The New Mexico compound leaders suspected of running a terrorist training camp are back in custody, but the district attorney whose bungling allowed them to go free is facing calls for his resignation.
Taos District Attorney Donald Gallegos has come under fire after his office missed a deadline requiring a preliminary hearing to be held within 10 days of the Aug. 3 arrests, leading judges last week to drop all child abuse charges against the five clan members.
Three were released from jail. Two days later, the FBI arrested them after U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John C. Anderson filed federal weapons and conspiracy charges against the Wahhaj defendants, one of whom, Jany Leveille of Haiti, has resided in the country illegally for 20 years.
Rep. Stevan Pearce, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, thanked federal authorities afterward for stepping in “when our state officials prove incapable of fulfilling their basic duties.”
“The state and the nation have been disgusted by the incompetence displayed by the Taos District Attorney and I renew my call for his resignation,” Mr. Pearce said in a statement. On Saturday, Mr. Pearce called for Mr. Gallegos to resign immediately.
Ms. Leveille, 35, faces federal counts of being an illegal alien in possession of firearms and ammunition. The other four defendants were charged with aiding and abetting her.
The four defendants are Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40; Hujrah Wahhaj, 37; Subhanah Wahhaj, 35, and Lucas Morton, 40, who face a maximum of 15 years in prison on the federal charges.
Law enforcement found 11 undernourished children and the dead body of 3-year-old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj at the squalid compound, which included a homemade firing range and a 100-foot tunnel used to store firearms, notebooks and perishables, according to an Aug. 31 FBI affidavit.
A child identified as John Doe 2 told authorities that Mr. Ibn Wahhaj “wanted to get an army together and train them for what he called ‘jihad,’” which meant “to kill people for Allah,” said the affidavit.
The shock over the discovery of the heavily armed compound near Amalia, New Mexico, quickly turned to outrage after judges refused to detain most of the suspects, but blame has since shifted from the court to the district attorney’s office.
New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas chastised Mr. Gallegos for refusing to accept his offers of assistance after the Taos County Sheriff’s Office conducted the raid.
Mr. Gallegos fired back in a letter denying that he declined assistance and accusing the attorney general of seeking “national press by entering the case at an early point,” as reported by KOB4. Mr. Balderas disputed the claim.
“The District Attorney has never sought meaningful, front-end advice,” Balderas spokesman David Carl said in a Thursday email. “He only sought our assistance to appeal after fatal mistakes were made by his prosecutors. While an offer to assist was made at the beginning of the case, he failed to ask for investigative or prosecutorial help, which could have changed the outcome of the state case.”
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democrat running against Mr. Pearce for governor, called the blown deadline inexcusable. “Prosecutors must work diligently to correct this outrage and their failure to do their jobs,” she said.
In an Aug. 30 statement, Mr. Gallegos reminded his critics that “you do not have all the facts” and said prosecutors are reviewing whether to refile the child abuse charges or pursue a grand jury indictment.
“While we disagree with the judges, they did their jobs,” he said on Facebook. “We will continue to do ours.”
His critics argued that the judges had no choice. District Court Judges Emilio Chavez and Jeff McElroy dismissed the child abuse charges last week but made it clear that their hands were tied.
Judge McElroy blamed the Taos prosecutors for a “complete failure to follow proper procedures in prosecuting the case.” Judge Chavez called the 10-day rule unambiguous, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Meanwhile, District Judge Susan Backus, who refused to hold four of the five defendants on a cash bond in an Aug. 14 ruling, was hamstrung by a 2016 ballot measure that changed the standard for bail from the ability of a suspect to pay to the defendant’s risk to the community.
It was left to prosecutors to prove the Wahhaj clan posed a threat, and they fell short, said retired Taos County District Judges Joseph E. Caldwell and Peggy J. Nelson.
“[A]t the time of the hearing, no charges had been filed regarding the child’s death, any firearms violations or actual threats of terrorism, and no ‘school shooter’ evidence was presented at all,” the judges said in an Aug. 30 op-ed in The Taos News.
As it turned out, the defendants stayed put because they had nowhere to go after law enforcement razed the compound.
“[T]he alleged perps never left jail. No place to go,” Bill Whaley said on the Taos Friction blog.
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