Siraj Wahhaj and the four other adults arrested at a filthy New Mexico compound where 11 starving children were held and one apparently died were released with bond on Monday. The decision stunned many observers of the case, given the clearly abusive treatment of the children, the outstanding warrant from Georgia against Wahhaj for kidnapping his own son, and the fact that children rescued from the camp told police they were being trained to conduct terrorist attacks on schools.
The defendants were ordered to post $20,000 bond each, wear ankle monitors, and remain in regular contact with their attorneys until their trial concludes.
CNN reported the defense successfully argued that the cultists, whom local police described as “extremist Muslims,” were merely following their religious beliefs and posed no threat to the community:
“What I’ve heard here today is troubling, definitely. Troubling facts about numerous children in far from ideal circumstances and individuals who are living in a very unconventional way — although if you have lived in northern New Mexico for any period of time you are aware that many people here live in unconventional ways,” Judge Sarah Backus said.
Defendant Siraj Wahhaj and his relatives — sisters Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj, his partner Jany Leveille, and brother-in-law Lucas Morten — each face 11 counts of child abuse. They have pleaded not guilty.
Most troubling was evidence about the apparent death of 3-year-old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, Backus said. Remains of a young boy found on the compound are awaiting positive identification. But the judge said none of the evidence told her anything about the surviving children, who are in state custody away from the compound.
“The state alleges there was a big plan afoot but the state has not shown to my satisfaction by clear and convincing evidence what in fact that plan was,” Backus said.
The judge’s decision was denounced as irresponsible by some observers, evidently including a number of New Mexico police officers. Some question exists about whether Siraj Wahhaj himself would be released, his case presumably being different because of the Georgia warrant:
I talked to NM police who are shocked & dismayed.
One source says Siraj Ibn Wahhaj is NOT being released
— Ryan Mauro (@ryanmauro) August 14, 2018
NBC correspondent Gadi Schwartz, who has been following the case closely, pointed out that New Mexico has extraordinarily tough requirements for proving that defendants are a menace to society:
Quick note on NM law… Burden is on prosecution to prove a defendant is so dangerous that no other condition of release, pre-trial, will reasonably protect public safety. State must prove by clear and convincing evidence. #NMCompound @NBCNews
— Gadi Schwartz (@GadiNBC) August 14, 2018
The judge’s decision was still hard to swallow, given the number of firearms and alarming literature found at the compound. Defense attorneys argued that the guns were all legally purchased, and structures that appeared to be defenses against a law-enforcement siege were actually structures commonly erected by local residents to block extreme weather.
Schwartz also documented the tunnel complex dug beneath the site, which is much more extensive than early reports suggested, including both a cave where children were made to sleep and an escape route:
THREAD: This week we were given rare access inside the NM compound where authorities think children were getting weapons training to carry out school shootings. This is part of the tunnel that extends out from the property. @NBCNews pic.twitter.com/1tuGlkeHzX
— Gadi Schwartz (@GadiNBC) August 11, 2018
This is video provided to us showing a side chamber where children were believed to have stayed – off to the right is a small escape opening. pic.twitter.com/3N2UVykx1e
— Gadi Schwartz (@GadiNBC) August 11, 2018
Prosecutors introduced testimony from police and FBI agents that the group has violent intentions and plans to attack “banks, schools, and government agencies.”
According to this testimony, the actual leader of the extremist band is not Siraj Wahhaj, but 35-year-old Jany Leveille, who was revealed to be his wife. Leveille evidently believed Wahhaj’s three-year-old son by another woman was the reincarnation of Jesus, who is revered as a prophet in Islam and prophesied to return to Earth someday.
Leveille also thought the boy, Abdul-Ghani, was her own son rather than a child Wahhaj had with his first wife in Georgia. CNN reported that Wahhaj and Leveille are the biological parents of 9 of the 11 children rescued from the compound.
Abdul-Ghani was kidnapped from Georgia by Siraj Wahhaj, who said he wanted to conduct an elaborate Muslim prayer ritual to heal the boy’s severe neurological condition. According to children rescued from the New Mexico camp, Abdul-Ghani had a seizure and died in the spring, and his remains are those discovered by police in the tunnel complex.
According to USA Today, the police said:
Abdul-Ghani suffered from chronic illness and seizures, and in pleading for his return, his mother in December warned he would die if not given medical treatment. Instead of medical treatment, after kidnapping the boy and taking him to New Mexico, Wahhaj read Quran verses to the toddler while laying his hand on his forehead as the boy had seizures and foamed at the mouth.
An FBI agent testified after interviewing two of the children, saying:
Jany had a message from God that they needed to leave and head to New Mexico and that Abdul Wahhaj, once the demons were expelled from his body through religious rituals, that he would become Jesus and once he became Jesus he would instruct the others on the property, the family, what corrupt institutions to get rid of.
A clearly distraught Sheriff Jeff Hogrefe of Taos County, New Mexico, terminated a CNN interview on Monday after he explained why his department could not legally have stormed the compound sooner and the reporter suggested that moving earlier might have saved Abdul-Ghani’s life.
“Thanks for reminding me of that,” the sheriff retorted. “It’s not like it’s hard enough to live every day wishing that I had got there quicker. But you’ve got to get there lawfully.”