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Taos DA on defense over dropped charges

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From left, Jany Leveille, her attorney Kelly Golightley, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and his attorney Tom Clark talk during a court hearing Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Taos District Attorney Donald Gallegos on Thursday defended his office against criticism for its flawed prosecution of five Muslim adults accused of training children to carry out armed attacks from a remote compound near the Colorado border.

“My staff has worked diligently, professionally and ethically and I am very proud of them,” Gallegos said in a Facebook post.

Both candidates for New Mexico governor blasted the District Attorney’s Office after two judges in Taos on Wednesday dropped child abuse charges against the five defendants because prosecutors missed a deadline to hold required preliminary hearings. Three of the compound defendants were subsequently released from jail, and one of them is not facing any travel restrictions.

“If we are going to fix New Mexico’s crime problem, public officials must do their jobs,” said U.S. Rep, Steve Pearce, the Republican nominee for governor. “The Taos district attorney failed to do so, leading to the Taos suspects’ release. I’m calling on him to resign immediately.”

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic candidate for governor, called the developments in the compound case “inexcusable” and said she was appalled. “Prosecutors must work diligently to correct this outrage and their failure to do their jobs,” she said.

Gallegos said in his Facebook post Thursday, “While we disagree with the judges, they did their jobs. We will continue to do ours.

“Going forward, our options are to re-file the charges or take the cases to the grand jury. We are assessing and will decide which avenue to pursue.”

He added: “I am aware that many of you are concerned about the defendants leaving the state and possibly the country. That is a possibility guaranteed by our Constitution and judicial system that prosecutors’ offices around the country face on a daily basis with many defendants who commit serious crimes. Defendants are presumed innocent unless and until convicted.”

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, also on Facebook, described Wednesday’s court events as “unbelievable.” He said he had asked on Aug. 17 and “I was told they didn’t have to do the preliminary hearing in 10 days because of the release conditions having been set on Aug. 8 – obviously they were wrong.”

The sheriff also appeared to address media reports questioning why the defendants’ ramshackle compound near the community of Amalia has been razed. “BTW, the compound (land) isn’t evidence – everything there was diagramed, photographed and evidence was collected, photographed, and documented properly,” Hogrefe wrote.

2 remain jailed

Two of the compound suspects, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Jany Leveille, still face more serious charges, including child abuse resulting in death, for allegedly failing to provide medication to Wahhaj’s 3-year-old son, who suffered from seizures and whose body was found at the compound. The couple have not been released, and they face court hearings next week.

A prosecution motion supporting their continued incarceration says Leveille recorded in an electronic journal that the other adults at the compound believed she was a “special Messenger of Allah, who gives them direct guidance (from) Allah, which includes their collective plan to train for and carry out acts of violence against society, in order to ‘save society.’

“Evidence shows the group to be involved in bizarre cultic practices and to be acting based on what appear to be delusions and/or hallucinations.”

All five defendants initially were charged with 11 counts of child abuse after law enforcement raided their compound on Aug. 3 – one count for each of 11 children taken from the site who officials have said appeared to be malnourished. These are the charges dismissed on Wednesday.

Released were defendants Lucas Morton, Subhanah Wahhaj and Hujrah Wahhaj, who still face trespassing citations because the compound was on a local resident’s property.

Of the three, Hujrah Wahhaj faces no travel restrictions while the trespassing cases are pending.

Her attorney, Marie Legrand Miller, said Thursday her client is no longer in Taos County but remains in New Mexico. Hujrah Wahhaj has a second lawyer to guide her through the process of seeking custody of her 8-year-old daughter.

“She is not going to leave New Mexico before trying to get her daughter back,” Legrand Miller said.

State Children, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela said Thursday that the five children of the three released defendants will remain in foster care while health and trauma assessments are carried out.

The six children of Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille are also in foster care.

Two weeks ago, a judge faced a huge social media backlash and telephoned threats of violence after ruling that the defendants could get out of jail without a secured bond and under house arrest. The defendants, though, weren’t released then because they couldn’t find local housing.

In his statement, Gallegos called on the public to be “civil and respectful” in its criticism to those working on the case.

“Cussing and threatening the people involved will not accomplish justice and serves no useful purpose,” Gallegos wrote. “Remember, you do not have all the facts. That will develop as the cases progress.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

 

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