A missing boy died during a religious ritual intended to cast demonic spirits from his body, a New Mexico prosecutor said at a pretrial hearing on Monday.
Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj’s body was washed several times, wrapped in sheets and then buried in a compound outside Taos where 11 malnourished children were found earlier this month, John Lovelace said.
Abdul-Ghani was not among the 11 children found alive in the August 3 raid. In interviews with law enforcement after the raid, the children shared information about his apparent death, Lovelace said in court.
The revelation came Monday in a pretrial detention hearing to determine if the boy’s father, Siraj Wahhaj, and his four co-defendants, should remain in custody. Wahhaj was found at the compound with his sisters, Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj, his wife Jany Leveille, and another co-defendant, Lucas Morten, along with the children. Each adult faces 11 counts of child abuse. They have pleaded not guilty.
The judge denied the state’s motion to detain the five adults.
Judge Sarah Backus said the defendants can be released if they post $25,000 bond each and adhere to conditions including house arrest and GPS monitoring.
Citing their lack of criminal history, Backus said the state did not prove the defendants would be a danger to the community or to the 11 malnourished children found at the compound. The children are now in state custody.
“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.”
Prosecutors alleged the family came to New Mexico from Georgia to prepare for Abdul-Ghani’s resurrection as Jesus. With a large arsenal in tow, they set up a firearms range and trained at least two of the older children in weapons handling so they could assist the adults in “violent actions” against the government, prosecutor Timothy Hasson said.
“This was not a camping trip and this was not a simple homesteading, the kind that many people do in New Mexico,” 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. And it sheds a lot of light for the court in terms of reasonable inferences of future dangerous conduct, which is the point of this hearing.”
But a lawyer for one of the defendants said the evidence might be viewed in a different light if the defendants were “white Christians” instead of black Muslims.
“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,” Thomas Clark said.
“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.”
According to one of the children, the family arrived in New Mexico sometime in January, FBI Agent Travis Taylor said. They came at the instruction of Leveille, whom the family believed to be receiving messages from God through the angel Gabriel, Taylor testified.
When they arrived in New Mexico, Leveille instructed the family to continue performing rituals on Abdul-Ghani to expel demons from his body, Taylor said.
In the rituals, Abdul-Ghani’s father recited verses from the Quran as he held his hand on the boy’s forehead, Taylor said. According to the children, during one of those rituals, Abdul-Ghani passed out and his heart stopped beating, the officer 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.
The search for Abdul-Ghani led authorities to the compound. The father was wanted on a warrant from Georgia issued on suspicion of abducting his son. The remains of a young boy were found on the compound on August 6, the same day Abdul-Ghani would have turned 4. The remains have not been positively identified.
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, another person told investigators, according to Lovelace.
Abdul-Ghani’s mother says she last saw him in Jonesboro, Georgia, in November, when Siraj Wahhaj said he was taking their son to the park. The arrest warrant was issued for Siraj Wahhaj in December.