A months-long search for a 3-year-old led police to a compound buried under New Mexico scrubland. After authorities raided the compound on Friday, they did not recover the toddler but found his alleged abductor and 11 other children — all of whom had been living in what the Taos County sheriff described as “the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen.”
The search began nine months earlier and nearly 1,500 miles east — in Jonesboro, Ga., where a mother told police that her husband had taken little Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj to a park and never returned.
The boy was encephalopathic, the Clayton News Daily reported in December. His mother told police that he suffered from seizures, could not walk and needed emergency medication that his father did not have. Police alerts for the boy and his father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, went out in multiple states.
In December, the News Daily reported that Abdul-Ghani and his father had last been seen traveling west through Alabama with several other children and adults. They had been involved in a car accident on a highway there on Dec. 13, the newspaper reported. The officer who helped them had been under the impression that they were headed to New Mexico to go camping.
That was before Ibn Wahhaj’s estranged wife, Hakima Ramzi, recorded a desperate Facebook video. “He’s sick, he needs his medications,” she said through tears in January. “He needs everything. I don’t know if he’s alive, or he is, well, I don’t know his condition now. So please, please, I need your help to find my husband and my son.”
Neither family nor authorities could be reached over the weekend, so it’s unclear how police tracked Ibn Wahhaj and company to Taos County — a mountainous, sparsely populated region along New Mexico’s northern border.
Along a remote stretch of road, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said in a news release, someone had buried a travel trailer in the dirt, ringed it with tires and earthen berms and covered it in plastic.
In this “compound,” the sheriff said, Ibn Wahhaj lived underground with his abducted son, an alleged accomplice named Lucas Morten, three unnamed women, 11 other children, four pistols, an AR-15 rifle and a large quantity of ammunition.
The FBI placed the compound under surveillance. Photos released by the sheriff’s office show a ramshackle bunker with no apparent electricity or plumbing. Dust coated the inside of the buried trailer. Outside, children’s pants hung across a broken sheet of hardboard, backdropped by dust, tires and the mountains.
During a two-month investigation, the sheriff’s office wrote, the FBI “didn’t feel there was enough probable cause to get on the property.” The federal agency could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Taos County finally decided to initiate a raid after deputies obtained a message that they believed had been written from someone in the compound: “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, so I began working on a search warrant,” Hogrefe said in the release. “The occupants were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief,” he added.
A tactical team was assembled Friday morning and spent most of the day advancing into the facility, he said. No one was injured, according to the sheriff’s office.
Ibn Wahhaj and Morten at first refused to cooperate. The former was “taken down” with a loaded pistol in his pocket, the sheriff said.
Hogrefe wrote that his deputies found 11 children inside the compound, ages 1 to 15, all of whom “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.”
Besides several potatoes and a box of rice, he wrote, there was no sign of food.
Nor was there any sign of Abdul-Ghani — the only child among the 12 who was officially listed as abducted. The boy was believed to have been in the compound a few weeks earlier, according to the sheriff, but investigators searched for hours on Friday and found no clue to his whereabouts.
Deputies gave the other children food and water and turned them over to state child services.
Of the adults living in the compound, three women believed to be the children’s mothers were detained, questioned and released pending further investigation. Morten was charged with harboring a fugitive — namely Ibn Wahhaj, who was held without bail on a charge of abducting his son, who remains missing.