TAOS, N.M. — A state judge on Monday denied a request from prosecutors to hold five adults without bond while they await prosecution on allegations that they kept 11 children in a New Mexico compound for months in squalid conditions with little food.
Law enforcement has characterized the two men and three women as Muslim extremists and said a child associated with the group had reported that they were preparing to conduct school shootings.
But defense attorneys said the family was being unfairly characterized because of their religion and said if they had been white, law enforcement would not have paid much attention to their stockpile of firearms.
“What I’ve heard here today is troubling. Definitely troubling facts about numerous children, far from usual circumstances,” said State District Judge Sarah C. Backus. She said she was most troubled by the discovery of the body of a child at the group’s remote, fortified compound.
However, she added, “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.”
Backus ruled that she would allow the defendants to be released pending further hearings on conditions, including that they each post an unsecured $20,000 bond, wear GPS devices to track their movements and not leave Taos County without permission.
Deputies took 11 children into protective custody and found the body of a 12th child — who has not been officially identified — during the Aug. 3 raid here, just south of the Colorado border. Authorities said they also found multiple firearms and little food on the desolate patch of dirt to which the group had laid claim, using a partly buried trailer ringed by old tires, wooden pallets and garbage.
FBI Special Agent Travis Taylor testified Monday that he questioned two boys, aged 13 and 15, who had been at the group’s compound when law enforcement raided it. Taylor said the boys told him that adults there were training them with firearms and that the group ultimately intended to attack law enforcement or education or financial institutions.
Defendants Lucas Allen Morton, 40; Jany Leveille, 35; Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40; Hujrah Wahhaj, 37; and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35; appeared at the hearing before Backus. They each face 11 counts of child abuse while Siraj Ibn Wahhaj faces an additional count alleging custodial interference.
All of the defendants and the children are relatives of a well-known Brooklyn imam, Siraj Wahhaj, which has ignited allegations from far-right groups that the compound was part of a conspiracy by Muslim extremists. Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is his son, and Hurjah and Subhannah are his daughters.
Defense attorneys had argued Monday that prosecutors had failed to meet their legal burden of showing that the five adults posed a risk to the community. Lawyer Tom Clark, representing defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, had argued to Backus before her ruling that the state was treating the defendants unfairly.
“These people are not Christian, they are black and they are Muslim,” Clark said. “They look different and they worship different from the rest of us.”
The five adults and their 12 children disappeared from the Atlanta suburbs in December 2017. But only Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, 3, was officially reported as missing because his mother told police that his father had taken him, and that the boy suffered from serious seizures and required regular medication.
Although a formal identification of the dead child is pending, officials in court identified him as Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s 3-year-old son, Abdul-ghani Wahhaj. Siraj Wahhaj is wanted by Georgia authorities who allege he had taken the boy from his mother without permission late last year.
Taylor, the FBI agent, testified that the older boy that he interviewed told him that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj held repeated rituals at the compound in which he read from the Quran and tried to cast demons out of his young son’s body. Taylor said the boy he interviewed reported that Wahhaj’s son, who had been gravely ill before he came to New Mexico, died such a ceremony in February.
Deputy District Attorney Timothy R. Hasson had urged Backus to keep the defendants in jail. He said the evidence suggested the group was on a dangerous mission.
“It’s clear from a number of the elements of the evidence that the family as a whole was strongly anti-government
in terms of their actions of moving here to New Mexico,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney John Lovelace declined comment after Backus’ ruling.
Clark said after the hearing that his client will remain in custody on a Georgia warrant. He said the state has to hold a preliminary hearing within 60 days, at which time the judge will determine if there’s sufficient evidence to make them stand trial.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe has come under fire for not entering the compound earlier. Jason and Tanya Badger, who own the land where the group camped out, said they had repeatedly raised alarm bells since January after noticing the squatters and filing for their eviction.
The Badgers said law enforcement officers from the sheriff’s department and the New Mexico State Police visited the site and spoke to members of the group at the entrance to the compound on at least two occasions in January and February to address the Badgers’ eviction concerns. But the couple said police never entered the property, despite having the Badgers’ permission to do so.
A neighbor, Kenny Jenkins, said the family arrived last December, and he helped them dig a hole for their travel trailer to protect it from the wind. He said he and other neighbors also provided the group with construction materials, solar panels and water.
“Right before Christmas, we had a small hat full of money, and we spent half of it on those guys,” Jenkins said. “We bought them a propane heater and a couple of little tanks because one of the little kids said, ‘Man, it’s cold out here.’ We helped them out in every little way possible.”
Morton sometimes borrowed tools and said he wanted to build a sustainable home constructed from recycled materials.
“We didn’t question anything, because they’re doing the same thing we did. They came here to live a subsistence lifestyle,” he said.
But after Ramadan in June, Jenkins said, the group blocked off the entrance to their compound with tires and no-trespassing signs.
A Taos County spokesman, Steve Fuhlendorf, said last week that the FBI had had the compound under aerial surveillance since May, and Ashanti Marbury, a spokeswoman for the Clayton County Police Department in Georgia, said police there were in touch with the FBI and Taos County officials for “a few months” before the raid.
Hogrefe said after the raid that the FBI “didn’t feel there was enough probable cause to get on the property,” despite the surveillance. And the criminal complaint makes no mention of evidence collected through that surveillance that might support the claim that the children were training with weapons.
The FBI has declined to comment on the case or acknowledge involvement in the investigation.
Police in Georgia said the raid occurred after they received a desperate “communication” that originated in the compound asking for food. The imam said that his daughter Subhannah had sent the message to a family friend and that the family then passed the location on to the police.
Jason Badger said he discovered a shotgun and a pistol stashed in a cargo van on the property after police conducted the raid. He pointed to what appeared to be a child’s drawing of a human silhouette target that was peppered with bullet holes at a makeshift shooting range at the compound. Boxes of ammunition and instruction manuals for semiautomatic pistols and a rifle were left at the scene.
Hogrefe has declined to address most of the criticism, but said that he was unable to legally enter the compound before the Aug. 3 raid and that the search warrant then limited police in what they could take. Over the weekend, he walked out of a CNN interview when the reporter pressed him on whether he could have saved a child’s life.
In court Monday, Hogrefe mentioned tunnels for the first time, saying police found a sniper rifle at the scene. He said that Wahhaj was armed with an assault rifle and several handguns, but that the arrests transpired peacefully.
The child’s body was found wrapped in cloth and plastic at the entrance to one of those tunnels, Hogrefe said.
Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.