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A Georgia boy who had been abducted by his dad last year died on a remote, ramshackle New Mexico compound during a "religious ritual," prosecutors argue

By Christine Pelisek and Elaine Aradillas
August 15, 2018 04:06 PM
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Credit: Clayton County Police Department

A missing Georgia boy who had been taken by his dad last year died on a remote, ramshackle New Mexico compound during a “religious ritual” meant to free his body from demons, prosecutors argued in court on Monday.

After the boy’s death, it was allegedly believed he would come back “as Jesus” to help guide his relatives, including other children, in attacking “corrupt institutions” such as schools and financial systems.

These accusations — based on investigator testimony and prosecutor statements in court — expand on earlier suspicions, as laid out in court documents, that the kids were being trained “to commit school shootings.”

The prosecution’s case so far describes a grim and insular world for the five adults and 11 children, ages 1 to 15, who were found living in “filthy” and allegedly dangerous conditions in Amalia on the northern edge of New Mexico.

Authorities believe the remains of a young boy found buried in an underground tunnel on the property are those of missing Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, but confirmation is pending further testing.

Abdul-Ghani’s father was one of the adults on the compound and has since been arrested.

In the days after the adults and children were found on Aug. 3, an increasingly intricate narrative of the family’s activities has been revealed by law enforcement.

However, much remains in dispute about their daily life and their true motives for relocating to New Mexico.

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The compound in Amalia, New Mexico
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office
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The compound in Amalia, New Mexico
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office

The adults — Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, Hujrah Wahhaj, Subhannah Wahhaj, Jany Leveille and Lucas Morton — are all related by blood or marriage, according to Reuters. The Wahhajs are siblings; Siraj is married to Leveille. Nine of the 11 kids on the property are Siraj’s children with Leveille, CNN reports.

The adults are each accused of 11 counts of child abuse. Morton, whose name has also been spelled Morten, is further charged with harboring a fugitive. Siraj is charged with custodial interference out of Georgia.

The suspects and the kids were first discovered during a raid by local sheriff’s officials, following a months-long investigation into Abdul-Ghani’s whereabouts.

The boy was reported missing by his mother in Clayton County, Georgia, in December, after she said he had been taken by his father to the park but then never returned.

She told authorities that her son suffered from seizures and cognitive and developmental delays and could not walk.

RELATED VIDEO: Little Boy’s Remains Found in Tunnel at Compound Where Authorities Discovered 11 Other Kids

While Siraj had been reportedly traced to New Mexico, where the FBI surveilled his compound, authorities did not feel they had sufficient probable cause to enter the property until after receiving a message from someone inside that read, in part, “We are starving and need food and water.”

Siraj’s father, a noted Muslim imam in New York City also named Siraj Wahhaj, said the message was from one of his daughters, according to CNN: It was sent via Facebook to someone in Georgia and then forwarded to him.

Authorities who entered the New Mexico compound — which was surrounded by tires and an earthen berm and included a buried travel trailer — found a harrowing scene including “no food or fresh water” and multiple loaded guns “within easy reach” of the kids.

Also discovered at the compound, in a chamber in the back of a tunnel, were the young boy’s remains.

The condition of the body was “consistent with a type of ritual burial,” Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos told PEOPLE.

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Siraj Wahhaj (left) and Lucas Morton
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office
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From left: Subhannah Wahha, Jany Leveille and Hujrah Wahhaj
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Department/AP/Shutterstock

While law enforcement officials have described the group at the compound as religious extremists and prosecutors argue there were plots of mass violence, defense attorneys say such charges are hyperbolic — even fantastical — and lack corroboration.

Siraj’s father similarly pushed back on the idea that his son was a religious extremist, but he noted that the younger Siraj could be “extreme” and high-strung, according to CNN.

At the end of Monday’s detention hearing, Judge Sarah Backus agreed with the defense.

Though she reportedly noted the disquieting nature of the prosecution’s presentation, she ruled that the defendants were not shown to be a threat and could be released under certain conditions. Those include a $20,000 bond, cooperation with child welfare officials, a requirement to obtain housing and weekly contact with their attorneys.

The accused are also not allowed to leave the prohibited jurisdiction.

“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot,” Backus said, according to Reuters. “But the state hasn’t shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was.”

Siraj’s attorney, Thomas Clark, echoes that.

“I suspect that this case is becoming about something that it shouldn’t be about,” he tells PEOPLE. “Lots of people live off the grid here. Lots of people live in compounds. Lots of people don’t trust the government. Lots of people are heavily armed and lots of people live in poverty. It just so happens that these people who are living in poverty, off the grid and don’t trust the government are also black and Muslim — and therein lies the problem with the case.”

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Kelly Golightley, who is representing Leveille, also says the state’s case is weak, specifically regarding the key child abuse charges.

According to FBI testimony in court on Monday, Leveille, Siraj’s “Islamic wife,” allegedly believed Siraj’s legal wife used “black magic” to steal Abdul-Ghani from her womb.

Says Golightley, in an argument characteristic of the other attorneys with whom PEOPLE spoke: “I thought that was pretty fantastical and there was no evidence to support that claim” beyond the agent’s testimony.

All five adults have pleaded not guilty to their charges in New Mexico.

Gallegos, the prosecutor, says his office was disappointed by the judge’s bond ruling — “We certainly felt we had enough evidence” — and is weighing whether to appeal.

“Our tactic was to not just let the judge focus on the nature of the charges themselves but what motivated them and brought them to the area and try to argue that none of these activities they were engaged in, that we know of, were anything less than dangerous to others in the community,” Gallegos explains.

Clark, Siraj’s attorney, disagrees: “There was a lot of hyperbole, there was a lot of painting with broad brushes, there was a lot of demonization — but quite frankly every one of these people had completely clean records. There is nothing on any of them to suggest or any inclination they would commit child abuse in the future.”

No charges have yet been filed in connection with the boy’s remains. However, Clark says, murder charges are possible pending the determination of cause of death.

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The compound in Amalia, New Mexico
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office

Mounting Allegations

In the days that followed the compound raid two weeks ago, a series of startling accusations have been made about what was going on inside. After bringing child abuse charges, prosecutors then alleged the kids were being trained to be school shooters, according to court documents obtained by PEOPLE.

According to allegations in those documents, Siraj Wahhaj was “conducting weapons training” at the compound and “was training children to commit school shootings.”

One of the children allegedly told a foster parent, who reported it to officials, according to the document.

However, Clark, Wahhaj’s attorney, says “this allegation that the children are being trained as school shooters, I have seen nothing to back that up in any documentation, any writing I have seen to date.”

At the detention hearing Monday, prosecutor John Lovelace said Abdul-Ghani, Wahhaj’s son, died during a ritual to “cast out demonic spirits,” Reuters reported.

FBI Special Agent Travis Taylor testified that he had interviewed Wahhaj’s 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons, who told him that Abdul-Ghani died during the ritual, which entailed his father reciting verses of the Koran and putting his hands on his son’s head, according to Reuters.

Defense attorney Clark tells PEOPLE the ritual is being intentionally cast in a negative light.

“When they talked about the ceremony, really what they are talking about is my client reading from the Koran and touching the child while reading from the Koran,” he contends. “There was no potions and there was no weird kind of ceremony. It is being described as way more nefarious. Very similar to what Christians would pray for the sick. It is no different.”

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Taylor said the rituals began in Georgia and later continued at the behest of Leveille, Wahhaj’s “islamic wife.”

Leveille allegedly said she thought Abdul-Ghani was already dead during one such ritual and was only still animated because he was possessed by demons, the paper reports.

On Tuesday, sheriff’s officials said Leveille, of Haiti, was being transferred into the custody of federal immigration officials. Further information about her possible immigration infractions was not available.

Suspect’s Father Speaks Out

At a news conference after his son’s arrest, imam Siraj Wahhaj said his three children found at the compound had “cut ties” with their family and that he hadn’t spoken with the younger Siraj since 2017, according to CNN.

“Those who know them say this is strange, so we want to find out what happened,” he said. “I feel bad as a parent that they didn’t feel comfortable enough to come to me.”

He said that others in the family have worked with police since Abdul-Ghani vanished in December and it was the message he sent along from his daughter that triggered the compound raid.

Despite his son’s temper, the elder Siraj said he was surprised by the accusations in this case: “To do something as extreme as this doesn’t make sense.”

“I am feeling a lot of emotions in so many ways,” he said. “We want to find out what happened.”

A Mom’s Hopes for Justice

Since Hakima Ramzi reported 3-year-old son Abdul-Ghani missing, she had been hoping to see him again.

On what would have been his fourth birthday, remains were found at the compound where his father was living.

“She’s focused on trying to come to grips with what’s going on,” Ramzi’s attorney, Sharif Muhammad, told PEOPLE last week. For now, he added, she is “cooperating with the investigation and seeking justice for her son.”

An arrest warrant previously obtained by PEOPLE shows Abdul-Ghani’s father was allegedly convinced that he was “possessed by the devil.”

Speaking with Georgia TV station WSB after the remains were found at the compound, Abdul-Ghani’s mom shared her heartbreak but also said she “want[s] justice.”

“I wasn’t able to save my son,” she said.