AMALIA — Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said arrest warrants charging 11 counts of child abuse have been served on all five adults in connection with alleged neglect and abuse of 11 children found Friday during the raid of a remote compound in Northern New Mexico.
Two men — Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Lucas Morton — were served with the warrants while in custody at the Taos Adult Detention Center.
Three women who law enforcement officials believe are the mothers of the 11 children — Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35 — were arrested without incident in Taos and booked in the jail.
“I believed this would most likely be the path that we would take and stand by my original decision to bring charges after CYFD [Children, Youth and Families Department] 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,” Hogrefe said in a statement issued late Sunday.
The case gained national attention over the weekend, but for some time, the lives of 16 people seemed hidden behind a wall of tires in this tiny town just a few miles from the Colorado border. That ended Friday, when a team of law enforcement officers made its way past a “no trespassing” sign, arrested Wahhaj and Morton, detained the women and placed 11 children into protective custody.
But one child could not be found: Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a toddler who was reported missing from his Georgia home by his mother on Dec. 10, 2017.
Hogrefe said the search of the Amalia dwelling was the result of a two-month investigation conducted with the FBI and Clayton County (Ga.) Police Department into the whereabouts of the boy, who turned 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 the boy was not among the children the state Children, Youth and Families Department took into protective custody on Friday, law enforcement officials arrested the child’s father, Wahhaj, 40, accusing him of abducting the toddler. Another man who lived at the property, Morton, also 40, was arrested on charges of harboring the accused fugitive.
Wahhaj may be related Siraj Wahhaj, a well-known Muslim imam of the Masjid Al-Taqwa Mosque in Brooklyn, N.Y. 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 could not confirm the relationship between Wahhaj and the imam Sunday. 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 the man 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.”
According to Clayton County police, the toddler and his father were 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. Police told local media the Delaware 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.
It was unknown why Wahhaj traveled to New Mexico, but there is evidence 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 leased in the sparsely populated Costilla Meadows subdivision a couple of miles from the Colorado border bears a 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 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, who agreed to 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.
While Hogrefe said in a news release that 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 multiagency 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 a statement.
Hogrefe said Wahhaj and Morton both initially refused to follow verbal commands given by officers. Wahhaj also was “heavily armed with an AR15 rifle, five loaded 30 round magazines, and four loaded pistols, including one in his pocket when he was taken down,” according to the news 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.”
In the video at this link, an analyst said law enforcement sources close to the investigation confirmed it was an Islamic compound : Moms arrested after 11 children found in ‘filthy’ New Mexico compound with armed Muslim ‘extremists,’ cops say
Hogrefe said they found the “occupants were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief.”
Siraj Wahhaj is the jihad-preaching imam we’ve warned about for years and is also Linda Sarsour’s mentor, whom she recently asked to support the Muslim Brotherhood-linked candidate for governor in Michigan.