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