In her ruling that five suspects arrested at a New Mexico compound with 11 children could be released to house arrest on $20,000 bonds, Judge Sarah C. Backus indicated she knew how the decision in the high-profile case would be received.
But, she wrote on Monday, “The canons of judicial ethics require that judges not concern themselves with public opinion. … The defendants are innocent until they are proved to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The threats started coming the next day, hundreds of hostile calls and emails flooding into the county courthouse in Taos, where she presides, after the news of her ruling spread through far-right social media circles.
The court was inundated with calls and emails, “expressing opposition to the judge’s ruling and calling the judge various derogatory words,” Barry Massey, a spokesman for the New Mexico Administrative Office of Courts, told The Post.
One caller threatened to cut Backus’s throat, Massey said, one of a handful of death threats. The severity of the messages prompted officers to lock down the court on Tuesday afternoon until its closing to prevent anyone from entering, Massey said. Some administrative officers were also evacuated, the Associated Press reported.
The court had never experienced anything like the vitriol and volume of the response, according to Massey, who said it had to set up a messaging system on its phone line to deal with the overwhelming response.
“This is a new one for them,” he said. “Talked to longtime employee — had some high-profile cases but nothing that has unleashed this kind of venomous response.”
The court’s chief judge, Jeff McElroy, and Massey both issued statements posted prominently on the court’s website, pointing to provisions in the state Constitution and criminal procedure laws.
“The New Mexico Constitution has guaranteed since statehood that people charged with a crime have a right to be released pretrial, except in limited instances,” Massey’s statement said. “The state Constitution provides that criminal defendants may be detained in jail pretrial only if prosecutors show by clear and convincing evidence that they are so dangerous that no release conditions will reasonably protect public safety.”
The strong response is the latest indication of the attention and intensity the New Mexico case has attracted since law enforcement officers raided the compound in a remote northern corner of the state on Aug. 3. There they found five adults, 11 children, multiple guns and many rounds of ammunition at what they described as a squalid desert outpost composed of a trailer sunk into the dirt, a utility truck appropriated as a makeshift bed, and an approximately 100-foot-long tunnel dug into the earth. They also found the body of a young child, whom they identified Thursday as Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, the son of one of the suspects, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj.
Prosecutors charged the five adults: Lucas Allen Morten, 40; Wahhaj, who has been accused of abducting his son in Georgia; Hujrah J. Wahhaj, 37, a sister of Siraj Wahhaj; Subhannah A. Wahhaj, 35, another sister; and Jany N. Leveille, 35, with 11 counts of felony child abuse.
The case drew intense media coverage after court documents filed in the arrest contained an allegation that the children had been brought to the compound to receive weapons training. One of the children’s foster parents told investigators the child had been trained to use an assault rifle in preparation for future shootings, prosecutors noted in court documents. And the local sheriff, whose office made the arrests, said the group was “considered extremist of the Muslim belief.”
But in her bail ruling, Backus said prosecutors did not show “clear and convincing” evidence the suspects were a danger to the community. She said the guns found were not stolen or illegal, the defendants did not have a history of criminal charges or failures to appear in court, and the evidence presented of them being “dangerous terrorists with a plot against the Country or institutions” was thin. Further, she seemed to imply she believed the defendants were being treated differently because they were Muslim.
“The Court was asked by the State to make a finding of dangerousness and a finding that no conditions of release could insure the safety of the community,” Backus wrote. “The State apparently expected the Court to take the individuals’ faith into account in making such a determination. … The Court is not aware of any law that allows the Court to take a person’s faith into consideration in making a dangerousness determination.”
The threats against Backus appear to have been stoked by anger that traveled quickly across right-wing social media accounts, many of which noted the group’s “extremist Muslim” religious affiliation or referred to the compound as a “jihad camp.” Accounts like The Red Elephants, (384,000 followers), Happy Hayride (93,000 followers) and Powdered Wig Society (293,000) posted a telephone number or email address at the court for the judge. Other Twitter accounts posted the court’s address or Backus’s photo, noting that she is a Democrat.
“Paul Manafort gets 23 hours of [solitary] confinement every day,” wrote one popular account named after the QAnon conspiracy theory on Twitter. “5 Muslim adults living on a makeshift compound with 11 malnourished children training them for school shootings get bond for $20,000. This is not justice. Remember the name: Judge Sarah Backus.”
Because of the warrant out for Wahhaj’s arrest in Georgia stemming from an accusation that he had abducted his 3-year-old son Abdul-Ghani, he will remain in detention awaiting a hearing on his potential extradition, his lawyer, Thomas Clark, told The Post. Leveille, who is from Haiti, is reportedly in the custody of federal immigration officials. It is not clear if the other defendants have been released from jail yet. They will be subject to electronic monitoring and other strict conditions when they are, per Backus’s ruling. The defendants’ bonds are only due if they do not comply with the terms of their release, Clark said.
On Thursday, New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Examiner also confirmed that the remains of a child found on the property were Abdul-Ghani, according to the Associated Press. The body had decomposed so badly that investigators were not able to determine how he had died. The boy suffered from severe health effects from a brain disease and is believed to have died in February, at the age of 3, under circumstances that are still unclear. Backus said there was evidence the child had died while in the suspects’ custody but said the court had only seen evidence they had prayed over him and touched him on the forehead before he died.
The Taos County District Attorney plans to appeal Backus’s ruling. District Attorney Donald Gallegos said the judge had all the evidence necessary to continue detaining the defendants and said he wants another “set of eyes and ears” to examine the case, the Associated Press reported.
Ben Neary contributed to this report.