Before his sister’s arrest, Von Chelet Leveille says he talked to her every day and she told him about incredible things happening on the secluded desert compound where she was living.
Leveille, 37, who lives in Haiti, even heard about the death of a 3-year-old child there, believed to be a Clayton County boy reported missing. He also said his sister Jany Leveille, 35, told him the child would soon come back to life as Jesus.
“At first,” the brother told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “it sounded ridiculous to me.”
But as weeks turned to months and the compound’s occupants continued to watch the small body for signs of life, even the brother began to wonder if it would be true. It didn’t seem as far-fetched when he thought of the stories they’d been telling him — and the photos they sent — from the camp, such as the time a face appeared in the sky, or when the clouds took on the shape of a winged creature and they all cried.
His sister had gone from Atlanta into the desert around December with her Islamic husband, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and his son from another wife. Wahhaj was wanted in Clayton County where his legal wife had told authorities he took their 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, without permission.
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Also at the compound were three other adult relatives from metro Atlanta and 12 of their children, ages 1 to 15.
Authorities, who raided the compound on Aug. 3, allege the adults were plotting violence, with extremist Muslim views guiding them. None of the five adults are charged with harming the dead child. They each face 11 counts of child cruelty, one for every child found alive at the property.
Prosecutors in the case, which is drawing national attention, also suggest that Jany Leveille believes in “black magic” and encouraged rituals performed on the child to rid him of his ailments, including seizures. A body believed to be that of the missing boy, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, was found wrapped in a sheet in a tunnel on the property after the raid. Prosecutors have said he might have died because the adults didn’t give him medicine or medical attention.
The brother said the group is misunderstood.
“I don’t know my sister to practice any black magic,” he said in a phone interview from Port-au-Prince. He said she, like many Muslims, does believe black magic exists and doesn’t support it.
Von Chelet Leveille also pushed back on allegations from prosecutors that the adults were teaching children to use guns so they could become killers and commit school shootings. He said two of the older children asked to be taught to shoot, and that the family’s use of firearms was legal and innocent.
He said the group went to the desert because they no longer wanted to live as “American Muslims” in a society mostly populated by non-Muslims. They’d long lived in secular Atlanta and New York City, where Abdul-Ghani’s grandfather, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, runs a large mosque. The imam has said he was against the trip to the desert and tried to stop it.
Von Chelet Leveille said it was a recent trip to Saudi Arabia by the Clayton toddler’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, that made the group realize how different life can be living only among Muslims.
But an FBI agent who testified Monday in a bond hearing for the adults, gave a wildly different account of what the group was doing. Agent Travis Taylor said the children were told the dead child would come back as Jesus and then instruct them which “corrupt institutions” to eliminate.
Jany Leveille allegedly told others at the camp she believed the child had already been dead and was only still animated because he was possessed by demons, the agent said.
The brother said the agent’s allegations aren’t true.
Tariq Abdur Rashid, who studied under Abdul-Ghani’s grandfather and said he knows Siraj Ibn Wahhaj well, also doesn’t believe the accusations about the group plotting for violence. The whole family is peaceful, he said.
Rashid said it sounded that the ritual performed on Abdul-Ghani was an Islamic practice called a ruqya, which is meant to rid a body of evil spirits. A ruqya, he said, wouldn’t be extreme.
What was extreme was allegedly not giving the boy his medicine. In addition to seizures, Abdul-Ghani had suffered from brain damage caused during birth, as well as cognitive and developmental delays.
“We do believe in medication,” Rashid told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That kid had a physical ailment. He had medication he’s been on.”
Rashid said Siraj Ibn Wahhaj had recently traveled to visited an imam in England to learn a ruqya and might’ve sincerely thought he was doing the right thing to help his son.
“With sincere thinking, he can be sincerely wrong, which he was,” Rashid said.
Long before the desert trip, Rashid recalls going to a mosque on the west side of Atlanta to pray with Siraj Ibn Wahhaj every morning. After, they’d talk about how to help their community.
Wahhaj, who worked as a body guard and security guard, started a food pantry. Rashid recalled him driving around Atlanta with Jany Leveille passing out food to the homeless.
Rashid said he also recalls suspecting Jany Leveille of performing black magic.
He said he believed she once buried a leather patch or pouch in the ground as part of a ritual. (Speaking with the AJC, Rashid and Von Chelet Leveille both accused the other with not being truthful.)
But Rashid is most concerned with what happened to the missing Abdul-Ghani. Tests are still underway to confirm the identity of the body found in the desert compound, but the family and authorities agree the body is most likely his.
Prosecutors believe he stopped breathing during a ritual, in which his father placed a hand on the boy’s head while reading from the Quran.
On Monday, a state district court judge in New Mexico, Judge Sarah Backus, granted each adult arrested at the compound a $20,000 signature bond to allow their release from jail.
She said the evidence submitted by investigators was troubling but not enough to convince her that the group, unconventional as it may be, is dangerous. Under conditions she set, they must wear ankle monitors until they find stable housing in Taos County, New Mexico, where the compound was located, and they can have only supervised visits with their children.
The New Mexico governor has spoken out against the judge’s bond decision and, according to Albuquerque news station KOB4, the judge has received death threats. One led to the evacuation of the county courthouse Tuesday.
Meanwhile, none of the five suspects has been released.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, can’t be because he is being held on a warrant from Clayton County in the missing child case.
Jany Leveille, who was born in Haiti, has been transferred to immigration authorities, a jail worker said Wednesday morning. Her brother said she had been in the process of getting U.S. citizenship but hadn’t completed it.
Still held on bond are: Hujrah Wahhaj, 37, Subhannah Wahhaj, 35, both sisters of Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, and Subhannah Wahhaj’s husband, Lucas Allen Morton, 40.
The district attorney’s office on Wednesday said it was appealing the judge’s decision.
Rashid hopes none of them get out. They need to sit and get their minds in order, he said.
After learning the group got bond, Von Chelet Leveille wrote on Facebook, “al hamdulillah,” which translates roughly to “all praise is due to God alone.”