The discovery of 11 children, ages 1 to 15, in a squalid New Mexico property started with a brief plea:
“We are starving and need food and water.”
That message, believed to have been written by someone at the property, was forwarded by a Georgia detective to the Taos County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico — prompting them to obtain a warrant last week to search the makeshift compound in Amalia, according to a Saturday news release from the office.
Sheriff’s officials had been working for two months with police in Clayton County, Georgia, and the FBI to track Siraj Wahhaj, 39, after he allegedly abducted his 3-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, and then fled west.
On Friday morning, law enforcement entered the Amalia compound, which is surrounded by tires and an earthen berm and includes a buried travel trailer. There they discovered 16 people — the children as well as five adults — in harrowing conditions.
“The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer,” said Taos Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe in the release. “But what was most surprising and heartbreaking was when the team located a total of five adults and 11 children that looked like third world country refuges not only with no food or fresh water, but no shoes, personal hygiene and basically dirty rags for clothing.”
Wahhaj was among the adults on the property, but his son remains missing. He and another man, Lucas Morton, were taken into custody after they at first “refused to follow verbal direction” and Wahhaj holed up with several weapons, including an AR-15, the sheriff’s office said.
However, the incident was resolved without injury and both men were arrested. Initially Morton was charged with harboring a fugitive and Wahhaj was charged with child abduction. No bond was set at the time of their arrest.
In addition to the impoverished conditions, officials discovered the AR-15 rifle, five loaded 30-round magazines and four loaded pistols, including one in the pocket of Wahhaj, according to the sheriff’s office.
The 11 children were turned over to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. “We all gave the kids our water and what snacks we had — it was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen,” Sheriff Hogrefe said Saturday.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
The three women at the compound — Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and 35-year-old Subhannah Wahhaj — are believed to be the mothers of the children found at the site. They were detained, questioned and released. On Sunday, however, each of the five adults was charged with 11 counts of child abuse, a third-degree felony, in connection with the case. The three women were subsequently arrested.
The adults are expected to make their first court appearances on Monday. Attempts to reach Taos County officials were unsuccessful. It was unclear if the accused have retained attorneys who could comment on their behalf.
None of the adults “would give statement to the current whereabouts of [Abdul-Ghani, the missing boy], but it is reasonably believed he was there a few weeks ago,” according to the sheriff’s office.
In a later news release, sheriff’s officials said, “Collectively all law enforcement entities are still working toward locating” the boy and they remained hopeful “for a positive outcome.”
Abdul-Ghani turned 4 on Monday.
Clayton County police said in December that he was reported missing on Dec. 10 by his mother, who said she had not seen him since Dec. 1 when his father, Wahhaj, took him to the park. Abdul-Ghani’s mom said he has seizures and cognitive and developmental delays and cannot walk, and authorities did not know if he had medication with him necessary “to prevent … a serious medical emergency.”
Wahhaj and Abdul-Ghani were later seen after a car wreck on Dec. 13 in Chilton County, Alabama, according to Clayton County police. They were traveling with five children and two adults and the group said at the time that they were going to New Mexico to go camping. A truck registered to Lucas Morton picked them up after the wreck.
Wahhaj was eventually traced to Amalia, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
The FBI had recently surveilled the property but said there was insufficient probable cause to enter, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday. But the receipt of the message from inside the compound convinced Sheriff Hogrefe “that we couldn’t wait on another agency to step up and we had to go check this out as soon as possible.”
Abdul-Ghani is described as a black male, approximately 3 feet tall and weighing 22 lbs., with brown hair and brown eyes.
Anyone with information about him is urged to call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (843-5678) or the Clayton County Police Department at 770-477-4026.