On Friday, 11 children between the ages of one and 15 years old were found living in extreme poverty on a remote compound outside Amalia, New Mexico, after the Taos County Sheriff’s Department was forwarded a note, believed to have written by someone inside, pleading, “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,” Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said in a statement posted to the department’s Facebook page on Saturday. “We all gave the kids our water and what snacks we had — it was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen.”
While the note gave local police probable cause to investigate, authorities from Clayton County, Georgia, and the FBI had been monitoring the compound for two months as part of an ongoing search for a missing three-year-old boy allegedly abducted by his father late last year.
During the raid, the boy’s father, Siraj Wahhaj, was found and arrested on a Georgia warrant for the alleged child abduction, and another Clayton County man, Lucas Morten, was taken into custody and is being held on suspicion of aiding a fugitive. The missing child, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, was not among the 11 children rescued, but there was allegedly evidence indicating he had been there in recent weeks.
According to local Georgia news coverage, the little boy was reported missing by his mother on December 10th, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists his disappearance as November 29th. According to the boy’s mother, Wahhaj had taken his son to the park on December 1st, and then never returned; it’s not clear why she waited over a week to report the disappearance. The child reportedly has a medical condition that causes him to suffer from seizures, and there’s concern that he does not have his regular medication with him.
Wahhaj and his son were reportedly last seen on December 13th in Alabama, where their vehicle was involved in a minor accident. Authorities there say the pair were in the company of two other adults and five children, who indicated that they were on their way to New Mexico for a camping trip.
Following Friday’s raid on the compound, three women, believed to be the children’s mothers, were detained for questioning, but they were eventually released after they refused to cooperate. The 11 children, according to the Sheriff’s Department’s statement, all appeared to be malnourished, were wearing “basically dirty rags for clothing” and no shoes, and their makeshift home had no water, plumbing or electricity, and very little food. They are now in state protective custody.
In a statement, New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) Secretary Monique Jacobson said, “CYFD has been working around the clock on this case. We will continue to work closely with Law Enforcement on this investigation. The children are in our custody and our number one priority right now is their health and safety.”
While the compound lacked basic necessities, authorities discovered an AR-15 rifle, five 30-round magazines and four loaded pistols. Sheriff Hogrefe claimed in an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican that FBI analysts told him that Wahhaj and Morten appeared to be “extremists of the Muslim belief.”
“You know how the Muslim women and children are treated,” Hogrefe went on. “Men are the authority supreme.”
FBI spokesperson Frank Fisher declined to comment on the investigation, including Hogrefe’s claim that the suspects engaged in religious extremism.