The grim discovery of 11 emaciated children on a filthy New Mexico compound, along with a cache of guns and the remains of a small boy has captured headlines for days.
It has become a case in which prosecutors allege that a family sequestered itself in a remote town to plot violence — and that a boy died during a ritual to expel demons from his body.
But the investigation started more simply, as a search for a child reported missing months ago in Georgia.
One of the latest chapters of the case ended Thursday, when officials confirmed the remains found on the New Mexico compound were that of the missing boy, 3-year-old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj.
Authorities raided the New Mexico compound August 3, putting the 11 surviving children into protective custody and arresting three women and two armed men.
The adults, including Siraj Wahhaj, 40, Abdul-Ghani’s father, have been charged with child abuse. They’ve pleaded not guilty.
Here’s what we know about the investigation that led to the raid: Abdul-Ghani’s alleged abduction by his father months earlier in Georgia.
A mom reported her 3-year-old missing in November
Siraj Wahhaj is accused of abducting Abdul-Ghani from his mother’s home in Jonesboro, Georgia, in November. The boy’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, reported the child missing days later, telling police that they left in a gold Jeep Liberty, supposedly to go to a park, but never came back.
“When I would ask (Wahhaj) where he was, he said he was on his way, he was coming soon, he was just keeping him for the night,” she told CNN earlier this month.
Police initially did not file a child abduction report because Wahhaj and Ramzi were married — she filed for divorce in December, Clayton County court documents show.
But a juvenile court judge in January issued an arrest warrant for Wahhaj for failing to let Ramzi know where he’d taken Abdul-Ghani.
The dad allegedly wanted to cast demons from son
Abdul-Ghani’s disappearance was related to his health condition and, prosecutors allege, his father’s and his co-defendants’ belief that they were on a mission from God to heal the boy.
Abdul-Ghani suffered from hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy. He had seizures and needed constant care and medical attention, Ramzi said.
After a trip to Saudi Arabia in October 2017, Siraj Wahhaj — a Muslim and the son of an imam in New York — said he wanted to stop giving his son medication and perform rituals to “cast demonic spirits” out of the boy’s body, New Mexico prosecutor John Lovelace said in a court hearing this week, citing Ramzi.
Those rituals began in Georgia and continued after his father took him from his mother’s home in November, prosecutors allege.
Prosecutors allege that Siraj Wahhaj and his co-defendants — two of his sisters; his brother-in-law Lucas Morten; and Jany Leveille, described in court testimony Monday as Wahhaj’s “Muslim wife” — went to New Mexico with their children on messages from God.
The defendants allegedly believed Leveille had received those messages from the angel Gabriel. One of the messages, an FBI agent testified Monday, was for the family to go to New Mexico, where Morten had property, to continue the rituals on Abdul-Ghani.
The dad was involved in an Alabama car crash
On December 13, a couple of weeks after he abducted his son, authorities say, Siraj Wahhaj was in a car accident in Alabama with some of his children and Leveille. It’s not clear whether Abdul-Ghani was in the car.
Wahhaj flipped a Ford Explorer on Interstate 65 in Chilton County, Alabama, north of Montgomery, according to a police traffic report.
Wahhaj told police he did not recall what caused the crash. He said he left the roadway and when he attempted to swerve back onto I-65, the Explorer rolled and came to rest on its roof, the report said.
The police report states the only people injured in the crash were a 5-year-old boy and Leveille. Both were taken to a hospital.
Wahhaj told a trooper that the family was on its way to New Mexico to go camping, said Lovelace, the New Mexico prosecutor. But the trooper noted in his report that he saw no camping equipment in the overturned vehicle.
Wahhaj also told the officer that he was married to Leveille, though she would clarify to the officer that they were not legally married, Lovelace said.
Morten picked up the family in a rental truck and drove them to New Mexico with their belongings, including a weapons cache that included handguns, a bulletproof vest and several magazines, Lovelace said. But when Georgia police questioned Morten in December, he said he didn’t know where Wahhaj was. The truck and the weapons were eventually found at the compound, authorities said.
An investigator says the boy died during a ritual
New Mexico authorities suspected the boy and his father were at the compound after learning about the abduction in May, but didn’t have enough evidence for a search warrant, the Taos County sheriff has said.
Authorities raided the compound August 3, after they learned that someone on the compound had asked a friend on the outside for money and expressed fears of starvation. A family friend in Georgia told CNN that one of Siraj Wahhaj’s sisters had sent him the message, and that he relayed the information to her father and to police.
After the raid, FBI agent Travis Taylor interviewed two teenage children who’d been on the compound, the agent testified.
The family had arrived in New Mexico in January, and the rituals on Abdul-Ghani continued in New Mexico under Leveille’s direction, the FBI agent testified, citing at least one of the children.
In the rituals, which went on for several days, Abdul-Ghani’s father recited verses from the Quran and held his hand on the boy’s forehead as he foamed from the mouth, Taylor said. During one of those rituals, according to the children, Abdul-Ghani passed out and died, the agent testified.
The family believed he had already died and that his body was inhabited by demons, Taylor said. They believed he would return four months later as Jesus and tell them which government institutions to get rid of, Taylor said.
Those who did not believe “their message” would be killed or detained “until they believed,” the agent said, citing one of the teens.
But Siraj Wahhaj’s lawyer, noting the defendants were black Muslims, said “no one would bat an eye” if the suspects were white Christians accused of shooting guns on their property or practicing their religion.
“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. 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,” Wahhaj’s attorney Thomas Clark said at Monday’s hearing.
“When black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil,” he later said outside the courthouse.
After four hours of testimony Monday, Judge Sarah Backus ruled that the suspects were not shown to be a threat and allowed them unsecured bond.
“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.”
None of the defendants had posted bond by Friday morning. Siraj Wahhaj will remain in custody despite being granted bond, Clark said, while he waits for authorities in Georgia to execute his January fugitive warrant.
Imam visits detention center
Siraj Wahhaj’s father, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, visited the detention center in Taos, New Mexico, on Friday. He was allowed to speak briefly with his two daughters, Subhannah and Hujrah, but not his son.
“This whole thing is baffling to us because we are close, we are a close-knit family,” he said.
Imam Wahhaj said he made the visit because “any father, if their children are facing any kind of difficulty, you have to be there. For us as Muslims, we are told to ascertain the facts, whatever the facts are.”
He said his daughters are in good spirits, but they weren’t able to talk about anything specific to the case. He has no idea when they are getting out and doesn’t think he will be allowed to speak to his son.
Imam Wahhaj said he did not know how long he would remain in New Mexico. When asked about his son’s faith, he didn’t answer.
“We (Muslims) are about the truth wherever it lands, even if it is against ourselves, against our parents, against anyone. We have to tell the truth and we have to be witnesses for God.”