Updated Aug. 13 at 9:50 p.m.
Taos District Court Judge Sarah Backus released all five defendants charged with abusing 11 children at a compound near Amalia, New Mexico during a hearing Monday (Aug. 13).
Following the hearing, Backus said prosecutors had failed to prove the defendants were a danger to the Taos County community or a flight risk.
The five accused – Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, Lucas Morton, 40, Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35 – will be placed on house arrest and will be required to wear GPS ankle bracelets as their cases are processed. Backus set a $20,000 unsecured appearance bond for each defendant.
They will be allowed to see their children, who have been in the custody of the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Division since Aug. 3, when law enforcement raided the ramshackle dwelling where they lived near Amalia. The defendants are forbidden, however, to discuss their cases with their kids, who may testify as the cases progress.
Two of the children – one 13 years old and another 15 years old – have already provided crucial information to authorities about their lives at the makeshift compound.
One piece of information provided by one of the children drew widespread alarm Wednesday (Aug. 8) when the state filed motions to hold the defendants without bond: That the adults had been training at least one of them to carry out school shootings.
But the current charges of child abuse aren't necessarily related to those allegations, a team of defense attorneys argued on Monday.
Prosecutors Tim Hasson and John Lovelace of the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office devoted a significant portion of Monday's hearing to the uncharged allegation that the group had planned to carry out shootings. They drew Backus' attention to evidence that may prove important as the cases move forward, but their focus may have backfired during the hearing.
They called on FBI Special Agent Travis Taylor, who testified that two children rescued from the camp told him Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille had conducted Islamic rituals on 3-year-old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj. Siraj Ibn Wahhaj allegedly abducted the boy, who is his son, from Georgia last year.
During a search last Monday (Aug. 6), investigators unearthed the remains of a small boy, but have not identified them as the missing child.
According to the child's mother, Hakima Ramzi, her son suffered from seizures and had trouble walking. Ramzi had sent pleas to her husband to return the child, telling him the toddler needed medicine. Siraj, however, believed the boy suffered from a spiritual affliction that could be remedied through an Islamic ritual known as a "ruqya."
During each ritual, the children said Wahhaj would read two verses from the Quran while holding a hand to his son's forehead. They said Abdul would choke and foam at the mouth during the ritual, which is described in a book found at the Amalia compound, titled "Sword Against Black Magic & Evil Magicians."
After one ritual conducted in February, one of the child witnesses said the toddler's heart stopped.
They said the boy's body was then ceremonially washed and wrapped in cloth, according to Islamic custom. The remains were moved to different locations of the camp until they were finally placed inside a 100-foot tunnel investigators found at the property last week. The tunnel served as a hiding place for firearms, investigators said. At it's end north of the property, a ladder propped through an upper opening served as an exit. It's full purpose, however, is still unclear.
According to the FBI agent's testimony, Leveille believed the child was hers. Leveille and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj believed that, after the child died, he would be resurrected as "Jesus." The child would then instruct the other children on “corrupt institutions" they were to attack, the agent relayed to the courtroom.
Targets would include schools, he said, as well as law enforcement agencies and financial institutions. Further, Leveille told the kids that targeted individuals who did not accept their beliefs were to be detained until they were converted. Otherwise, they were to be killed, Taylor said the children told him during the interviews.
The child witnesses also told the special agent that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj had instructed them in tactical weapons training, including speed reloads, tactical reloads, moving and shooting and "room clearing." Taylor said room clearing can be used defensively, but is often used as an offensive tactic in combat situations. Prosecutors also found a book on the property pertaining to such firearm use. Hasson even cited a line that described how a person could "physically and pyschologically" prepare for killing other people. Another book provided instructions on how to create an "untraceable AR-15 rifle."
A letter, sent by an unknown individual to Siraj Ibn Wahhaj's brother, Muhammed Wahhaj, had asked him to bring "money and guns" to New Mexico so he could die as a martyr. Hasson said the communication was further evidence that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj would be a danger to the community if released. But defense attorneys would argue the letter fell outside the scope of the hearing.
Another exhibit, photographs taken of a handwritten journal which allegedly contained other detail about the group's plans to stage attacks, was successfully barred from the hearing entirely when the defense objected.
Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera testified that he had provided sniper cover at the Aug. 3 raid of the compound. He told the court the dwelling had been clearly fortified with defensive structures, such as mud walls designed as switchback entries and tire walls filled with mud that could stop bullets.
“These tires are highly effective at stopping small arms ammunition when it comes to penetration,” Miera said when asked about the wall, which circumscribes the compound.
The defense also objected to this claim, however, arguing the information presented was irrelevant. One attorney would even argue the tire wall had merely been used to block the wind on the high plains near Amalia. They also pointed out that no armed conflict had ever been carried out by the residents at the compound, even when law enforcement stormed the home Aug. 3.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe also testified in court. He said he hadn't planned to be a part of the raid itself, but ended up playing a pivotal role in the arrest of Siraj Ibn Wahhaj.
Hogrefe said eight members of his special operations team, along with the New Mexico Office of Special Operations, were heavily armed when they assaulted the property. They had prepared for possible armed resistance based on FBI intel, he said. The federal agency had conducted aerial surveillance of the compound for about two months prior to the Aug. 6 raid, but hadn't moved in due to a lack of probable cause, Hogrefe said in earlier statements.
During the raid, the sheriff initially provided cover from the roadway, but when one of his teammates became separated from the group, he said he crossed into the property and assisted in arresting Wahhaj, who was hiding inside a half-buried trailer with some of the women and children.
He said the accused child abductor appeared to have been armed with an AR-15 rifle, which the sheriff found within the man's reach after making the arrest. Children inside the trailer were also holding ammunition, he said. Hogrefe described a tense and difficult effort to get Wahhaj to surrender, however, telling the court that he initially refused to cooperate with commands and told law enforcement children were inside the trailer.
Morton also resisted law enforcement during the arrest and failed to cooperate with the investigation, according to Hogrefe's testimony. The sheriff reiterated that none of the adults intially offered any information about the missing child.
While Hogrefe described the compound as "filthy and disgusting," he left out certain details he had cited in charging documents, such as the presence of broken glass, pits and a shortage of food to feed the children at the property. Prior to the hearing, the sheriff had gone on record describing the kids as "emaciated" when his team placed them in protective custody, but did not go into such detail at Monday's hearing.
In closing statements, public defense attorney Aleksandar Kostich argued that defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj had no prior criminal history and that the state had failed to meet its burden to prove he was a danger to the community.
Another defense attorney argued the allegations and presentation by the state were woven with fundamental prejudices given that all of the defendants are "black and Muslim," as opposed to "white and Christian," they said.
The defense also made an emotional appeal to Judge Backus, stating the women desperately wished to be reunited with their children.
And the attorneys said except for the warrant issued for Siraj Ibn Wahhaj in January related to his son's abduction, none of the defendants had prior criminal histories.
Prosecutors rebutted that training children to carry out shootings indicated a clear danger to the community. Hasson said all of the evidence – the books that described combat training, the conditions at the property and the interviews with the two children who claimed they had been trained to kill people – was more than sufficient to keep the defendants held until trial.
“The evidence as a whole says this family was on a mission, and a violent one,” Hassan told the court.
But by the end of the hearing, Backus said she was surprised the state had provided relatively few pieces of evidence or testimony to support the 11 counts of child abuse currently filed against each defendant, having spent time on evidence related to allegations that may require their own filings. Specifically, she said detail regarding the condition of the children when they were found was all but absent from the hearing.
While Backus agreed the allegations were "troubling," she said the state had not met its burden as defined by the New Mexico Supreme Court. She reminded the courtroom that pretrial detention rules in New Mexico were altered in 2016, adding greater detail to what the state must present to hold defendants until trial.
"The constitution has always read that the defendants are innocent until proven guilty," Backus said.
Reporter Jesse Moya contributed to this report.
This is a developing story. For more, check back here at taosnews.com.