A man accused of abducting his 3-year-old son from Georgia last year and taking him to a remote compound in Northern New Mexico allegedly trained one of 11 other children who lived there to commit school shootings, court documents indicate.
Following a search of the compound Monday (Aug. 6), investigators say they found the remains of a small boy, believed to be Siraj Ibn Wahhaj's son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a toddler who had suffered seizures and walked with a limp. The boy would have turned 4 years old on Monday.
As of press time Thursday night (Aug. 9), however, the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator had encountered difficulties in identifying the remains and has yet to confirm the body as the missing child.
"The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator continues to work to identify the remains found at the Amalia complex near Taos," said Kurt Nolte, chief medical examiner, in a statement Thursday (Aug. 9). He said the remains are decomposed, making identification "very difficult."
Nolte said investigators are attempting to use medical records, fingerprints, DNA and other identification materials to identify the remains.
"If we must rely on DNA results, identification could take several weeks," Nolte said.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, and four other adults who also lived at the compound near Amalia - Lucas Allen Morton, 40, Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35 - are accused of keeping the children in sordid living conditions.
On Wednesday (Aug. 8), the five defendants appeared in a packed courtroom to be arraigned on 11 counts of child abuse in Taos magistrate court. Siraj Ibn Wahhaj was arraigned on an outstanding arrest warrant for allegedly taking his son from his Georgia home. On advice from Taos public defenders Aleksandar Kostich and Gregory Dawkins, the defendant didn't say a word during the arraignment and did not waive extradition.
"Georgia will need to seek a governor's warrant. Once obtained, they will put a detainer on him, so he can address his Georgia charges. He will be addressing the charges here first," said deputy district attorney Ron Olsen of the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office.
In an unusual move, the prosecutors chose to refile the child abuse charges against all five defendants to 8th Judicial District Court in Taos. The five will reappear on Monday (Aug. 13) for a hearing on a motion filed by the state to hold them without bond until trial. Prosecutors will have to show the defendants are a danger to the community and a flight risk.
Investigators say the children the defendants brought to New Mexico had little food or water at the compound, no shoes and "rags" for clothes. Weapons were also accessible to the children, the investigations determined, and a makeshift shooting range was located at the property.
A motion filed Wednesday to keep Siraj Ibn Wahhaj incarcerated as his case is processed added a new layer of darkness to a story that has unfolded quickly over the past several days.
"A foster parent of one of the 11 children stated the defendant had trained the child in the use of an assault rifle in preparation for future school shootings," the motion reads. The same language is also used in the motions filed for the other defendants.
Neighbors reported hearing shots fired near the dwelling after the group arrived and began building on the property, which they did not own, according to a search warrant.
The property owner, Jason Badger, said he filed a complaint against Morton in Taos Magistrate Court earlier this year, which was dismissed by a judge. Badger said he and other area residents also submitted complaints to law enforcement, but never heard back.
But while law enforcement might not have communicated with the public on the matter, information revealed this week indicates a multi-agency operation was being set in motion to discover what was going on at the Amalia property.
In December, the missing child's mother, Hakima Ramzi, told law enforcement her son had been taken by his father from their home in Georgia. The child's grandfather, Siraj Wahhaj, a well-known imam in Brooklyn, had pleaded for the boy's return along with other family members, worried the sickly boy didn't have his medication. A judge issued an arrest warrant for Siraj Ibn Wahhaj in January, and by mid-May, a team including the Taos County Sheriff's Office, Clayton County Police Department and the FBI began to search.
Aerial surveillance conducted by the FBI led the team to Amalia, a rural unincorporated community in the high desert near the Colorado border. According to court documents filed by Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, the FBI spotted a boy who walked with a limp among the adults and other children on the ground below. Jason Badger, the property owner, also said he had seen the boy at the compound as late as February. Hogrefe, however, said the federal agency told him there was insufficient probable cause to take action.
Hogrefe said that changed on Thursday (Aug. 5), when a detective with the Clayton County Police Department intercepted a distress message believed to have come from within the makeshift dwelling. It said residents at the compound were "starving."
Believing they had enough evidence to move in, Hogrefe obtained a "no-knock" search warrant and formed a tactical team. Members of the New Mexico Office of Special Investigations and Hogrefe's own special response team suited up for a raid, hoping to find the missing boy.
After moving past a "no trespassing" warning scrawled on cardboard at the front of the property, investigators found Siraj Ibn Wahhaj in a "partly buried camper trailer," according to an affidavit filed by Hogrefe Aug. 7. Two women and several children were also found inside, but Wahhaj refused to come out with his hands up. The 40-year-old was "armed with a loaded revolver in his pocket" and was "wearing a belt with five loaded 30-round AR-15 magazines in pouches on the belt." Beside him was a loaded AR-15 rifle, according to the affidavit.
Law enforcement arrested him, but Wahhaj would not give his name or identify anyone else at the compound, including the whereabouts of his missing son.
In their search, investigators found a 100-foot tunnel on the north side of the buried trailer about 3 to 4 feet wide. Two "pockets" containing bedding were dug out of its walls. Another enclosure inside the tunnel appeared to have been used as a makeshift toilet.
Lucas Morton was encountered and arrested next to a white box truck at the front of the property. After the remaining children were located and a third woman was taken into custody, investigators began to examine their surroundings in greater detail.
"The living conditions, health and well-being of the children were deemed deplorable as they had no clean water, food, electricity, dirty clothing, poor hygiene and had not eaten or taken nutrition in what was believed to be days," Hogrefe said.
The three women eventually provided their names and those of the children, but said nothing about where Abdul-Ghani might be. They said the two men arrested had told them not to talk about him.
The women were taken into custody and housed at the Taos nonprofit, Communities Against Violence. But after a series of interviews over the weekend, they were also arrested on child abuse charges. The children were turned over to the state Children Youth and Families Department.
Hogrefe said two of the children interviewed by a state caseworker said that the missing Georgia toddler Abdul-Ghani had been at the compound, was "in poor health and died there."
One of them said "Uncle Lucas" had "washed his body twice and then buried him" on the property, consistent with Muslim burial rituals.
Other items left at the raided property included a Marlin .30-30-caliber rifle fitted with a scope, pistols, ammunition, a laptop, a camcorder, and a Penguin child's nebulizer, used to turn medicine into mist.