Judge hit with death threats after ruling in New Mexico compound child abuse case

Judge Sarah C. Backus, shown presiding over the hearing for the five adults charged with child abuse in the Amalia compound case, August 13, 2018. PlayRoberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Press
WATCH Judge faces backlash after New Mexico suspects freed

A New Mexico judge's life was threatened and her courthouse was placed on lockdown after she cleared the way for five defendants arrested on child abuse charges at a squalid makeshift living compound, where a 3-year-old boy's body was found, to be released on bail pending trial, officials said.

Judge Sarah Backus became the target of a backlash following her ruling Monday that prosecutors failed to show the defendants, arrested at the compound on suspicion of training 11 children to use firearms for an anti-government mission, posed a threat to the community, instead ruling that they were entitled to be released on bail pending trial.

Judge Sarah C. Backus, shown presiding over the hearing for the five adults charged with child abuse in the Amalia compound case, August 13, 2018. Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Press
Judge Sarah C. Backus, shown presiding over the hearing for the five adults charged with child abuse in the Amalia compound case, August 13, 2018.

"One caller told a court staffer that he wished someone would come and smash the judge's head. Another caller said that her throat would be slit," Barry Massey, spokesman for the New Mexico Administrative Office of Courts, told ABC News on Wednesday. "Then there were other calls that threatened violence against all the staff in the courthouse."

By Tuesday afternoon, the staff at the Taos County courthouse where Backus works had received roughly 200 angry phone calls and emails blasting her decision, Massey said.

Massey said the threats against Backus and the entire staff of the courthouse in Taos, New Mexico, prompted the sheriff's department to lock down the courthouse for several hours on Tuesday afternoon.

Sheriffs Officers patrol outside the Taos County Courthouse after it was closed due to security reasons. Judge Sarah Backus has received several threats since ordering the release of suspects arrested in a compound on the north side of the county. Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Press
Sheriff's Officers patrol outside the Taos County Courthouse after it was closed due to security reasons. Judge Sarah Backus has received several threats since ordering the release of suspects arrested in a compound on the north side of the county.

He said the angry calls and emails continued Wednesday, but the courthouse was reopened for business. The Taos County Sheriff's Office, which is housed adjacent to the courthouse, upped security at the facility.

Massey said the New Mexico State Police are investigating the threats.

Despite objections from prosecutors, the sheriff's office and the FBI, Backus set a $20,000 unsecured signature bond for each defendant, meaning they do not have to put up cash to secure the bond but are liable if they skip out on it.

She also ordered that the two men and three women wear ankle monitors, have weekly contact with their attorneys, not consume alcohol and have no firearms.

Law enforcement officers raided the compound in a remote area of Taos County near the Colorado border on Aug. 3. They found 11 children starving and living in squalid conditions on the property, officials said. Three days after the raid, authorities returned to the compound and recovered the body of a 3-year-old boy, officials said.

The five adults charged with child abuse in the Amalia compound case were in court, August 13, 2018 to see judge Sarah C. Backus. From left to right; Jany Leveille, Lucas Morton, Siraj Wahhaj, and Subhannah Wahhaj. Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Press
The five adults charged with child abuse in the Amalia compound case were in court, August 13, 2018 to see judge Sarah C. Backus. From left to right; Jany Leveille, Lucas Morton, Siraj Wahhaj, and Subhannah Wahhaj.

Arrested were Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, Lucas Morton, 40, Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35.

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said in a statement on Tuesday that Leveille, who is originally from Haiti and the alleged leader of the compound, was transferred to the custody of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Siraj Wahhaj was being held on an outstanding warrant from Georgia stemming from the allegation he kidnapped his 3-year-old son. The boy was found dead at the compound, but no evidence was presented that the child was murdered, court documents stated.

"The only evidence received by the Court regarding this child is that he was ill and disabled and that the defendants prayed over him and touched him on the forehead before he died," Backus said in a written ruling released on Tuesday.

"There was evidence to suggest that he had seizures. However, no evidence was presented to the Court regarding the child's cause of death," the judge wrote. "The child may not have received adequate medical attention. However, no evidence regarding the child's medical history, medical needs or medical attention, or lack thereof was propounded by or even referred to by the State."

The three remaining defendants are expected to be released from custody as soon as Friday.

County employees were evacuated after the Taos County Courthouse was closed due to security reasons, August 14, 2018. Judge Sarah Backus has received several threats since ordering the release of the suspects arrested in the Amalia compound case. Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Press
County employees were evacuated after the Taos County Courthouse was closed due to security reasons, August 14, 2018. Judge Sarah Backus has received several threats since ordering the release of the suspects arrested in the Amalia compound case.

Prosecutors said a foster parent of one of the children taken into state custody from the compound told investigators the children were being trained with weapons "in preparation for future school shootings," court documents stated.

Backus wrote in her ruling that she was concerned by the "troubling facts" presented by prosecutors, but said they had not shown by clear and convincing evidence that the claims of school shooting training was valid, or that the group was a danger to the community.

She wrote that state prosecutors were apparently "inviting the Court to consider media reports (that the Court has made an effort to avoid), conjecture and assumption to piece together evidence of sufficient dangerousness" to justify holding the defendants without bail.