Taos DA: Grand jury won’t hear child abuse cases Thursday

September 28, 2018

TAOS — District Attorney Donald Gallegos announced this week that child abuse cases involving five people arrested in August at a compound near Amalia will not be heard by a grand jury Thursday as originally planned.

State District Court judges had dismissed the charges late last month after prosecutors failed to meet a required deadline to hold hearings in the cases.

The suspects are now facing federal firearms and conspiracy charges, and Gallegos said he plans to wait until those cases are resolved before pursuing the state charges.

“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 wrote in a news release posted Wednesday morning on his Facebook page.

The five people arrested at the makeshift dwelling in northern Taos County — Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, Lucas Morton, 40, Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35 — initially faced 11 counts each of child abuse. Investigators said they found 11 children starving and clothed in rags during an Aug. 3 raid at the crudely built compound just north of Amalia near the Colorado border. The children were taken into state custody.

Three days later, authorities found the remains of a 3-year-old boy buried in a 100-foot tunnel dug at the base of the compound.

Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille later were charged with felony child abuse in the death of the boy, Wahhaj’s epileptic son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, whose mother had reported him missing in early December. Authorities said they believe the boy died at the compound in either late December or February 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.

The child abuse were all dropped Aug. 29 after prosecutors failed to hold preliminary hearings within a 10-day deadline.

Two days later, federal firearms charges were filed against Leveille, a Haitian immigrant who allegedly had been living illegally in the U.S. for about 20 years and was accused of unlawfully possessing firearms. The other four defendants were charged with aiding, abetting and conspiring to provide Leveille with the weapons, including several handguns, rifles fitted with scopes and an AR-15.

At a pretrial detention hearing Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, federal Judge Kirtan Khalsa ruled to detain the defendants until trial.

According to court records, a jury trial in the federal case may be held as early as Nov. 5.

The state charges never made it that far. Some officials, including state lawmakers and New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, blame District Attorney Gallegos and his prosecutors, saying they made critical errors that caused the cases to be dropped.

In the days after the cases were dismissed, Balderas and others publicly criticized Gallegos, who 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 callers have told the Taos News that Gallegos was not appearing at his office during regular business hours, and the 16-year district attorney openly acknowledged those rumors were true during an interview this week.

“I’ll sometimes come in the mornings and then work remotely in the afternoon,” Gallegos said. “Sometimes I’m here two days a week.”

But he said he maintains constant contact with his team. “I don’t stop. It’s 24/7,” he said.

Gallegos firmly denied that his absences had anything to do with the case dismissals, saying he chooses to train his team to operate efficiently and independently.

While he blamed the missed deadline on a misunderstanding between him and a judge, he acknowledged he was ultimately responsible for the error.

“If they [members of 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 said there wouldn’t have been enough time to prepare any of the 11 children in the case to testify at a preliminary hearing by the deadline.

Gallegos said there is no time restriction for convening a grand jury to review the boy’s death and determine whether to bring charges in that case. There’s at least a five-year window to bring charges tied to possible neglect of the other 11 children, he said.

This story first appeared in the Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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