Down a dirt track lined with sagebrush in a remote Northern New Mexico community, the lives of 16 people laid hidden in a compound behind a wall of tires until Friday (Aug. 3), when a team of law …
Amalia, NM – Down a dirt track lined with sagebrush in this remote Northern New Mexico community, the lives of 16 people were hidden behind a wall of tires until Friday (Aug. 3), when a team of law enforcement officers made its way past a “no trespassing” sign, arrested two men, detained three women and placed 11 children ranging from 1 to 15-years-old into protective custody.
One child could not be found: Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a toddler who was reported missing from his Georgia home by his mother Dec. 10, 2017.
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said the search of the Amalia dwelling, which is a few minutes south of the Colorado border, was the result of a two-month investigation conducted with the FBI and Clayton County Police Department into the whereabouts of the boy, who turns 4 on Aug. 6.
According to Clayton County Police, the toddler suffers from seizures, developmental and cognitive delays and is unable to walk due to suffering hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy at birth.
While Abdul Wahhaj was not among the 11 children the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Division took into protective custody on Friday, law enforcement say the child’s father and alleged abductor, 40-year-old Siraj Ibn Wahhaj was arrested. Another man who lived at the property, Lucas Allen Morton, 40, was also arrested on charges of harboring the accused fugitive.
On Sunday, Hogrefe said arrest warrants charging 11 counts of child abuse, all third-degree felonies, were served on all five adults related to the neglect and abuse of the children found at the compound.
Siraj Wahhaj and Lucas Morton were served with the warrants while in custody at the Taos Adult Detention Center on earlier charges. Three women – Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35 – who law enforcement believes are the mothers of the 11 children, were arrested without incident in Taos and booked in the Taos Adult Detention Center.
“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,” said Hogrefe in a statement.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj may be related to Siraj Wahhaj, a well-known Muslim imam of the Masjid Al-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, New York. A Facebook page claiming to be that of the imam had several posts in January related to the disappearance of the family.
One posted Jan 4. reads, “Dear Brothers and Sisters, please make duas for the safe return of my children and grandchildren; Siraj, Hujrah, Subhanah Wahhaj, son in law Luqman (Lucas) Morton, and daughter in law Maryam (Jany) Leveille and their children (my 12 grandchildren). We believe they may be traveling together. If you have any information or knows their whereabouts please call the Clayton County Police Department.”
The Taos News had not yet confirmed the relationship between Wahhaj and the imam as of press time Sunday (Aug. 5). Reached by phone in New York, another relative Sadiqa A. Wahhaj, confirmed the little boy who is still missing is her nephew. She declined to comment on the relationship between Imam Wahhaj and Siraj Wahhaj who was arrested Friday.
"I am not in a position to comment at this time," she said. "As you can imagine this is a difficult time for our family."
On Monday (Aug. 6), The Taos News made multiple efforts to reach the imam via phone. A woman at the Al-Taqwa mosque, who did not identify herself, said, "We are not taking calls at this time."
According to Clayton County police, the toddler and his father had last been seen Dec. 13 traveling with two adults and five children in Alabama when they were involved in a single-vehicle accident on Interstate 65. The Alabama officer who talked to the group after the accident said they “indicated that they were traveling to New Mexico for a camping trip.”
The group was picked up in a 2006 Ford box truck with Delaware tag number "CL085217". " Police told local media the license plate was registered to Lucas Allen Morton of Atlanta.
Seven months ago, a woman who said she is the boy’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, made a plea via a Facebook video, asking people to help find her son.
“Please,” Ramzi says in the video. “He needs his medication.”
Ramzi told police she was not sure if her child had any medication with him when his father left with him.
It was unknown as of press time why Wahhaj had traveled to New Mexico, but evidence has emerged that the group encountered its first difficulties in June, when a landlord-tenant restitution case was filed against Morton in Taos magistrate court.
The property they had leased in the sparsely populated Costilla Meadows subdivision a couple miles from the Colorado border bears resemblance to a partially built “earthship,” an ecologically-designed structure made popular in Northern New Mexico. A wall made of glass bottles bound by mud marked the entrance to the property.
A white box truck, possibly the same one they had driven through Alabama months ago, was still parked on the property Sunday. Tarps flapped across covered spaces behind the wall of tires stacked in a half circle around the property’s perimeter, which contains a partially buried travel trailer, an earthen berm and other smaller structures.
A neighbor in the area, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, said he knew all 16 people who lived at the dwelling, and felt “disgusted” following the arrests and detainments on Friday.
“We’ve lived out here for four years,” he said. “Out of all the people that come out here, those were the most kindest people I’ve ever met in my life.”
The neighbor added that he would make a weekly trip with the family to get food and water and believed the children were well cared for.
But reports from law enforcement hint at something amiss at the compound where Wahhaj and the others lived.
While Hogrefe said in his press release the FBI “didn't feel there was enough probable cause" to enter the property, "the sheriff said “that all changed” for him when a Clayton County Police Detective relayed a distress message believed to have come from within the compound.
“We are starving and need food and water,” Hogrefe said the message read.
Hogrefe said he thought it was enough to obtain a search warrant, form a multi-agency tactical team and make entry onto the property.
"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 right after I got that intercepted message," he said in the statement.
Hogrefe said Wahhaj and Morton both initially refused to follow verbal commands given by officers. Wahhaj was also allegedly “heavily 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,” according to the press release.
The sheriff described the conditions at the property as "filthy" and said its residents were poorly clothed, without shoes,and appeared to have had access to a limited food supply, consisting of "a few potatoes and a box of rice."
Throughout the day on Sunday, other area residents drove past the property as a New Mexico State Police helicopter cut the air overhead.
Sherry Jarrell, an occupational therapist who lives on a 70-acre property not far from where the arrests were made Friday, said the area is beautiful, but residents don’t always know who their neighbors are.
“It’s a great place, but strange people live out on the mesa,” she said, “people that are trying to get away from things.”