ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Jury selection began Monday in federal court as members of an extended family confronted kidnapping and terrorism charges stemming from the search for a missing 3-year-old boy by agents who raided a squalid New Mexico encampment in 2018.
The boy’s badly decomposed remains were eventually found in an underground tunnel at the compound on the outskirts of Amalia near the Colorado line. Authorities allege the family engaged in firearms and tactical training in preparation for attacks against the government, tied to an apparent belief that the boy would be resurrected as Jesus Christ and provide instructions.
An exact cause of death was never determined amid accusations that the boy, who was sickly, had been deprived of crucial medication linked to disabilities. Federal prosecutors opted for kidnapping charges.
The two men and two women on trial have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to support planned attacks on U.S. law enforcement officers, military members and government employees. They also deny the kidnapping charges leveled against three of the defendants.
Albuquerque-based U.S. District Judge William P. Johnson has set aside four weeks for the trial, with dozens of witnesses scheduled to testify.
A grand jury indictment alleges that defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and partner Jany Leveille, a Haitian national, instructed people at the compound to be prepared to engage in jihad and die as martyrs.
Leveille also was initially charged with kidnapping and terrorism-related charges but she agreed to accept a reduced sentence on weapons charges.
Neither Leveille nor her attorneys appeared at the defense table in court Monday. Leveille came to the U.S. in 1998 on a visa and work permit that later expired and immigration authorities denied an application for permanent residency.
A federal prosecutor and Aja Brooks, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, declined to answer questions about Leveille’s whereabouts, plea agreement or her status as a potential witness at trial. A defense attorney for Leveille has declined comment.
Potential jurors were being surveyed on their opinions about the Islamic religion, Muslims and alternatives to traditional medicine.
Attorneys for the defendants have said their clients would not be facing terrorism-related charges if they were not Muslim and that prosecutors are highlighting speculative and imagined theories about terrorist activities.
Defense attorneys also called the FBI’s theories about terrorism activities at the Amalia compound speculative and unfounded. They said there were no specific threats to the general public or individuals.
The grandfather of the missing boy is the Muslim cleric Siraj Wahhaj, who leads a well-known New York City mosque that has attracted radicals over the years, including a man who later helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.
Siraj Wahhaj could not be reached immediately by phone or email, but previously said his son and namesake is high-strung but not an extremist, and his two detained daughters are the “sweetest kinds of people.”
Sheriff’s deputies and state agents arrived in August 2018 to find the defendants living with 11 hungry children without running water or sanitation at the encampment encircled by berms of tires with an adjacent shooting range. Assorted guns and ammunition were seized, authorities said.
FBI interviews with the children led authorities to the boy’s remains.
Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj was reported missing by his mother in Georgia in December 2017. Around that time, authorities say, the boy’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, set out with relatives and a cache of guns by car, ultimately reaching a New Mexico and a parcel of high-desert scrubland near a tiny, crossroads town.
Prosecutors plan to present evidence that Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille performed daily prayer rituals over the boy, even as he cried and foamed at the mouth, while depriving him of crucial medication.
They say the boy’s dead body was hidden and washed for months in the belief by Leveille that it could one day return as a messiah, who would explain what corrupt government and private institutions must be eliminated. In the 2018 raid, authorities reported seizing handwritten journals, laptops, phones and video of tactical training from the compound.
The four defendants at trial — including sisters Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhanah Wahhaj, and Subhanah’s husband, Lucas Morton — were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, providing material support to each other as potential terrorists, amid tactical drills at the New Mexico compound. Morton and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj additionally are charged with conspiracy to kill U.S. government personnel.
Kidnapping charges are pending against three defendants but not Siraj Ibn Wahhaj because of his legal status as the boy’s father.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Morton have waived their right to legal counsel and will provide their own defense, introducing themselves directly Monday to potential jurors. Several potential jurors said told the judge they would be unable to serve impartially because of the kidnapping allegations surrounding a child’s death.