Correction: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that, according to testimony by FBI agent Travis Taylor, the Siraj Wahhaj family believed the family was inhabited by demons. In fact, Taylor testified the family believed the body of 3-year-old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj was inhabited by demons.
The evidence was intended to paint a disturbing picture of a zealous family training for a violent mission against government institutions, New Mexico prosecutors said.
The family fled Georgia for a compound in New Mexico where they trained their children in firearms use, according to testimony. A child died at his father’s hand during a religious ritual intended to expel religious demons from his body. Eleven more malnourished children were later found on the property.
The family believed that once the demons were gone, the boy would return as Jesus four months later and tell his family which institutions to get rid of, a witness said. Those who did not believe “their message” would be killed or detained “until they believed,” a teenager on the compound said, according to a FBI agent.
But none of that makes them a present danger to the community or to their children, a defense lawyer argued. They were following religious rituals that might be viewed in a different light if they were white Christians instead of black Muslims, the lawyer claimed.
After four hours of testimony on Monday, a judge sided with the defense. She ruled that the suspects were not shown to be a threat and allowed them unsecured bond.
“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 presented Monday 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 state wants me to make a leap, and it’s a large leap. And that would be to hold people in jail without bond based on – again – troubling facts. But I didn’t hear any choate plan that was being alleged by the state.”
A violent mission or a religious journey?
Lawyers for the defendants called the ruling a positive step for their clients in a case that could test the bounds of religious freedom in the justice system and the court of public opinion.
The defendants were taken into custody after an August 3 raid on their compound. Early on, the local sheriff called the suspects “extremist of the Muslim belief.” He later said that his statement was based on their appearance and he did not intend to imply violence.
The suspects’ faith has been an undercurrent in the case ever since, one that came to the fore in Monday’s hearing – even though neither prosecutors nor witnesses explicitly referred to the defendants’ Muslim faith.
“This was not a camping trip and this was not a simple homesteading, the kind that many people do in New Mexico,” prosecutor Timothy Hasson said. “The evidence as a whole suggests that this family was on a mission. And it was a violent one, and it was a dangerous one.”
But Siraj Wahhaj’s lawyer said “no one would bat an eye” if the suspects were white Christians accused of shooting guns on their property or practicing their religion.
“If these were white people of a Christian faith who owned guns, that’s not a big deal because there’s a Second Amendment right to own firearms in this country. If these were white Christians, faith healing is of no consequence because we have freedom of religion in this country. But they look different and they worship differently from the rest of us,” Thomas Clark said Monday.
“When black Muslims do it there seems to be something nefarious, something evil,” he later said outside the courthouse.
Coverage of the case has focused largely on Siraj Wahhaj and his missing son, Abdul-Ghani, the boy whom prosecutors said was killed during the ritual and understandably so. The search for Abdul-Ghani and his father – who is wanted in Georgia for his alleged abduction – led authorities to the New Mexico compound. Despite being granted bond, he will remain in custody while he waits for authorities in Georgia to execute his fugitive warrant, Clark said.
But a lawyer for Jany Leveille, the woman described as Siraj Wahhaj’s “Muslim wife” in testimony Monday, said her reasons for being on the compound may not be quite what they seem.
“She believed in her religion and tried to follow the tenets of her religion,” Kelly Golightley said. “They may have been running in fear of their lives … She was a mom, she was taking care of her children. Maybe not in a way that we understand.”
’Take all your money out of the bank and bring your guns’
Prosecutors alleged the family came to New Mexico to prepare for Abdul-Ghani’s return as Jesus. The family believed Leveille received messages from God through the angel Gabriel, FBI agent Travis Taylor testified.
One of those messages was for the family to go to New Mexico, where Morten had property, and to continue rituals that began in Georgia to expel demons from Abdul-Ghani’s body.
The boy suffered from seizures, requiring constant care and medical attention, his mother, Hakima Ramzi, previously told CNN. After a trip to Saudi Arabia in October 2017, Siraj Wahhaj said he wanted to stop giving his son medication and perform rituals to “cast demonic spirits” out of his son’s body, Ramzi told investigators, according to prosecutor John Lovelace.
Siraj Wahhaj is accused of abducting Abdul-Ghani’s from his mother’s home in Jonesboro, Georgia in November. A few weeks after his alleged abduction, he was in a car accident in Alabama with some of his children and Leveille. It’s not clear if Abdul-Ghani was in the car.
Wahhaj told a trooper that the family was on its way to New Mexico to go camping, Lovelace said, but the trooper noted in his report that he saw no camping equipment in the overturned vehicle. He also told the officer that he was married to Leveille, though she would clarify to the officer that they were not legally married, Lovelace said.
Morten picked up the family in a rental truck and drove them and their belongings to New Mexico, including a weapons cache that included handguns, a bulletproof vest, several magazines, Lovelace said. But when Clayton County police questioned Morten in December, he said he didn’t know where Wahhaj was. The truck and the weapons were eventually found at the compound.
At some point, Morten passed on a letter from the someone at the New Mexico compound to Wahhaj’s brother inviting him to join them and “die as a martyr,” Lovelace said. The letter instructed him to “leave whatever we told you to leave” and “take all your money out of the bank and bring your guns.” The letter also told him not to alert their father.
The behavior suggested Wahhaj was trying to “cut ties in the Atlanta area” as he relocated to New Mexico, Lovelace said.
Account of boy’s death emerges
After the raid, FBI agent Travis Taylor testified that he interviewed two children from the compound, ages 13 and 15, who shared information about events before Abdul-Ghani’s apparent death.
According to one of the children, the family arrived in New Mexico sometime in January, Taylor said. The rituals on Abdul-Ghani continued in New Mexico under Leveille’s direction, the FBI agent said. According to one of the teens, Leveille believed that Abdul-Ghani was her baby and Ramzi had stolen him from her womb using black magic, Taylor said.
In the rituals, which went on for several days, Abdul-Ghani’s father recited verses from the Quran and held his hand on the boy’s forehead as he foamed from the mouth, Taylor said. During one of those rituals, according to the children, Abdul-Ghani passed out and his heart stopped beating, the agent testified.
He has passed on, Taylor said, but the family believed he had already died and that his body was inhabited by demons. They believed he would return four months later as Jesus and lead them on their mission, Taylor said.
His body was washed several times, wrapped in sheets and then buried on the compound, the agent testified. As his body deteriorated, he was moved to a tunnel beneath the compound, where two of the adults would wash his body every other day, according to Taylor.
But Siraj Wahhaj’s lawyer suggested that such actions demonstrated reverence and respect, not abusive behavior.
“Touching a child and reading from the Quran – that’s somehow interpreted as insidious,” Clark said.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe was part of the law enforcement team that executed the first search warrant at the compound on August 3.
He found the children and Siraj Wahhaj in a small camper-trailer partly buried on the property. Weapons were scattered “in plain view” in the trailer, he said. The children clutched boxes of ammunition and Wahhaj appeared to be setting aside an an AR-style rifle, he said.
The sheriff said a child in the trailer told an agent that Wahhaj had told them to “arm up” as law enforcement entered the property, but Leveille told them to comply. Three days later, based on information from the children, law enforcement returned to the compound and found the remains of a young boy in the tunnel, hidden behind guns what the sheriff called a bag of “stale clothing.”
The sheriff said he also noted a gun range about 25 to 30 feet from the trailer. When pressed by Wahhaj’s lawyer, the sheriff conceded that there was no prohibition against teaching a teenager to use firearms. But there was nothing “prudent” about a firing range so close to living quarters, he said.
“I actually find that reckless.”
CNN’s Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.