Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Nearly eight months after a woman in Georgia reported that her 3-year-old son and his father were missing, Taos County Sheriff’s deputies on Friday stormed a makeshift compound in a remote northern New Mexico location and took the father into custody. The compound was stockpiled with weapons.
The little boy has not been found.
However, 11 other children, ranging in age from 1 to 15, were removed and taken into protective custody. They are now in the hands of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
“Three women believed to be the children’s mothers were also detained (Friday) while investigators continue to sort out details of the case,” Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe wrote in a news release.
He said the women refused to answer questions but have not been charged with any crimes.
Siraj Wahhaj, 40, the man suspected of abducting his son, is being held in the Taos County Adult Detention Center without bond on a warrant out of Georgia. Another man who was living at the compound, Lucas Morton of Atlanta, is charged with harboring a fugitive and is also behind bars.
A CYFD spokeswoman could not answer any specific questions about the remaining children due to the ongoing investigation, but cabinet secretary Monique Jacobson issued a statement saying the department has been working around the clock on the case.
“We will continue to work closely with law enforcement on this investigation,” the statement reads. “The children are in our custody and our number one priority right now is their health and safety.”
Son reported missing
On Dec. 10, 2017, in Clayton County, Ga., a woman reported Wahhaj had taken their young son Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj to the park nine days earlier and she had not seen them since, according to the Clayton County Police Department.
She said the boy had serious medical issues, including seizures and developmental and cognitive delays and had suffered brain damage at birth that left him unable to walk. She said she didn’t know if the boy and his father had his medication.
A couple of days after they were reported missing, police say, the boy and his father were in a vehicle that was involved in a crash on an Alabama interstate.
After the crash, police say, they were picked up in a Ford box truck registered to Morton.
At that time the father and son were traveling with two adults and five children and told officers they were going to New Mexico for a camping trip, according to police.
Message from compound
More recently, investigators with the Clayton County Police Department and the FBI began narrowing in on their whereabouts and determined Wahhaj was staying at an improvised compound in Amalia, near the Colorado border.
Taos Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said they believe the group made the compound – huts and trailers surrounded by tires and an earthen berm in the sparsely populated Costilla Meadows subdivision – and had been living there for some time.
The FBI had been surveilling the location, Hogrefe said, but did not believe they had enough probable cause to go onto the property.
But then, someone inside the compound was able to get a note to the outside world.
“The message sent to a third party simply said in part, ‘We are starving and need food and water,’ ” Hogrefe wrote in a news release. “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.”
He said they had learned the residents of the compound “were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief.”
And deputies worried that the layout of the structures would give its residents an advantage if they didn’t conduct the operation tactically and quickly.
Around 6 a.m. Friday, eight deputies with the Taos Sheriff’s Response Team and the State OSI Unit rolled out to the compound.
Sheriff Hogrefe said when the teams arrived, Wahhaj and Morton refused to comply with demands and they could see that Wahhaj was armed with an “AR-15 rifle, five loaded 30-round magazines, and four loaded pistols, including one in his pocket when he was taken down.” More rounds of ammo were found in a trailer buried in the ground.
“We didn’t have to go hands-on and no one got hurt,” Hogrefe said. “He was heavily armed but so were my guys, and my guys train for that stuff.”
Hogrefe said the deputies remained on the scene into the afternoon, looking for the missing boy, but they didn’t find him. He said none of the adults, even the women who are not being charged, would answer any questions about Abdul-Ghani, but they do believe he was there a few weeks ago.
“We did an extensive search for the missing child, our primary target,” Hogrefe said. “We certainly didn’t want to leave that place and leave a child behind and I’m confident we did not.”
He described the compound itself as “the ugliest looking, filthiest living conditions” he’d ever seen, especially considering 11 children had been living there.
“The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer,” Hogrefe wrote in the news release. “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.”
Deputies gave the children what snacks and water they had and they were taken into protective custody.