Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, who was wanted on suspicion that he had abducted his 3-year-old son, was arrested along with four other adults after Taos County officials raided the barren property in the midst of scrubland in Amalia, N.M., on Friday. Prosecutors are asking that all four adults, who are each charged with 11 counts of felony child abuse, be held without bail. They are Lucas Allen Morten, 40, who prosecutors said was in joint control of the property and have charged with harboring a felon because they said he was knowingly giving aid to Siraj Wahhaj; Hujrah J. Wahhaj, 37, a sister of Siraj Wahhaj; Subhannah A. Wahhaj, 35, another sister; and Jany N. Leveille, 35. The women are believed to be the mothers of some, if not all, of the children.
A judge ordered the group to be held without bond on Wednesday.
The arrests were the culmination of a months-long search for the missing child, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj. The young boy was not among the 11 children found at the property, and investigators are working to identify a child’s remains that they say they found in the area after getting a second search warrant.
The search for Abdul-Ghani began nine months ago in Jonesboro, Ga., where his mother told police that her husband had taken him to a park and never returned. The boy was encephalopathic, had trouble walking, suffered from seizures and required an emergency medication that the father did not have, his mother told police, according to a report in the Clayton News-Daily from December. Abdul-Ghani and his father had been seen that month traveling through Alabama with several other children and adults. They had been involved in an accident and given an officer who helped them the impression that they were going to New Mexico for camping.
Tyler Anderson, a 41-year-old auto mechanic who lives near the compound, told the Associated Press that the group had arrived at the end of last year. He said he had helped them install solar panels but fell out of touch with them after that.
“We just figured they were doing what we were doing, getting a piece of land and getting off the grid,” Anderson said.
Law enforcement officials in Taos County said they received information about a child who had been abducted by their father in May. And the compound in Amalia had not gone unnoticed by local law enforcement authorities, who surveilled the location in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and noticed that it had a shooting range. Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said that the FBI did not feel there was probable cause to search the property. But eventually the sheriff’s office received a tip from a detective in Georgia that was believed to have originated from the someone at the compound: “We are starving and need food and water.”
“I began working on a search warrant right after I got that intercepted message,” Hogrefe said in a statement this week. “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.”
He also said they group was “considered extremist of the Muslim belief,” but declined to clarify the remarks when asked on Tuesday.
Law enforcement officials arrived to what they have described as a stark scene: a trailer covered in plastic and ringed with tires that was buried in the dirt on a property littered with trip hazards, woods with upturned nails, broken glass and open trenches. A unsupported tunnel, about three to four feet wide and two and a half feet tall, extended for approximately 100 feet, constituting another danger on the property, prosecutors wrote.
A small utility truck nearby was cluttered with clothing, and makeshift beds, prosecutors said. Investigators also found four pistols, a military-style rifle and a large quantity of ammunition. The property was scattered with trash, and had no clean water, electricity or indoor plumbing, according to court documents.
At the time, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe described the conditions at the compound as the “saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen.” He said the children “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.”
Prosecutors did not raise the allegation that a child was being trained for a school shooting in court on Friday, the Associated Press reported.
Hakima Ramzi recorded a desperate plea on Facebook in January about her son’s disappearance.
“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.”
Wahhaj’s father, Siraj Wahhaj, is the imam of a mosque in Brooklyn in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
“In light of the recent events, The Masjid At Taqwa community would like to ask that you just please continue to pray for our Imam and his family,” the mosque posted on its Facebook page on Tuesday.
In January, a note on Wahhaj’s Facebook page spoke about Siraj, Hujrah, and Subhannah, his children, and Morton and Leveille, whom he identified as his son and daughter-in-law, and 12 grandchildren.
“We believe they may be traveling together,” the note said, asking people to call the police if they had any information.
Facebook posts and public messages dating to December revealed an unfolding family drama, and relatives’ growing concern that Abdul-Ghani and the other children who had disappeared could be in trouble. In January, a Facebook account of Naeemah Rashid, who said she is the imam’s daughter-in-law, posted a picture of other children around the missing poster for Abdul-Ghani.
“I wanted to take the time now to make sure we also focus on praying for the other children as well, because of their parents making these choices it’s going to affect these children as well,” she wrote. “AND AGAIN THE FATHER (SIRAJ IBN) AND SON (ABDUL GHANI) WAS THE ONLY ONES REPORTED AS MISSING TO THE POLICE, BUT THEY ARE LIKELY TO BE TRAVELING TOGETHER WITH ALL IN THE PICTURE BELOW.”
Subhannah maintained her Facebook page, but left no clues and blocked her relatives, shortly after posting a January rebuttal to the cry for help that had appeared on her father’s page.
“Deception and lies!” she wrote. “Be careful what you believe. And be careful who you believe. The truth will come to light. Don’t worry everyone. I am safe and well.”
The compound was found on property that was owned by a couple, Tanya and Jason Badger, according to documents released by court officials. The Badgers told news outlets that they had tried to get authorities to help them get the group out.
“We had told them several times that you know they’re not tenants, they’re not paying this rent, they’re squatters, they’re there illegally — I don’t want them there,” Jason Badger told CNN.
It was unclear why an eviction noticed filed by Badger against Morton was dismissed by a judge in June, according to court records.
Lindsey Bever and Avi Selk contributed to this report.