Sheriff defends actions at New Mexico compound

In an exclusive interview with CNN, the sheriff who investigated the New Mexico compound where 11 malnourished children were found is defending his department's response. CNN's Scott McLean reports.

Posted: Aug 13, 2018 3:50 PM
Updated: Aug 13, 2018 4:11 PM

The case broke with a tip about starving children in a squalid New Mexico compound.

Investigators discovered 11 emaciated children wearing rags and no shoes. They also found the decomposed remains of a young boy.

It's still not clear whether the remains are those of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a boy allegedly abducted by his father. He would have turned four the day the remains were discovered.

But now the boy's father, his wife, his two sisters and another man are each accused of 11 counts of child abuse for the horrors inside the rural compound.

They have all pleaded not guilty and are expected to appear in court Monday afternoon. Here's what we know about the five adults, who may have been the last people to see Abdul-Ghani:

The father

New Mexico authorities suspected Siraj Wahhaj, 40, and his son were at the compound after learning about the abduction in May, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said.

Authorities did not seek a search warrant at the time. The big breakthrough came with the tip about hungry children that led to the raid and arrest of Wahhaj and his wife, Jany Leveille.

Wahhaj and Leveille are the biological parents of nine of the 11 children found near the rural unincorporated community of Amalia.

How the family ended up in New Mexico and what happened to Abdul-Ghani remains a mystery.

The boy's mother, who lives in Jonesboro, Georgia, last saw him in November, when Wahhaj said he was taking him to the park. They never returned. She filed for a divorce from Wahhaj the following month. An arrest warrant for the alleged abductor was issued in January.

Nearly two weeks after Abdul-Ghani's disappearance, his father flipped a Ford Explorer on Interstate 65 in Alabama.

A 5-year-old boy and Leveille were taken to a hospital, according to a police report on the December incident.

Six other children in the car ranged in age from three to 15. The birth date listed for the 3-year-old did not match Abdul-Ghani's birth date.

The boy's mother, Hakima Ramzi, said he suffers from hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy. He cannot walk and suffers from seizures, requiring constant care and medical attention, she said.

Investigators had reason to believe Wahhaj planned an exorcism and was denying Abdul-Ghani his medication, according to the search warrant used in the New Mexico raid.

The boy's paternal grandfather, a New York imam also named Siraj Wahhaj, said his son and Leveille had become "concerned" with the idea of possessions. But he said he knew nothing about plans for an exorcism.

Ramzi told CNN she never claimed Wahhaj sought to perform an exorcism. She said she told police he wanted to perform "ruqya" on the boy.

Ruqya is generally described as an Islamic version of exorcism -- though the targets are jinn, or spirits, rather than Satan.

"He just wanted to pray for Abdul-Ghani to get better," Ramzi said.

The elder Wahhaj disputed a law enforcement characterization of his son's religious beliefs as extreme. He said his son's behavior could be "extreme." He described him as high-strung, the kind of person who became angry when stopped at the airport by immigration officers.

But "to do something as extreme as this doesn't make sense," he said.

The imam said he has not spoken with his son since late 2017.

During the raid, Wahhaj was "heavily armed with an AR-15 rifle, five loaded 30-round magazines, and four loaded pistols, including one in his pocket when he was taken down," according to the Taos County sheriff's office.

New Mexico prosecutors said at least one child at the compound was being trained to commit school shootings.

The elder Wahhaj had "no knowledge" of the alleged training, said his spokesman, Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid.

The imam told reporters in New York that "everybody in my family is perplexed" by what authorities found in New Mexico.

The younger Wahhaj faces 11 counts of child abuse.

The aunts and the stepmother

The three women arrested during the raid are believed to be the mothers of the 11 emaciated children. The kids have been turned over to child welfare authorities.

Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35, are sisters of suspect Siraj Wahhaj. Their sister-in-law Jany Leveille, 35, is married to Wahhaj.

The Wahhaj's father said he hasn't heard directly from his two daughters in months. The three adult children had "cut ties" with the rest of their family, he said.

"Those who know them say this is strange, so we want to find out what happened," he said of his three children. "I feel bad as a parent that they didn't feel comfortable enough to come to me."

Subhannah Wahhaj is the author of "How I Found Myself in Egypt," according to her father.

The book jacket, on Amazon.com, describes it as the story of a young Muslim woman who leaves the US for Egypt with her husband and has her faith tested when he makes plans to marry another woman.

"That book went all over," said the elder Wahhaj, who on the jacket describes the book as "extraordinary and riveting."

He said Hujrah Wahhaj is a well-known public speaker. YouTube videos describe her as a motivational speaker.

"That's why it's surprising," he said of the allegations against her.

"Siraj, who has my name, my two daughters -- Subhannah and Hujrah Sepana -- I love them very much. To me ... obviously something (is) happening, some mental disorder. I don't know what it is. This doesn't seem like them."

Less is known about Leveille.

When Wahhaj was involved in the Alabama auto accident last year, the car was registered to Leveille, according to the police report. She was listed as a Georgia resident.

At the time of the accident, the group told police they were headed to New Mexico to go camping.

The three women each face 11 counts of child abuse "related to the neglect and abuse of the children involved," authorities said.

The family friend

After the auto accident, Lucas Morten picked up the group in Alabama, according to CNN affiliate KOAT.

Investigators said the most dangerous encounter during the raid came when they tried to arrest Morten and Wahhaj.

Both men initially refused to follow verbal orders, and Wahhaj was heavily armed, the sheriff's office said.

Morten is charged with 11 counts of child abuse and with harboring a fugitive.

One of the rescued children alleged that "Uncle Lucas" had buried Abdul-Ghani at the New Mexico property after washing the body twice, Hogrefe wrote in a court document.

New Mexico's chief medical investigator said the identification of the remains would take time because of decomposition.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a neighbor of the compound told CNN about exchanging texts with Morten in recent months.

The texts, which CNN is unable to verify independently, appear to show Morten asking for supplies, and asserting that under "God's orders" he could drive only from dusk until dawn.

"Good morning Big guy! Can i give u some gas cans and cash could uy hook me up. ... Please and thanks in advance," reads one of the texts, sent on April 26.

"Hey Bud I got $50 towards gas or whatever so my wife can ride along with your wife to get some groceries," reads another, sent on the same day.

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