A dead boy's remains were found Monday at a makeshift compound in Amalia, New Mexico, where investigators had been searching for missing Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj

By Christine Pelisek and Adam Carlson
August 16, 2018 09:15 PM

Editor’s note: On Thursday, New Mexico officials confirmed that missing Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj‘s remains had been found on a compound in Amalia. The original article about the discovery of his remains, published on Aug. 8, is below.

A dead boy’s remains were found Monday at a New Mexico compound where investigators, who had been searching for a missing 3-year-old from Georgia, instead found his father and 15 other people last week, PEOPLE confirms.

The group of 16 included 11 children and five adults (who have all since been arrested). They appeared to be living in squalid conditions.

The remains have not yet been positively identified but authorities raised the possibility that they are those of missing Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, who disappeared after his father, Siraj Wahhaj, took him to a park in December, police have said.

Visibly emotional, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe announced the remains had been found at a news conference on Tuesday, CNN reports. He described them as those of a “young boy” but did not provide further identifying information.

“We discovered the remains yesterday, on Abdul’s fourth birthday,” he said.

They “have been turned over to the office of medical investigation,” Hogrefe said.

Local prosecutor Donald Gallegos tells PEOPLE that while preliminary testing will confirm the age and sex of the remains, conclusive identification could take additional time if “it requires DNA testing,” and he noted that it is unclear if dental records are available to aid authorities.

“We are pretty sure it could be [Abdul-Ghani], but we aren’t positive yet,” he says.

A cause of death has not been determined, according to Gallegos, but he says that “hopefully we will get information by the end of the week.”

Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj
| Credit: Clayton County Police Department
The compound where 16 people were found in Amalia, New Mexico, last week
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office
The compound where 16 people were found in Amalia, New Mexico, last week
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office

Gallegos says the remains were found in the back of a tunnel at the compound, in a chamber, and that their condition was “consistent with a type of ritual burial.” (Sheriff Hogrefe previously described the suspects as religious extremists.)

It’s unclear how long the remains were in the tunnel before being discovered, says Gallegos, district attorney for the the Eighth Judicial District.

“When they did the initial search [last week] they were looking for the child,” he explains. “When they came back they developed more information to get another search warrant and searched additional areas, and that is where they found it.”

Abudl-Ghani’s mother reported him missing on Dec. 10 in Clayton County, saying then that she last saw him on Dec. 1 when he left to go to the park with his dad.

His mom said he had seizures and cognitive and developmental delays and could not walk, and Clayton County police did not know if he had medication with him necessary “to prevent … a serious medical emergency,” they said in December.

Abdul-Ghani and Wahhaj were next seen a few days after the boy was reported missing, following a car wreck on Dec. 13 in Chilton County, Alabama, according to Clayton County police.

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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, police said. A truck registered to Lucas Morton — another man at the makeshift compound last week — picked them up after the wreck.

Wahhaj was eventually traced to Amalia, New Mexico, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

He and Morton were found at the compound there with the 11 children and three women, believed to be the mothers of the living kids, according to Sheriff Hogrefe.

The FBI had recently surveilled the property — which is ringed by tires and an earthen berm and includes a buried travel trailer — but said there was insufficient probable cause to enter, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday.

But the receipt of a message apparently sent from inside the compound convinced Hogrefe “that we couldn’t wait on another agency to step up and we had to go check this out as soon as possible,” he said this weekend.

The message read, in part, “We are starving and need food and water.”

The compound where 16 people were found in Amalia, New Mexico, last week
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office
Siraj Wahhaj (left) and Lucas Morton
| Credit: Taos County Sheriff's Office

Once at the compound, “The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer,” Hogrefe said in a previous news release.

“But what was most surprising and heartbreaking,” he said, “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.”

All five adults — Morton, Wahhaj and the women, Jany Leveille, Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj — were arrested. They each face 11 counts of child abuse, a third-degree felony. Morton is additionally charged with harboring a fugitive and Wahhaj is charged with custodial interference.

They have all pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys, in speaking with PEOPLE, have argued the prosecution’s case as presented so far is weak.

The children recovered alive last week were placed with the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, according to authorities.

“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.

Of the accusations so far revealed, prosecutor Gallegos tells PEOPLE: “It is shocking when something like this happens in your backyard.”