TAOS, N.M. (AP) — Judges at hearings Wednesday in state district court are considering crucial decisions about child neglect and abuse charges against five defendants arrested at a remote compound in northern New Mexico where 11 children were found living in filth and the body of a 3-year-old boy was retrieved.
A couple is confronting new charges of child abuse that could carry life sentences in connection with the death of Abdul-ghani Wahhaj (ahb-DOOL’ GAH’-nee wah-HAJ’), a severely disabled boy whose badly decomposed remains were found this month within a tunnel at the high-desert compound near the Colorado state line.
Prosecutors and law enforcement officials have accused the boy’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj (see-DAHJ’ IBN wah-HAJ’), and partner Jany Leveille of denying the boy proper medicine and health care as he died during rituals designed to cast out harmful spirits from the boy. They have not yet entered pleas.
The boy initially was reported missing last year from Jonesboro, Georgia, by his mother after Siraj Ibn Wahhaj said he was taking the child to a park and didn’t return. Forensic medical investigators have not identified the cause and manner of the boy’s death as they continue their analysis.
A judge also will weigh whether any of the five defendants from the compound can be released pending trial on child neglect charges without endangering the public. Prosecutors are pressing for continued incarceration. They plan to present new evidence of an anti-government plot and talk of jihad and martyrdom among some members of the extended Muslim family that settled at the compound last winter.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the neglect charges and are seeking to have the counts dismissed.
District Judge Sarah Backus has received criticism from politicians and anonymous death threats in response to her ruling in mid-August that would allow defendants to await trial under conditions of house arrest — with ankle location monitors.
Prosecutors are asking the state court district’s chief judge to reconsider that order in light of new evidence and testimony from children who lived at the compound. Among the evidence is a hand-written document called “Phases of a Terrorist Attack” that was seized from the compound and includes vague instructions for “the one-time terrorist” and mentioned an unnamed place called “the ideal attack site.”
Prosecutors wrote that new interviews with some of the children taken from the site revealed that one of the adults, Lucas Morton, stated he wished to die in jihad as a martyr, and that defendants Jany Leveille and Subhannah Wahhaj joked about dying in jihad.
Defense attorneys have noted that their clients have no record of criminal convictions and pose no risk to the public. Federal immigration authorities say Leveille, a native of Haiti, has been in the United States unlawfully for 20 years after overstaying a visitor visa.
All remain incarcerated at a Taos County jail amid difficulties in finding lodging that ensures the defendants’ own safety.
New charges against Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille are tied to an extensive account of Abdul-ghani’s death in a journal that prosecutors attribute to Leveille.
Prosecutors say the boy died in late December 2017 as his heartbeat faded in and out during a religious ritual aimed at casting out demonic spirits.
By MORGAN LEE
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