On Monday afternoon in Amalia, New Mexico, up a rocky stretch of dirt road, the land is quiet, the only noise coming from cicadas and news crews walking on clay to the entrance of an abandoned compound. The property is littered with debris from the people who once lived here — baby seats, David Lindahl’s book, Principle of Success: How Ordinary People Become Extraordinarily Wealthy, copies of the Koran, mixed piles of school books, Stoli bottles and bullet shells. A white Budget van is parked before six-foot stacks of tires, near an Alumalite trailer draped in white tarp. A Bushmaster Firearms International ad lies on wood flooring inside the trailer, while plastic plates and Folgers cans line the sink. Russet potatoes, pinto beans and canned peaches are in the closet. In the open air there is a board with a blue, childlike drawing of a figure in the back of the structure. It is riddled with bullet holes.
It was here that, nearly two weeks ago, authorities raided the 10-acre plot in Amalia, a high-desert ranching community with roughly 200 residents, north of Taos and just short of the Colorado border. On August 3rd, the sheriff’s office executed a search warrant and found two men and three women living with 11 kids, ages one to 15, on the land with “no food, clean water, leaking propane gas, filthy conditions, hazardous and broken glass, no hygiene or medical care,” according to court documents.
The state charged Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the 40-year-old son of a Brooklyn imam, with 11 counts of felony child abuse. His wife, Jany Leveille, 40, his brother-in-law Lucas Morton, 40, and his two sisters Subannah Wahhaj, 35, and Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, were given the same charges. All the suspects have pleaded not guilty to the charges. On Monday evening, District Judge Sarah Backus ordered all but Wahhaj to be released on $20,000 bail each, though she required them to wear ankle monitors before their trial date, which has yet to be determined.
Wahhaj, who remains in custody, faces an additional charge of custodial interference for allegedly abducting his 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, from the boy’s mother in Atlanta, Georgia, in December. The FBI tracked down Wahhaj to New Mexico and kept him under surveillance for two months until the sheriff executed the warrant. Three days after the raid, authorities discovered a body, thought to be Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, in the underground tunnel. Wahhaj’s father, Siraj Wahhaj, told The New York Times that the body belongs to his grandson, but the state has not yet filed charges on the matter. When asked for comment, a representative for Taos Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe told Rolling Stone that he is not giving interviews at this time.
During the suspects’ appearance on Monday, Taos County prosecutors Timothy Hasson and John Lovelace told the court that Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj died in “a ritual intended to cast out demonic spirits.” Describing rituals performed on the compound, the prosecutors said that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj would hold his son’s forehead and read verses from the Quaran to stop his seizures. The prosecutors said the adults’ belief in a sort of mysticism led to these exorcism-type rituals rather than getting the boy medical attention he needed before his death.
FBI agent Travis Taylor testified that a 15-year-old living on the compound told him that the extended family believed the boy would be resurrected as “Jesus” to help them defeat targets in “the financial system, law enforcement [and] the education system.” In making her decision, Judge Backus reasoned that the state did not prove the defendants were dangers to the community or flight risks and says they could now see their children, who are staying with the New Mexico Children Youth and Families, according to The Taos News, a local weekly newspaper covering the story.
Defense attorneys argued that their clients are being discriminated against because they are black Muslims. After the court hearing, defense lawyer Thomas Clark told reporters outside of the courthouse, “If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye” over their beliefs in religious healing, but since they are black and Muslim “there seems to be something nefarious, something evil.” Another defense lawyer, Kelly Alexis Golightley tells Rolling Stone that many people in living in the region are “militant with their rights to bear arms” but the suspects were being specifically targeted. Golightly adds: “Isn’t it interesting that a black, Muslim, poor group of people are brought into court.” She anticipates the defendants to be released from county jail later this week.
Up by the compound, neighbors watched the media come and go. Sporting a Denver Broncos T-shirt, longtime resident Val DeHerrera, a 56-year-old New Mexican-bred rancher and hunting guide, tells Rolling Stone that Amalia is a tight-knit community filled with laid back retirees looking for a serene life. That feeling of security is changing. “People here are good and simple, but when stuff like this happens it gives them the willies,” DeHerrera says, looking out at the compound in the distance. “God only knows what their intentions were.”
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