TAOS COUNTY, N.M. – The message, forwarded by a detective in another state 1,500 miles away to the Taos County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico, was to the point: “We are starving and need food and water,” it said in part.
It came, apparently, from someone inside a makeshift compound hidden in Taos County, and made its way to the sheriff’s office through someone else who received it and got it to law enforcement in Georgia.
It was enough to trigger a raid Friday by Taos County sheriff’s deputies who discovered a “filthy” trailer hidden underground beneath plastic sheets. Inside were 11 emaciated children ranging in age from 1 to 15, along with three women who authorities believe are the children’s mothers, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said.
Two heavily armed men, identified by authorities as Lucas Morten and Siraj Wahhaj, were arrested at the scene. They and the three women all face 11 counts of child abuse.
Wahhaj, 39, was wanted for the abduction of his 3-year-old son Abdul Ghani Wahhaj in Georgia, authorities said. However, the boy was not at the compound when police executed a search warrant there. The Sheriff’s Office said Abdul Ghani was due turn 4 on August 6.
‘Saddest living conditions’
“The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice,” Hogrefe said after the police operation at the compound.
“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 refugees not only with no food or fresh water, but with no shoes, personal hygiene and basically dirty rags for clothing.”
The children were taken into protective custody and later 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,” Hogrefe said.
Amid the many questions swirling for authorities about the children, the adults and the situation, one looms over all the others: Why?
Eight members of the TCSO’s Sheriff’s Response Team and four members of the State OSI unit were involved in executing the search warrant on the compound Friday, Hogrefe said.
“The ‘all day’ operation went without major incident or any injuries, but when encountered both men initially refused to follow verbal direction and Wahhaj who was held up inside the compound was heavily armed with an AR15 rifle, five loaded 30 round magazines, and four loaded pistols, including one in his pocket when he was taken down,” Hogrefe said.
Police arrested both men. Wahhaj was booked with no bond because of a warrant related to his missing son, while Morten was charged with harboring a fugitive.
In a release Sunday, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office said investigations had continued over the weekend. It said Hogrefe had sworn “an affidavit for arrest warrants charging 11 counts of child abuse for all five adults related to the neglect and abuse of the children involved. Each count is a third-degree felony.”
The office said Morten and Wahhaj had been charged while at the Taos Adult Detention Center. It was not immediately clear either had attorneys. They have not yet made their first appearances in court.
The Sheriff’s Office named the three females as Jany Leveille (35), Hujrah Wahhaj (38), and Subhannah Wahhaj (35). “All were arrested without incident in Taos and were later booked in the Taos Adult Detention Center,” it said.
“I believed this would most likely be the path that we would take and stand by my original decision to bring charges after CYFD investigators had an opportunity to conduct their independent investigation, which included interviews and obtaining information such as health and medical needs of the children from the three mothers,” the statement quoted Hogrefe as saying.
The search warrant executed Friday followed a two-month investigation with Clayton County, Georgia, investigators and the FBI into the whereabouts of Wahhaj’s son, Hogrefe said.
The Sheriff said the FBI had “recently provided information and surveillance on this location, but they (FBI) didn’t feel there was enough probable cause to get on the property.”
After seeing the message apparently sent from someone at the compound asking for food and water, Hogrefe said he felt he needed to act.
“… it had to be a search warrant and a tactical approach for our own safety because we had learned the occupants were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief,” he said.
In the affidavit for the warrant, the sheriff said that he reasonably believed Wahhaj and his son were inside the compound along with Morten. Police later said that the missing child was not found at the scene.
None of the adults would give a statement as to the boy’s whereabouts, Hogrefe said after the raid, but “it was reasonably believed he was there a few weeks ago.”
According to CNN affiliate WGCL-TV, Abdul-Ghani’s mother reported him missing on December 17, saying that she had last seen her son December 1, as he left to go to the park with his father.
No criminal charges were filed as there was no custody issue, WGCL-TV said.
The father and son were last seen together December 13 after the vehicle they were in was involved in an accident in Alabama, WGCL-TV reported. The station said the vehicle was registered to Morten and that according to policed five additional children and two adults were traveling with Wahhaj and his son.
Alabama police said they were told the group were going camping in New Mexico, the station said.