By MORGAN LEE and MARY HUDETZ Associated Press
AMALIA, N.M. (AP) – For months, neighbors had been concerned about a squalid compound built along a remote New Mexico plain, saying they had brought their concerns to authorities long before sheriff’s officials first found 11 hungry children, and then the remains of a small boy on the lot.
Two men and three women also had been living at the compound, and were arrested following a raid Friday that came as officials sought to find a missing Georgia boy with severe medical issues. Medical examiners still must confirm whether the body found at the property in a second search Monday is that of Abdul-ghani Wahhaj, who was 3 in December when police say his father took him from his mother in Jonesboro, Georgia.
The boy’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, was among those arrested in the compound raid that has since resulted in the series of startling revelations on the outskirts of Amalia, a tiny town near the Colorado state line marked by scattered homes and sagebrush. Authorities said they found the father armed with multiple firearms, including an assault rifle, while a Georgia arrest warrant for him said Siraj Ibn Wahhaj was scheduled to appear in court Wednesday on a warrant from Georgia that seeks his extradition to face a charge of abducting his son from that state last December. The warrant says he had expressed wanting to perform an exorcism on his son.
The group had arrived in Amalia in December, with enough money to buy groceries and construction supplies, according to Tyler Anderson, a 41-year-old auto mechanic who lives nearby.
He said Tuesday he had helped the newcomers install solar panels after they arrived. But he eventually stopped visiting.
He had met both of the men in the group, but never the women, who authorities say are the mothers of the 11 children, ages 1 to 15.
He doesn’t recall seeing the Georgia boy who was missing. But he does remember that some of the smaller children from the compound turned up to play with children at neighboring properties at first.
“We just figured they were doing what we were doing, getting a piece of land and getting off the grid,” said Anderson, who moved to New Mexico from Seattle with his wife seven years ago.
As the months passed, however, they stopped seeing the smaller children playing in the area. They also stopped hearing guns fired off at a shooting range on the property, he said.
Jason Badger, who owned the property where the compound was built, said he and his wife had pressed authorities to remove the group after becoming concerned about the children. The group had built the compound on their acreage instead of a neighboring tract owned by Lucas Morton, one of the men arrested during the raid.
“I started to try and kick them off about three months ago and everything I tried to do kept getting knocked down,” said Badger said. Court records show a judge dismissed an eviction notice filed by Badger against Morton in June. The records didn’t provide further details on the judge’s decision.
After the raid, Anderson went over and looked at the property for the first time in months.
“I was flabbergasted from what it had turned into from the last time I saw it,” he said.
Authorities said the compound shielded by old tires, wooden pallets and an earthen wall studded with broken glass had been littered with “odorous trash.”
The 11 children found living at the encampment – described as a small trailer embedded in the ground – had been without clean water and appeared to have not eaten in days, according to Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe.
At a news conference in Taos, Hogrefe described FBI surveillance efforts in recent months that included photographs of the compound and interviews. He said the images were shared with the mother of Abdul-ghani but she did not spot her son, and that photographs also never indicated the boy’s father was at the compound.
“I had no probable cause to get a search warrant to go onto this property,” the sheriff said.
He said FBI officials were invited to the news conference but declined to attend. An FBI spokesman didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
Hogrefe said the “breaking point” in seeking a search warrant came when Georgia authorities received a message that may have originated within the compound that children were starving inside.
It wasn’t clear who sent the message or how it was communicated. Georgia detectives forwarded it to the Taos County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities returned to search the compound after interviews on Friday and Saturday led them to believe the boy might still be on the property.
“We discovered the remains yesterday on Abdul’s fourth birthday,” Hogrefe said, appearing to fight back tears.
Aleks Kostich, managing attorney in the Taos County public defender’s office, said the office was gathering information and assigning attorneys to the defendants. He declined to comment on their behalf, citing the early stage of the case.
However, he questioned the “legal sufficiency” of the criminal complaints filed against the men and women, saying they were vague.
“I’m not sure how much investigating has been done,” he said. “I’m not sure how much law enforcement knows and how long they’ve known it for.”
AP writers Kate Brumback in Jonesboro, Georgia, contributed to this report. Hudetz reported from Albuquerque.
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