Threats against Taos judge prompt courthouse evacuation

Taos District Judge Sarah Backus came under fire following a controversial decision Monday to allow bail for five defendants accused of abusing 11 children at a makeshift residence near Amalia. Threats against her caused the courthouse to be evacuated. Taos News file photo

A Taos judge faced outrage and threats of violence Tuesday after declining to detain without bail five child abuse suspects law enforcement had accused of training kids to become terrorists.

While politicians attacked state District Judge Sarah Backus in news releases, one caller threatened to slit her throat, prompting authorities to lock down and evacuate the town’s courthouse.

Backus has received hundreds of threatening phone calls and emails, according to a spokesman for the state court system.

One caller told a court employee he “wished someone would come and smash her head,” Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman Barry Massey said.

Most of the messages were critical but others threatened violence and all have been turned over to state police, he added.

National attention fell on the case that began with a father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, allegedly taking his young son from the boy’s mother in Georgia and ended with allegations the child died in a sort of exorcism at a ramshackle encampment in a remote corner of Taos County — a compound law enforcement said had become the base for a terrorist plot where officials reported finding 11 other children in a state of neglect.

But prosecutors had not charged anyone with anything approaching terrorism or murder as of Tuesday.

On paper, it remained a case of child abuse with few answers about the death of the child who has yet to be officially identified.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos, whose office is prosecuting the case, said he doesn’t anticipate any additional charges being filed — at least for now.

And while Backus had set bond at $20,000 for each of the defendants, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, remained behind bars on a warrant from Georgia. The Taos News reported immigration officials were detaining one of his co-defendants, Jany Levielle, 35. She is reportedly from Haiti. And the three other co-defendants, Subhannah Wahhaj, 35; Hujrah Wahhaj, 37; and Lucas Morten, 40, remained behind bars at the Taos County jail late Tuesday afternoon.

A staffer at the jail said they were awaiting ankle bracelets, per the terms of the release, and paperwork from the court.

They face 11 third-degree felony counts each of child abuse. Morten also faces a fourth-degree felony count of harboring a fugitive.

Prosecutors had asked Backus to jail the group of defendants without bail while awaiting trial, alleging the extended family came to New Mexico on a mission from God, with Siraj Ibn Wahhaj intent on training at least two of the 11 children in firearms and tactical maneuvers. The state also alleged Siraj Ibn Wahhaj’s son, 3-year-old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, died on the compound during a ritual ceremony to banish demons from the sickly boy’s body.

The body of a young child was found on the compound during an early-August raid, but authorities have yet to identify the remains.

The endgame, prosecutors charged, was to target and kill members of American institutions — banks, government bodies, police organizations and schools. But Backus chided prosecutors during the hearing for failing to present evidence of the welfare — or lack thereof — of the 11 children taken into protective custody from the compound.

Gallegos stood by his decision to broaden the scope of evidence presented Monday beyond child abuse and said Backus’ ruling to set bail in the case rather than hold the defendants ahead of trial was “disappointing.”

“We pretty much strongly disagree with the judge, but her job is to make those calls, and she did, and we have to respect the process,” he said.

Without presenting the group’s alleged violent religious plans and details about the death of Abdul-Ghani, Gallegos said, prosecutors “really had no business going and asking for no bail,” he said.

“The whole reason they were here (in New Mexico), that was a contributory element to the child abuse, and that makes it important to us to ask the judge to deny bail,” he added.

Gallegos said he and his team are weighing whether to file an appeal or a motion for the judge to reconsider – both options available to them under the law. They may, he said, also choose to do nothing and move forward with the case as planned.

Any charges related to threats of domestic terrorism are likely to be filed federally.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Albuquerque declined to comment on what she described as an “ongoing investigative matter.”

Politicians wasted little time after Backus’ ruling late Monday in blasting the judge.

Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and former prosecutor who appointed Backus to the bench back in 2011, said the judge’s decision was “the result of liberal pretrial release rules put in place by the New Mexico Supreme Court — judicial activism at its worst — and something I have spoken against for years.”

Tom Clark, the lawyer representing Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, said Backus made the right decision given that the case is about neglect rather than terrorism.

But the focus on the defendant’s religion had stoked a fear and hatred, he said.

“When the governor weighs in and criticizes her decision, that contributes to hysteria and that contributes to threats against the judiciary,” he said. “The governor needs to back off.”

For Doug Couleur, a Santa Fe defense attorney and former prosecutor briefed on the judge’s ruling, the conditions of release were “significant restrictions” – especially given that the charges against the five defendants are at most third-degree felonies.

“Keeping in mind the rule requires the judge to impose the least restrictive conditions that will reasonably ensure the appearance of the defendant and the safety of the community, house arrest with GPS monitoring and supervised visitation are significant restrictions,” he said.

“It sounds like the judge considered all the factors of the rule and weighed them appropriately,” he added.

In a statement Tuesday, Artie Pepin, director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said Backus “carried out her responsibility” to uphold the state’s constitution and laws.

“A judge’s responsibility is to follow the law — not popular sentiment that may develop from incomplete or misleading information,” he said.