DA: Grand jury won’t hear com­pound abuse cases yet

The Taos News - - FRONT PAGE - By John Miller jmiller@taos­news.com The Taos News

Eighth Ju­di­cial Dis­trict At­tor­ney Don­ald Gal­le­gos an­nounced this week that child abuse cases dis­missed for five adults ar­rested at a com­pound near Amalia in Au­gust will not be heard by a grand jury Thurs­day (Sept. 27) as orig­i­nally planned.

“The 8th Ju­di­cial Dis­trict At­tor­ney’s Of­fice is con­cerned about any po­ten­tial con­fu­sion should the cases be pros­e­cuted si­mul­ta­ne­ously in fed­eral and state courts,” Gal­le­gos, a state dis­trict at­tor­ney, wrote in a press re­lease posted to Face­book Wed­nes­day morn­ing (Sept. 26).

The Taos grand jury was to re­view some if not all dis­missed charges this week, but Gal­le­gos wrote that it would be best to wait un­til the fed­eral charges are fully re­solved, “be­cause of po­ten­tial le­gal, ev­i­den­tiary and pro­ce­dural con­cerns.”

He had told The Taos News on Tues­day (Sept. 25) that the grand jury pro­ceed­ings might be post­poned. He wouldn’t give the of­fi­cial word un­til he had dis­cussed pos­si­ble con­flicts with U.S. at­tor­neys in Al­bu­querque, who are now pros­e­cut­ing fed­eral firearms and con­spir­acy charges filed against the de­fen­dants in late Au­gust.

The five adults ar­rested at the makeshift dwelling in north­ern Taos County – Si­raj Ibn Wah­haj, 40, Lu­cas Mor­ton,

40, Jany Leveille, 35, Hu­jrah Wah­haj,

37, and Subah­nah Wah­haj, 35 – ini­tially faced 11 counts of child abuse each. In­ves­ti­ga­tors said they found 11 chil­dren starv­ing and clothed in rags at the crudely built com­pound where they lived near the Colorado bor­der un­til Aug. 3. Three days later, they found the re­mains of a 3-year-old child buried in a 100-foot tun­nel dug at the base of the com­pound.

Si­raj Ibn Wah­haj and Leveille were later charged with felony child abuse charges re­lated to the death of the child, Wah­haj’s epilep­tic son, Ab­dulGhani Wah­haj. Of­fi­cials be­lieve the boy died there in ei­ther late De­cem­ber 2017 or Fe­bru­ary of this year af­ter he was de­nied med­i­ca­tion and sub­jected to Is­lamic prayer rit­u­als that lasted for hours each day.

The boy’s fa­ther has been ac­cused of ab­duct­ing him from his mother’s home in Ge­or­gia in Novem­ber 2017.

The 11 counts of child abuse were dropped Aug. 29 af­ter pros­e­cu­tors failed to hold pre­lim­i­nary hear­ings within 10 days, a rule un­der state law when de­fen­dants are held in jail.

On Aug. 31, Gal­le­gos an­nounced he

would be dis­miss­ing the felony charges. Hours later, fed­eral firearms charges were filed against Leveille, a Haitian im­mi­grant who had al­legedly been liv­ing il­le­gally in the United States for 20 years and was un­law­fully in pos­ses­sion of firearms. The four adults she lived with at the North­ern New Mex­ico com­pound have been charged with aid­ing, abet­ting and con­spir­ing to pro­vide Leveille with the weapons, which in­cluded sev­eral hand­guns, ri­fles fit­ted with scopes and an AR-15.

In to­tal, in­ves­ti­ga­tors say they found ap­prox­i­mately a dozen firearms, along with am­mu­ni­tion, a fir­ing range that in­cluded what ap­peared to be a hu­man tar­get and writ­ten ma­te­ri­als that de­scribed vi­o­lent ex­trem­ist be­liefs, in­clud­ing en­tries that sug­gested plans to carry out ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

At a pre­trial de­ten­tion hear­ing Sept. 12 at U.S. Dis­trict Court in Al­bu­querque, fed­eral Judge Kir­tan Khalsa ruled to de­tain the de­fen­dants based on the po­ten­tial dan­ger they posed or the pos­si­bil­ity they might flee the state or the coun­try.

Ac­cord­ing to court records, a jury trial may be held as early as Nov. 5, but that date may change as de­fense at­tor­neys and pros­e­cu­tors re­quest ad­di­tional time to pre­pare for trial.

The state charges never made it that far. Some, in­clud­ing state rep­re­sen­ta­tives and New Mex­ico At­tor­ney Gen­eral Hec­tor Balderas, pub­licly blamed Dis­trict At­tor­ney Gal­le­gos and his pros­e­cu­tors, say­ing they made crit­i­cal er­rors that caused the cases to be dropped.

Gal­le­gos quickly fired back in de­fense of his of­fice.

“My staff has worked dili­gently, pro­fes­sion­ally and eth­i­cally, and I am very proud of them,” Gal­le­gos said in a state­ment. Anony­mous tips to The Taos

News also sug­gested Gal­le­gos was not ap­pear­ing at his of­fice dur­ing reg­u­lar busi­ness hours, and the 16-year DA openly ac­knowl­edged those ru­mors were true dur­ing an in­ter­view this week.

“I’ll some­times come in in the morn­ings and then work re­motely in the af­ter­noon,” Gal­le­gos said. “Some­times I’m here two days a week.

But he says he main­tains con­stant con­tact with his team. “I don’t stop. It’s 24/7,” he said.

He firmly de­nies that his some­times ab­sence from the of­fice had any­thing to do with the case dis­missals, say­ing he trains his team to op­er­ate ef­fi­ciently and in­de­pen­dently.

Gal­le­gos ar­gues that Judge Sarah Backus’ Aug. 13 de­ci­sion to deny pre­trial de­ten­tion for the orig­i­nal cases in the state court sug­gested that his pros­e­cu­tors might have had 60 days to hold pre­lim­i­nary hear­ings – not 10. The longer time frame is al­lowed when de­tainees are granted bail and re­leased, which his of­fice had ex­pected fol­low­ing the rul­ing.

But that didn’t hap­pen, and now more than a month later, Gal­le­gos ac­knowl­edged that he was ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for miss­ing the dead­line.

“If they (the pub­lic) want an ad­mis­sion that I dropped the ball on the pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing, well, they’ve got it,” he said. “This is my shop. I take the hits for what­ever hap­pens out there.”

Still, he says there wouldn’t have been enough time to pre­pare any of the 11 po­ten­tial child wit­nesses that had lived at the com­pound to tes­tify at a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing, po­ten­tially com­pro­mis­ing the cases en­tirely.

Tes­ti­mony from two of Leveille’s chil­dren has al­ready been re­layed twice through an FBI special agent based in Santa Fe, who said the kids told him their mother had pro­claimed her­self a kind of re­li­gious seer for the group, telling them that Wah­haj’s dead 3-year-old would be res­ur­rected as “Je­sus Christ” to in­struct the oth­ers on gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions they were to con­vert to their be­liefs or de­stroy.

None of those al­le­ga­tions have been ut­tered be­fore a court by the chil­dren them­selves, crit­i­cal tes­ti­mony that both fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and pos­si­bly those work­ing for Gal­le­gos, will seek to pro­duce at trial for their re­spec­tive cases.

The DA says there is no time re­stric­tion for con­ven­ing a grand jury for abuse charges re­lated to the death of a child. For the orig­i­nal 11 counts of child abuse, there’s at least a five-year win­dow, he said.

But he ex­pects it won’t be too long be­fore the feds wrap up their case and his of­fice is back at bat.

Deputy Dis­trict At­tor­ney Ron Olsen said the grand jury will still con­vene on Thurs­day to pre­pare for fu­ture cases.

Jesse Moya

Eighth Ju­di­cial Dis­trict At­tor­ney Don­ald Gal­le­gos an­nounced this week that child abuse cases dis­missed for five adults ar­rested at a com­pound near Amalia last month will not be heard by a Taos grand jury Thurs­day (Sept. 27) as orig­i­nally planned. He said he takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for the state charges against the five get­ting dis­missed a few weeks ago be­fore new fed­eral charges were filed in Al­bu­querque.

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