Five adults are facing child abuse charges after authorities rescued 11 children from a makeshift underground compound that a New Mexico sheriff described as “the saddest living conditions and poverty” he’d ever seen.
The children, ages 1 to 15, looked like "third-world country refugees' and had only “dirty rags for clothing,” Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said. Aside from a few potatoes and a box of rice, there was no food or water in the filthy compound, which authorities described as a travel trailer buried in the dirt, ringed with tires and earthen berms and covered in plastic.
Still missing is a 3-year-old boy who suffers from seizures, cannot walk and needs emergency medication.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Lucas Morten each face 11 counts of child abuse, a third-degree felony punishable by three years of imprisonment. Also charged are three women believed to be the children's mothers: Jany Leveille, Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj. Police did not say how the adults were related to one another. The sheriff's office could not be reached Monday morning.
The sheriff's office announced the charges Sunday following a months-long investigation into Ibn Wahhaj, who investigators say had kidnapped the 3-year-old boy, who is his son, from nearly 1,500 miles away, in Jonesboro, Georgia. The boy's mother, Hakima Ramzi, told police that her estranged husband took their son to a park nine months ago and never returned.
In January, Ramzi recorded a desperate Facebook video asking for help to find her husband and son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, who turns 4 on Tuesday. Ramzi also told police in Georgia about his medical condition. “I don’t know if he’s alive, or he is, well, I don’t know his condition now. So please, please, I need your help to find my husband and my son,” she said through tears.
Police did not say how they tracked down Wahhaj and the others in Amalia, an unincorporated community in mountainous Taos County along New Mexico's northern border. The FBI had begun surveillance on the compound two months before the group was arrested but "didn't feel there was enough probable cause to get on the property," the sheriff's office said.
The sheriff's office raided the property Friday after obtaining a message believed to have been written by someone from the compound: "We are starving and need food and water."
"I absolutely knew that we couldn't wait on another agency to step up and we had to go check this out as soon as possible, so I began working on a search warrant," Hogrefe said in a press release. "The occupants were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief."
No one was injured during the raid, which began Friday morning and lasted all day, the sheriff's office said.
Wahhaj, who was heavily armed, at first refused to cooperate but was eventually "taken down," the sheriff's office said. Inside the trailer, deputies found the 11 children, an AR15 rifle, four pistols and several rounds of ammunition. They did not find Abdul-Ghani, who investigators believe was in the compound a few weeks ago. None of the adults said anything about the boy's whereabouts, the sheriff's office said.
The boy was last seen with his father in December, when the two and several other children and adults were involved in a road accident in Alabama, the Clayton News-Daily reported. The officer who helped them had been under the impression that the group was headed to New Mexico for a camping trip.
The compound lacked water and electricity. Dust coated the inside of the trailer, which was littered with dirty clothes and plastic containers. Outside were pieces of wood, garbage and children's clothing that hung across a broken sheet of cardboard.
Ibn Wahhaj faces an additional charge of abducting his son and Morten of harboring a fugitive.
All five adults are in custody in the Taos Adult Detention Center. The 11 children have been turned over to state child services.