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A view of the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay(reuters_tickers)
By Andrew Hay
TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) - A three-year-old boy found buried at a New Mexico desert compound died in a ritual to "cast out demonic spirits," but his extended family believed he would "return as Jesus" to identify "corrupt" targets for them to attack, prosecutors said in court on Monday.
Prosecutors' account of an exorcism-like ritual, allegations of weapons training for children and references to martyrdom and conspiracy were aimed at persuading a judge to deny bond for the five adults charged with child abuse in the case.
But state District Judge Sarah Backus said at the end of the detention hearing in Taos, New Mexico, that she was unconvinced that prosecutors had proven the defendants were a danger to the community and set bail at $20,000 for each of them.
"The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot," Backus said in rendering her decision. "But the state hasn't shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was."
The five suspects, who had established a communal living arrangement with their children in the high-desert compound, have been in custody since authorities raided their ramshackle homestead north of Taos 10 days ago.
The two men and three women are all related as siblings or by marriage. Three are the adult children of a prominent New York City Muslim cleric who is himself the biological grandfather of nine of the children involved.
The principal suspect, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, also has been charged with abducting his severely ill three-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, from the Atlanta home of the boy's mother last December.
The body of a young boy believed to be Abdul-Ghani was found in a tunnel at the site three days after the raid. No charges have been filed in connection with the death.
A cross-country manhunt for the father and son led investigators to the 10-acre (4-hectare) compound near the Colorado border, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation had placed under surveillance before local sheriff's deputies finally moved in with a search warrant.
Eleven children, ranging from one to 15 years old and described by authorities as starving and ragged, were placed in protective custody after the Aug. 3 raid.
For now, the thrust of the government's case remains 11 counts of felony child abuse filed against each of the defendants - Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and his wife, Jany Leveille, along with his brother-in-law and sister - Lucas Morton and Subhannah Wahhaj - and a second sister, Hujrah Wahhaj.
EXORCISM AND RESURRECTION?
According to prosecutors' presentation on Monday, at least some of the children were given weapons training to defend the compound against a possible FBI raid.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Travis Taylor testified that a 15-year-old youth recounted one of the adults telling him that the spirit of the dead three-year-old would return "as Jesus" to direct the group in carrying out violent attacks. Taylor said prospective targets would include "the financial system, law enforcement, the education system."
Describing what some children had told investigators about the boy's death, prosecutor John Lovelace told the court, "It was a religious ritual carried out on Abdul-Ghani, a ritual intended to cast out demonic spirits."
"They were waiting for Abdul-Ghani to be resurrected to let them know which government institutions to get rid of," Lovelace said.
Prosecutors said in court documents filed last week that all five defendants were giving firearms instruction to the children "in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit school shootings."
Authorities also disclosed that police had previously encountered Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, Leveille and seven of the children last December when they were involved in a traffic accident in Alabama.
Lovelace said police at the time found weapons and ammunition in the vehicle. But authorities let the group go after Ibn Wahhaj explained he was licensed to carry the guns as a private security agent and that he and the others were en route to New Mexico for a camping trip.
Another prosecutor, Timothy Hasson, also said that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj had sent his brother a letter that was "an invitation to come to the compound and pursue his intent to become a martyr."
Hasson added, "In the 21st century I think we all know what that means."
Defense lawyer Thomas Clark, representing Ibn Wahhaj, told reporters afterward that prosecutors were applying a double standard to his client because of his Muslim faith.
“If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye over the idea of faith healing, or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture," Clark said. But when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil.”
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos; Writing by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Robert Birsel, Tom Brown and Michael Perry)