New Mexico blast involving fireworks injures several firefighters

Smoke from an explosion is seen in Roswell, New Mexico, U.S., June 5, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Roswell Today/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Several firefighters were injured on Wednesday, two seriously, in an explosion at a building in Roswell, New Mexico, where fireworks were being stored for the city’s annual July Fourth celebrations, police and city officials said.

The blast occurred shortly after noon at a building on the grounds of the Roswell International Air Center, a commercial airport on the southern outskirts of the town, said Todd Wildermuth, a spokesman for the city.

He said about a dozen firefighters were in and around the building “doing some preparation work” for the city’s upcoming July Fourth Independence Day fireworks display when the explosion occurred.

He said two firefighters suffered serious injuries and were taken to local hospitals. A number of others who sustained minor injuries were treated on the scene.

The cause of the blast was under investigation, he said. The fireworks storage building, at the far west end of the airport property, is far enough away from the airport itself that flight operations were not affected, Wildermuth said.

Roswell, a city of about 48,000 residents in southeastern New Mexico about 200 miles southeast of the state capital, Albuquerque, is perhaps best known for the reported crash of an unidentified flying object in 1947 near what was then known as the Roswell Army Air Field.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)

New Mexico counties revolt against migrant releases

FILE PHOTO: New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., March 5, 2019. Picture taken March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RC1FD8531B60/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Two more New Mexico counties have declared their opposition to taking in migrants in a growing revolt against federal authorities dropping off a surge in Central American families in the state’s rural, southern communities.

The record influx of asylum seekers has overwhelmed border detention facilities and shelters, forcing U.S. immigration authorities to bus migrants to nearby cities and even fly them to California.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, has received over 6,000 migrants since April 12. Deming, population 14,183, gets 300 to 500 a day, according to City Administrator Aaron Sera.

Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of a border security crisis and advocated a humanitarian response. She is in Washington seeking federal funds to reimburse cities that give support.

But some New Mexico counties say they want nothing to do with sheltering migrants, with officials saying the governor’s approach may worsen the border crisis.

Sierra County, population 11,116, was one of two Republican-controlled New Mexico counties to pass resolutions on Tuesday evening opposing the relocation of migrants to their communities.

Sierra County also called on Trump to close the border to immigration to end the crisis.

“We have to take care of our veterans, our seniors, our residents, first and foremost,” said County Manager Bruce Swingle. “We’re a very impoverished county.”

Sierra County has a median annual household income of $29,690 and a 21 percent poverty rate, according to Data USA.

‘FEEDING PIGEONS’

To the east, Lincoln County passed a resolution that it was not prepared to spend taxpayer dollars on housing “illegal immigrants,” said Commissioner Tom Stewart.

“We have a tight budget and need to focus on a new hospital that we are building,” Stewart said. “As long as we continue to extend citizen benefits to unregistered aliens the flows will continue.”

The moves followed a similar May 2 resolution by neighboring Otero County.

County Commission Chairman Couy Griffin said sheltering migrants sent the wrong message to other Central Americans thinking of leaving their homes and would deepen the border crisis.

“If you begin to feed pigeons in the parking lot, pretty soon you have every pigeon in town,” Griffin said.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said there was no evidence humanitarian aid encouraged people to leave their homes.

“They are moving because they have no other choice and its frankly un-American to suggest we close our doors to people in need,” he said.

The border situation is taking a tragic toll on the migrants themselves. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees unaccompanied child migrants, said a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in its custody in September, bringing to six the number of children who have died in U.S. custody, or shortly after release, in the last eight months.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Self-driving trucks begin mail delivery test for U.S. Postal Service

The TuSimple self-driving truck is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 20, 2019. TuSimple/Handout via REUTERS

By Heather Somerville

(Reuters) – The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday started a two-week test transporting mail across three Southwestern states using self-driving trucks, a step forward in the effort to commercialize autonomous vehicle technology for hauling freight.

San Diego-based startup TuSimple said its self-driving trucks will begin hauling mail between USPS facilities in Phoenix and Dallas to see how the nascent technology might improve delivery times and costs. A safety driver will sit behind the wheel to intervene if necessary and an engineer will ride in the passenger seat.

If successful, it would mark an achievement for the autonomous driving industry and a possible solution to the driver shortage and regulatory constraints faced by freight haulers across the country.

The pilot program involves five round trips, each totaling more than 2,100 miles (3,380 km) or around 45 hours of driving. It is unclear whether self-driving mail delivery will continue after the two-week pilot.

“The work with TuSimple is our first initiative in autonomous long-haul transportation,” USPS spokeswoman Kim Frum said. “We are conducting research and testing as part of our efforts to operate a future class of vehicles which will incorporate new technology.”

TuSimple and the USPS declined to disclose the cost of the program, but Frum said no tax dollars were used and the agency relies on revenue from sales of postage and other products. TuSimple has raised $178 million in private financing, including from chipmaker Nvidia Corp and Chinese online media company Sina Corp.

The trucks will travel on major interstates and pass through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The TuSimple self-driving truck is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 20, 2019. TuSimple/Handout via REUTERS

The TuSimple self-driving truck is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters May 20, 2019. TuSimple/Handout via REUTERS

“This run is really in the sweet spot of how we believe autonomous trucks will be used,” said TuSimple Chief Product Officer Chuck Price. “These long runs are beyond the range of a single human driver, which means today if they do this run they have to figure out how to cover it with multiple drivers in the vehicle.”

The goal is to eliminate the need for a driver, freeing shippers and freight-haulers from the constraints of a worsening driver shortage. The American Trucking Associations estimates a shortage of as many as 174,500 drivers by 2024, due to an aging workforce and the difficulty of attracting younger drivers.

A new safety law requiring truck drivers to electronically log their miles has further constrained how quickly and efficiently fleets can move goods.

TuSimple’s tie-up with the USPS marks an achievement for the fledgling self-driving truck industry, and follows Swedish company Einride’s entry into freight delivery using driverless electric trucks on a public road, announced last week.

The developments contrast with retrenching efforts by robotaxi companies such as General Motors Co unit Cruise, Uber Technologies Inc and startup Drive.ai, which have stumbled in building self-driving cars that can anticipate and respond to humans and navigate urban areas, an expensive and technologically challenging feat.

Price said self-driving trucks have advantages over passenger cars, including the relative ease of operating on interstates compared with city centers, which reduces mapping requirements and safety challenges involving pedestrians and bicyclists.

(Reporting by Heather Somerville in San Francisco; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Leader of armed group at U.S. border boasted of assassination training: FBI

Larry Mitchell Hopkins appears in a police booking photo taken at the Dona Ana County Detention Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, U.S., April 20, 2019. Dona Ana County Detention Center/Handout via REUTERS

By Andrew Hay and Julio-Cesar Chavez

TAOS, N.M./LAS CRUCES, N.M. (Reuters) – The leader of an armed group stopping undocumented migrants who cross into the United States from Mexico had boasted that his members had trained to assassinate former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an FBI agent said in court papers on Monday.

Larry Hopkins was arrested Saturday on a weapons charge. His camouflage-wearing armed United Constitutional Patriots members claim to have helped U.S. officials detain some 5,600 migrants in New Mexico in the last 60 days.

The UCP says its two-month presence at the border is intended to support U.S. Border Patrol, which has been overwhelmed by record numbers of Central American families seeking asylum.

Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union accused the UCP of being a “fascist militia” whose members illegally detain and kidnap migrants by impersonating law enforcement. New Mexico’s Democratic Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, on Friday ordered an investigation of the group. She said “menacing or threatening migrant families and asylum-seekers is absolutely unacceptable and must cease.”

The FBI in court papers said that while it was investigating allegations of “militia extremist activity” in 2017, witnesses accused Hopkins of saying the UCP was planning to assassinate Obama, former Democratic presidential candidate Clinton and financier George Soros.

On Monday, Hopkins appeared in court in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to face charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The FBI said it found guns during a 2017 visit to his home.

Defense attorney Kelly O’Connell said Hopkins planned to plead not guilty and noted that the charges were unrelated to UCP’s actions at the border.

“This is not even dealing with what’s going on right here,” O’Connell said.

UCP spokesman Jim Benvie previously said the group was helping the U.S. Border Patrol and publicizing the “border crisis.” He was not immediately available for comment.

Crowdfunding sites PayPal and GoFundMe last week barred the group, citing policies not to promote hate or violence after the ACLU called the UCP a “fascist militia.”

FBI Special Agent David Gabriel said in a criminal complaint filed on Monday that in October 2017 the agency received reports a militia was being run out of Hopkins’ home in Flora Vista, New Mexico.

PISTOLS, RIFLES

When agents entered the home they collected nine firearms, ranging from pistols to rifles, Horton was illegally in possession of as he had at least one prior felony conviction, according to the complaint. The FBI said in court papers that in 2006, Hopkins was convicted of criminal impersonation of a peace officer and felony possession of a firearm and that in 1996 he was also convicted on a firearms charge.

Hopkins, the UCP’s national commander, told the agents that his common-law wife owned the weapons in question, according to court papers.

At the time, the FBI had received information that the UCP had around 20 members and was armed with AK-47 rifles and other firearms.

“Hopkins also allegedly made the statement that the United Constitutional Patriots were training to assassinate George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama” because it believed that they supported left-wing, anti-fascist protesters, the complaint said.

Former state and federal prosecutor David S. Weinstein said Border Patrol’s tacit allowance of the UCP to operate may have allowed it to go beyond what citizens are legally allowed to do.

“To the extent where the FBI has got involved, I think it’s escalated to a point where they need to send a stronger message out to them that ‘No, we told you not to do this,'” said Weinstein, a partner at the law firm of Hinshaw and Culbertson.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Editing by Scott Malone, Tom Brown and David Gregorio)

FBI arrests leader of armed group stopping migrants in New Mexico

FILE PHOTO: U.S. soldiers walk next to the border fence between Mexico and the United States, as migrants are seen walking behind the fence, after crossing illegally into the U.S. to turn themselves in, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., in this picture taken from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, April 3, 2019. The writing on the wall reads, "Help us Jesus Christ." REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – The FBI on Saturday said it had arrested Larry Hopkins, the leader of an armed group that is stopping undocumented migrants after they cross the U.S.-Mexico border into New Mexico.

The arrest came two days after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused the group of illegally detaining migrants and New Mexico’s Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered an investigation.

Hopkins, 69, also known as Johnny Horton, was arrested in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on a federal complaint charging him with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.

“We’re not worried about it, he’s going to be cleared,” said Jim Benvie, a spokesman for the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), blaming his arrest on political pressure from Lujan Grisham.

Hopkins is the “national commander” of the UCP, which has had around half a dozen members camped out on a rotating basis near Sunland Park since late February.

PATRIOTS OR FASCISTS?

The UCP describes itself as a “patriot group” helping U.S. Border Patrol cope with record numbers of Central American families crossing the border to seek asylum.

Dressed in camouflage and carrying rifles, UCP members have helped U.S. Border Patrol detain over 5,600 migrants in the last two months, Benvie said. Videos posted online by the group show members telling migrants to stop, sit down, and wait for agents to arrive. Critics accuse the UCP of impersonating law enforcement.

Crowdfunding sites PayPal and GoFundMe on Friday barred the group, citing policies not to promote hate or violence, after the ACLU called the UCP a “fascist militia.”

“Today’s arrest by the FBI indicates clearly that the rule of law should be in the hands of trained law enforcement officials, not armed vigilantes,” New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas said in a statement of Hopkins’s arrest.

Hopkins was previously arrested in Oregon in 2006 on suspicion of impersonating a police officer and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

NO STANDOFFS

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said in a statement it did not support citizens taking law enforcement into their own hands and instead encouraged the public to be its eyes and ears on the border.

Benvie said the UCP was doing just that and had the support of local Border Patrol and police.

Mostly military veterans, UCP members carry weapons for self-defense and at no time pointed guns at migrants, as they have been accused of, Benvie said.

Despite having funding sources cut off, Benvie said the group’s online support had swelled since it came under attack this week. Its Facebook followers have more than doubled since Thursday.

Asked what the group would do if told to leave by state police, Benvie said they would probably go and, if they felt the order violated their constitutional rights, sue the state of New Mexico.

“There’s not going to be any standoffs, this isn’t the Bundy Ranch,” Benvie said, in reference to a 2014 armed confrontation in Nevada.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Christopher Cushing)

Defiant U.S. sheriffs push gun sanctuaries, imitating liberals on immigration

A view of the Cibola County Sheriff's Department sign in Grants, New Mexico, U.S., February 28, 2019. Picture taken February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – A rapidly growing number of counties in at least four states are declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, refusing to enforce gun-control laws that they consider to be infringements on the U.S. constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Organizers of the pro-gun sanctuaries admit they took the idea from liberals who have created immigration sanctuaries across the United States where local officials defy the Trump administration’s efforts to enforce tougher immigration laws.

Now local conservatives are rebelling against majority Democratic rule in the states. Elected sheriffs and county commissioners say they might allow some people deemed to be threats under “red flag” laws to keep their firearms. In states where the legal age for gun ownership is raised to 21, authorities in some jurisdictions could refuse to confiscate guns from 18- to 20-year-olds.

Democrats took control of state governments or widened leads in legislative chambers last November, then followed through on promises to enact gun control in response to an epidemic of mass shootings in public spaces, religious sites and schools.

Resistance to those laws is complicating Democratic efforts to enact gun control in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Illinois, even though the party holds the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature in all four states.

The sanctuary movement is exposing the rift between rural and urban America as much as the one between the Republican and Democratic parties, as small, conservative counties push back against statewide edicts passed by big-city politicians.

“If they want to have their own laws, that’s fine. Don’t shove them on us down here,” said Dave Campbell, a member of the board of Effingham County, Illinois, about 215 miles (350 km) south of Chicago.

Backers of the sanctuary movement say they want to take it nationwide. Leaders in all four states where it has taken hold have formed a loose alliance, sometimes sharing strategies or texts of resolutions. They also say they are talking with like-minded activists in California, New York, Iowa and Idaho.

As it grows, the rebellion is setting up a potential clash between state and local officials.

In Washington, nearly 60 percent of the voters in November approved Initiative 1639, which raises the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic rifle to 21, enhances background checks and increases the waiting period to buy such guns to 10 days.

The law is due to take effect in July, but sheriffs in more than half of Washington’s 39 counties have pledged not to enforce it, pro-gun activists say, and five counties have passed resolutions to the same effect.

Governor Jay Inslee has firmly backed I-1639 and Attorney General Bob Ferguson has advised sheriffs “they could be held liable” if they allow a dangerous person to acquire a firearm later used to do harm.

Sheriff Bob Songer of Klickitat County, population 22,000, called Ferguson’s warning a “bluff” and said he would not enforce I-1639 because he considered it unconstitutional.

“Unfortunately for the governor and the attorney general, they’re not my boss. My only boss is the people that elected me to office,” Songer said.

GAINING MOMENTUM

Support for Second Amendment sanctuaries has gained momentum in recent weeks, especially among county boards in New Mexico and Illinois.

Sixty-three counties or municipalities in Illinois have passed some form of a firearms sanctuary resolution and more are likely to, Campbell said.

Twenty-five of New Mexico’s 33 counties have passed resolutions to support sheriffs who refuse to enforce any firearms laws that they consider unconstitutional, according to the New Mexico Sheriffs Association. In some cases hundreds of pro-gun activists have packed county commissioner meetings.

Grants Mayor Martin Hicks speaks during the county commission meeting in Grants, New Mexico, U.S., February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

Grants Mayor Martin Hicks speaks during the county commission meeting in Grants, New Mexico, U.S., February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm

In Oregon, voters in eight counties approved Second Amendment Preservation Ordinances last November that allow sheriffs to determine which state gun laws to enforce.

Organizers in Oregon plan to put even more defiant “sanctuary ordinance” measures on county ballots in 2020 that will direct their officials to resist state gun laws.

Such sanctuary resolutions could face legal challenges but backers say they have yet to face a lawsuit, in part because the Washington initiative has yet to take effect and the Illinois and New Mexico legislation has yet to pass.

The chief counsel for a leading U.S. gun-control group questioned the legality of the sanctuary movement, saying state legislatures make laws and courts interpret them, not sheriffs.

“It should not be up to individual sheriffs or police officers deciding which laws they personally like,” said Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “This attitude shows a disrespect for the way our system of government is supposed to operate.”

In New Mexico, the legislature is moving forward with a slate of gun-control bills. One would enhance background checks and another would create a red-flag law keeping guns out of the hands of people deemed dangerous by a judge.

The New Mexico Sheriffs Association is leading the resistance, saying the red-flag law would violate due process rights and was unnecessary given current statutes.

Tony Mace, sheriff of Cibola County and chairman of the statewide group, said the background check law would impose regulations on hunting buddies or competitive shooters every time they share guns, and he refuses to spend resources investigating such cases.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham accused the rebellious sheriffs of falsely promoting the idea that “someone is coming for their firearms,” saying none of the proposed laws infringe on Second Amendment rights.”It’s an exhausting charade,” Lujan Grisham said.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Grant McCool)

Teen from New Mexico compound says he was trained for jihad: FBI

FILE PHOTO: Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew HayREUTERS/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A 13-year-old boy who was part of group taken into custody at a squalid New Mexico compound last month has told FBI agents his mother’s boyfriend was training him to conduct “jihad” against non-believers, according to federal court documents.

The boy was among 11 children and five adults living at the compound in Taos County when it was raided on Aug. 3 by local sheriff’s deputies who discovered a cache of firearms and the children living without food or clean water. The dead body of a three-year-old boy was found buried at the site later.

They initially faced state charges, then on Friday, the five adults including a Haitian woman described as the group’s leader, 35-year-old Jany Leveille, were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and accused of conspiracy and firearms offenses.

In an affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint, an FBI special agent wrote that Leveille’s 13-year-old son told investigators that his mother’s boyfriend, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, wanted to “get an army together” and train them for jihad.

The boy told agents that Ibn Wahhaj trained him and another of Leveille’s teenage sons in firearms and military techniques, including rapid reloads and hand-to-hand combat, and told them jihad meant killing non-believers on behalf of Allah, according to the affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.

The 13-year-old also told the FBI that his mother believed she received messages from God, and that he watched her and Ibn Wahhaj perform supposed “exorcism” rituals over the three-year-old boy, including one during which the boy choked and his heart stopped, according to the special agent’s affidavit.

The teenager said his mother and others at the compound told him not to talk to anyone about the three-year-old ever being at the compound because they would “all go to jail.”

Defense lawyers have said that the five adults were exercising their constitutional rights to practice their religion and own firearms, and that the group is being discriminated against because they are black and Muslim. The defense attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday.

The five defendants came under FBI surveillance in May after Leveille wrote a letter to Ibn Wahhaj’s brother asking him to join them and become a “martyr,” state prosecutors have said.

They are due to appear in court in Albuquerque on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Marguerita Choy)

New Mexico family believed dead boy’s spirit would lead attacks: prosecutors

Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A 3-year-old boy found buried at a New Mexico desert compound died in a ritual to “cast out demonic spirits,” but his extended family believed he would “return as Jesus” to identify “corrupt” targets for them to attack, prosecutors said in court on Monday.

Prosecutors’ account of an exorcism-like ritual, allegations of weapons training for children and references to martyrdom and conspiracy were aimed at persuading a judge to deny bond for the five adults charged with child abuse in the case.

Defense attorney Thomas Clark (R) sits next to his client, defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, defense attorney Marie Legrand Miller (2nd L) and her client Hujrah Wahhaj (L) during a hearing on charges of child abuse in which they were granted bail in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S. August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

Defense attorney Thomas Clark (R) sits next to his client, defendant Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, defense attorney Marie Legrand Miller (2nd L) and her client Hujrah Wahhaj (L) during a hearing on charges of child abuse in which they were granted bail in Taos County, New Mexico, U.S. August 12, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

However, state District Judge Sarah Backus said at the end of the four-hour detention hearing she remained unconvinced that the defendants posed a danger to the community and set bail at $20,000 for each of them.

“The state alleges that there was a big plan afoot,” Backus said in rendering her decision. “But the state hasn’t shown to my satisfaction, in clear and convincing evidence, what that plan was.”

Defense attorneys said prosecutors sought to criminalize their clients for being African-Americans of Muslim faith.

“If these people were white and Christian, nobody would bat an eye over the idea of faith healing, or praying over a body or touching a body and quoting scripture,” defense lawyer Thomas Clark told reporters after the hearing. “But when black Muslims do it, there seems to be something nefarious, something evil.”

Under terms of the judge’s order, four defendants were expected to be placed under house arrest with electronic ankle bracelets to ensure they remain within Taos County for the duration of the case.

The five suspects, who had established a communal living arrangement with their children in the high-desert compound, have been in custody since authorities raided their ramshackle homestead north of Taos 10 days ago.

The two men and three women are all related as siblings or by marriage. Three are the adult children of a prominent New York City Muslim cleric who is himself the biological grandfather of nine of the children involved.

The principal suspect, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, has also been charged with abducting his severely ill 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, from the Atlanta home of the boy’s mother in December.

Clark said Ibn Wahhaj would remain in custody due to a fugitive warrant against him in Georgia stemming from the cross-country manhunt that led investigators to the New Mexico compound.

The body of a young boy believed to be his son was found in a tunnel at the site three days after the raid. No charges have been filed in connection with the death.

For now, the thrust of the government’s case remains 11 counts of felony child abuse filed against each of the defendants – Ibn Wahhaj and his wife, Jany Leveille, along with his brother-in-law and sister – Lucas Morton and Subhannah Wahhaj – and a second sister, Hujrah Wahhaj.

The 11 children, ranging from one to 15 years old and described by authorities as starving and ragged when they were found, were placed in protective custody after the Aug. 3 raid.

WEAPONS AND RITUALS

According to prosecutors’ presentation on Monday, some of the children were given weapons training to defend the compound against a possible raid by law enforcement. However, the government said there was more to it than that.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Travis Taylor testified that the 15-year-old son of Ibn Wahhaj recounted one of the adults telling him the spirit of the dead 3-year-old would return “as Jesus” to direct the group in carrying out violent attacks. Taylor said prospective targets would include “the financial system, law enforcement, the education system.”

Prosecutor John Lovelace said the 3-year-old boy died during “a religious ritual” intended to “cast out demonic spirits.”

Abdul-Ghani stopped breathing, lost consciousness and died during a ceremony in which his father put his hand on the boy’s head and recited verses from the Koran, Taylor testified, citing interviews with Ibn Wahhaj’s 15-year-old and 13-year-old sons.

Prosecutors said in court documents last week that all five defendants were giving firearms instruction to the children “in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit school shootings.”

Authorities acknowledged in court on Monday that police had previously encountered Ibn Wahhaj, Leveille and seven of the children in December when they were involved in a traffic accident in Alabama.

Lovelace said police at the time found weapons and ammunition in the vehicle. Authorities let the group go after Ibn Wahhaj explained he was licensed to carry the guns as a private security agent and that he and the others were en route to New Mexico for a camping trip.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos; Writing by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tom Brown, Michael Perry and Paul Tait)

Off-the-grid dream becomes nightmare in New Mexico compound

Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

By Andrew Hay

AMALIA, N.M. (Reuters) – One of the leading members of a group prosecutors accused of abusing children at a New Mexico compound struggled with his plan to live off the grid after he underestimated a harsh mountain desert climate and settled on the wrong plot of land.

Relatives and neighbors say things began to go downhill for Lucas Morton, 39, shortly after he arrived in this vast alpine valley about 40 miles (64 km) north of Taos in a white moving van last December.

His brother-in-law Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, wanted in Georgia for child abduction, soon joined them together with his wife, sister, and children.

The families set up home on a 10-acre plot of land that was near to one owned by Morton, a carpenter, but which actually belonged to U.S. Army veteran Jason Badger. The vet filed a court complaint but the Morton and Wahhaj families stayed on the land.

With snow and bitter north winds, the families began to suffer. At the suggestion of neighbors, Morton dug a hole and put a camping trailer in it to seek shelter.

A view of the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

A view of the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

Land is cheap in the valley, around $850 an acre, but winter temperatures can drop to -30 Fahrenheit (-34 C). Attempts at communal living in northern New Mexico have struggled or failed, going back to 1970s’ communes.

The adults and 11 children used wood to cook, hauled water from neighbors’ wells and got heat from propane heaters. Their shelters kept blowing away, a neighbor said.

Morton was one of five adults arrested at the compound on Aug. 3 on child abuse charges and accused by prosecutors of giving weapons training to a child to carry out school shootings.

No-one was specifically charged over the school shooting accusation and Defense Attorney Aleksandar Kostich told reporters that prosecutors had provided no evidence of the allegation, which came from a foster parent who is caring for one of the children.

Morton was also charged with harboring a felon, Ibn Wahhaj, who was armed with an AR-15 rifle, five magazines of ammunition, and four handguns when arrested, according to police.

Ibn Wahhaj is accused of abducting his seriously-ill, three-year-old son Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj in December from his mother in Georgia. On Monday a body, believed to be that of the boy was found buried at the compound, police said.

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe first referred to the suspects as “extremist of the Muslim belief,” but declined to elaborate when later asked about it by reporters.

Public defenders representing the five adults, who are in Taos County jail, did not respond to requests for comment.

Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. Photo taken August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

‘GET OUT OF SOCIETY’

Morton and his 15-year-old nephew Mohammed last November attended a four-week, $2,500 course in Taos on how to build an “earthship” – an eco-house made largely of earth-filled tires.

“All they wanted to do was get out of society, get away, homestead and live a peaceful life by themselves,” said Morton’s father Gerard Jabril Abdulwali, 64.

Inside Morton’s abandoned van at the compound, “I love my family” is written over hearts drawn on the first page of a notebook belonging to “Aisha,” one of his four children.

There are signs the group made friends locally.

A local man gave Morton hundreds of tires to build an earthship home. A neighbor gave him wood to build bunk beds, and another helped them hook up solar panels.

These people said police drones began to circle the area in late May or June. Badger told local media he had earlier informed Georgia police that the abducted boy was at Morton’s home.

In the next months, the home began to look more like a compound. The families stacked tires around it and built what look like defensive walls. A 150-foot tunnel leads to what appear to be escape holes among sagebrush and Chamisa bushes.

“I got the feeling Lucas didn’t want what he was in anymore,” said neighbor Tyler Anderson, 41, a car-body technician, who showed Morton how to wire up solar panels.

Anderson said near daily target shooting at the house stopped once the drones appeared.

The arrests at the compound made one neighbor, who described himself only as “Quincy,” stand at his gate and cry.

He and other locals disputed police reports the Morton and Wahhaj children were found ragged and starving.

“I made sure everyone in that place had shoes and clothes. They weren’t hungry,” said the man.

Morton’s wife Subhannah Wahhaj, 35, regularly went grocery shopping with Quincy’s wife. Their last trip, was on Aug. 2, Quincy said. Police launched the raid the next day.

(Adds name of army veteran in paragraph 4, corrects name to Morton from Morgan in paragraph 5)

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Alistair Bell)

New Mexico child abuse suspects accused of training children for shootings

Conditions at a compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken into protective custody for their own health and safety after a raid by authorities, are shown in this photo near Amalia, New Mexico, U.S., provided August 6, 2018. Taos County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Five adults charged with abusing 11 children at a New Mexico compound, where they were found ragged and starving, were training those children to use firearms to commit school shootings, prosecutors said in court documents on Wednesday.

The principal suspect, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, also was charged with abducting his 3-year-old son from his home in Atlanta last December, prompting a cross-country manhunt that led authorities to the compound they raided last Friday north of Taos, New Mexico.

Remains of a young boy believed to be the missing child were found on the property on Monday, on what would have been his fourth birthday, but have not been positively identified, authorities said. The 11 children found alive, ranging in age from 1 to 15 years old, were placed in protective custody.

At an arraignment on Wednesday, Mahhaj and his four co-defendants, Lucas Morton and three women presumed to be the mothers of the 11 surviving children, each pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of felony child abuse. Morton also was charged with harboring a fugitive.

Prosecutors made no mention of motive or ideology in court filings or during court proceedings on Wednesday.

In petitions seeking to detain all five suspects without bail, prosecutors said each was under investigation in the boy’s death.

No weapons charges were filed in the case, but prosecutors said the defendants were suspected of training children “with weapons in furtherance of a conspiracy to commit school shootings.”

Prosecutors said the allegation of weapons training was based on statements from a foster parent for one of the children.

SHOOTING RANGE

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe referred over the weekend to the suspects as “extremists of Muslim belief,” but he declined to elaborate when asked about it on Tuesday by reporters.

The women, who appeared in court on Wednesday with white sheets over their heads, were identified as Jany Leveille, Subhannah Wahhaj and Hujrah Wahhaj. One of the men wore a towel over his head in the style of a Mideastern keffiyeh, or headdress.

Hogrefe said on Tuesday that investigators found a shooting range at one end of the squalid compound, situated near the Colorado border.

The sheriff has said he sought a search warrant for the compound after a distress message was passed on to authorities in Georgia and shared with his office. He said the FBI was also investigating.

Wahhaj, 39, whose first name was mistakenly presented in some court documents as Huraj, has been described as being in control of the compound. He was heavily armed when taken into custody, Hogrefe said.

According to court documents, when the children were found they were in rags and appeared to have gone days without food, and loaded firearms were within their reach.

Aleksandar Kostich, a public defender representing the five adults, said the identical wording of the allegations about weapons training in each petition suggested that prosecutors were less than certain about the information they were given.

A man who identified himself to reporters as Gerard Jabril Abdulwali, 64, of Alexandria, Egypt, and the father of Morton, attended the court hearing, during which he shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.”

He told reporters afterward that was in the United States for medical reasons and had not heard from his son since last year until he received a text message from Morton last Thursday that said “they were starving.”

Abdulwali said his son and the other suspects were “peaceful adult settlers.”

“They were homesteading and were trying to establish a peaceful community, a peaceful life away from society,” he said. “They just went about it the wrong way.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Toni Reinhold)