It took a single plea for help — “we are starving and need food and water” — to set off a chain of events that led authorities to a disguised compound beneath the secluded scrubland of northern New Mexico.
During a raid Friday morning, Taos County Sheriff’s deputies uncovered a squalid scene: Obscured by walls of tires, wooden pallets and other junk was a makeshift trailer belonging to two men, three women and 11 children ranging in age from 1 to 15. They were living off a few potatoes and a box of rice, and surrounded by a cache of guns, including an AR-15 rifle, officials said.
The two men were expected to be in court Monday to face 11 counts of child abuse, while the women were arrested Sunday and booked on similar charges as part of a wider investigation. The children were placed in protective custody with the state.
No one was injured when the Taos County Sheriff’s Office and a multiagency tactical team executed a search warrant on the property in Amalia, a few miles south of the Colorado border.
Exact details of the case were not immediately released, although authorities began an investigation two months ago in conjunction with the FBI and investigators in Clayton County, Georgia.
Authorities believed one of the compound’s occupants was Siraj Wahhaj, 39, wanted in connection with the abduction of his son, Abdul-Ghani. The boy, who turns 4 on Monday, was reported missing by his mother last December from their Georgia home. Wahhaj was the prime suspect.
Around Christmas, a camp sprouted up in the Taos County desert. It’s unclear how Wahhaj and the others came to reside at that property.
But Tanya and Jason Badger, who own 10 acres adjacent to it, said they noticed the residence and believed it was encroaching illegally on their land as well, they told NBC affiliate KOB.
The couple said that in February, they had seen Wahhaj and a child that may have been his son. They said after seeing a report about the missing boy, they contacted Taos County deputies.
The FBI began surveillance of the compound, although agents didn’t have probable cause to get inside, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said in a news release after the raid.
That changed when the distress message was forwarded to his department by a Georgia detective, who said it came from someone inside of the compound. The note said they were “starving.”
“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,” Hogrefe said.
A tactical unit was needed because the residents of the site were likely “heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief,” Hogrefe said.
“We also knew from the layout of the compound they would have an advantage if we didn’t deploy tactfully and quickly,” he added.
The compound included a 150-foot tunnel and a ladder that led out into a neighboring property.
As a result of the raid, authorities arrested Wahhaj and another male, Lucas Morton. Morton was charged with harboring a fugitive and Wahhaj was booked on his no bond warrant for child abduction in Georgia.
His son, however, was not found at the site with the other children and remained missing Monday.
Authorities also said they found five loaded 30-round magazines and four loaded pistols, along with ammo. The trailer that was used was buried into the ground and lacked running water, plumbing and electricity.
Also arrested were three women — Jany Leveille, 35; Hujrah Wahhaj, 38; and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35 — described as the mothers of the 11 children. The women’s relationship to the men was not immediately clear.
Hogrefe said Sunday that there was enough evidence to charge the women in connection with the “filthy” conditions that the children were forced to live in.
The sheriff added that the group “looked like third world country refugees with no food or fresh water, no shoes, and basically dirty rags for clothing.”
“It was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen,” he said.
After the raid, the Badgers on Sunday toured the compound and found bullet casings, feces, a Quran and the escape tunnel.
Tanya Badger said she’s most worried about the missing boy, who she said might still be in the area.
“Where is he?” she told KOB, adding: “Who says he’s not here? It’s going to haunt me forever if they don’t find that baby.”