his medications after the father and son disappeared in December.

Taylor said he was told Siraj performed the ritual by reading two passages from the Quran and placing his hand on the boy’s head. The boy would start to choke, and foam or slime would come from his mouth — what a prosecutor would later describe as a seizure.

The last time the ritual was performed, in February, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj “could not feel a heartbeat and told that to the rest of the family, and Jany believed this was a sign from God,” Taylor recounted.

Clark, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s attorney, attacked the idea that the “ritual” was being presented as “something nefarious” and that it amounted to merely praying over someone who was sick.

“If we were talking about Christians, they would be faith healers,” he said.

Prosecutors said Siraj Ibn Wahhaj proclaimed that he didn’t want his sick son on medication after he returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Journal North reporters Megan Bennett and Edmundo Carrillo contributed to this report.

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The Taos court and government complex was evacuated this afternoon because of threats over a ruling by District Court Judge Sarah Backus. (EDDIE MOORE/JOURNAL)

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Taos County sheriff's deputies patrol outside the Taos County Courthouse after it was closed Tuesday afternoon because of threats against District Judge Sarah Backus. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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State District Judge Sarah C. Backus is facing a backlash after she ruled Monday that five defendants from a ramshackle Taos County compound raided Aug. 3 can be released from jail pending trial. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, one of five adults arrested after a raid at a remote Taos County compound, won't be released from custody soon, because he is wanted for an alleged kidnapping in Georgia. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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