Editor’s note: The following are two stories by The Taos New’s John Miller: “Remains of ‘young boy’ found at Amalia compound” and “Court document: Child trained as school shooter at Amalia compound.” Both stories can be found at taosnews.com.
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.
By John Miller
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said the remains of a ‘young boy’ were found Monday (Aug. 6) at a remote compound in Northern New Mexico where five adults were arrested and 11 children were taken into protective custody last week.
A toddler, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, 4, who is thought to have been living at the compound, remains missing.
The 11 other children, ranging in age from 1 to 15-years-old, are currently in the custody of the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Division.
Hogrefe told reporters and residents gathered at the Taos County Commission chambers Tuesday (Aug. 7) his office is waiting for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner to identify the remains.
All five adults who had lived at the compound, including the missing child’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, have been charged with 11 counts of child abuse, third-degree felonies. Wahhaj also faces an abduction charge for allegedly kidnapping the child from his Georgia home last year. A warrant was issued in Georgia for Wahhaj’s arrest on Jan. 9.
In an interview with The Taos News, Jason Badger, the owner of the Amalia property where the group arrived and began building early this year, said he had seen the missing boy on the property more than once.
“That was back in end of January or February,” he said, and added that while he also saw the 11 other children, he never saw the three women whom law enforcement said also lived at the makeshift dwelling.
Badger explained that a dispute regarding the alleged squatters began in January, but once he learned children were living at the property, he attempted to find an amicable solution.
“I didn’t want to just kick them out,” Badger said.
He proposed the group “swap” the property for land Badger said the group had purchased not far away from his home in Northern New Mexico.
After the men refused, Badger filed a complaint in Taos Magistrate Court. He began contacting law enforcement with concerns about what was happening on his land, but said he received no response.
“They never returned phone calls,” Badger said. “They never did a damn thing about it.”
He said other concerned area residents also began calling law enforcement and urged them to take action.
Badger said the children “clearly were not taken care of,” and believes the sheriff should have acted sooner.
But Hogrefe reiterated at the conference Tuesday that he didn’t have sufficient probable cause to raid the property until a distress message officials believed came from within the compound was relayed to his office by a detective in Clayon County Georgia last week. Hogrefe said FBI agents and officials from Clayton County Police Department had been working the case for about two months.
Asked about the FBI’s role in the operation at the conference, Hogrefe said he “can’t speak for another agency.” Hogrefe had said Saturday (Aug. 4) that FBI agents had said they also felt there was insufficient probable cause to act earlier.
No one from the FBI spoke at the press conference Tuesday.
In the aftermath of the raid, Badger visited the compound. He said he found a combat shotgun, other weapons that were “locked and loaded,” bulletproof vests, “lots of ammo,” Go Pro cameras and surveillance cameras.
Underneath his property, he said he also found a “150-foot tunnel,” which he speculated might have been intended as an “escape tunnel” or a “place to keep the children.”
On Tuesday, Hogrefe and 8th Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos said the charges against the defendants may be amended as the investigation moves forward. Gallegos is also considering filing a petition for no bond holds for the defendants, which would keep them incarcerated until trial, but didn’t give a definitive answer as of press time.
The two men and three women are being held at the Taos County Adult Detention Center. Arraignments are expected to be finished for all five defendants by end of day Wednesday (Aug. 7), Gallegos said.
Asked whether the two men and three women arrested at the compound offered any information regarding the whereabouts of the boy, Hogrefe said they provided some “limited” information that assisted in the discovery of the set of remains, which appeared to belong to a small child.
Other information was gathered through interviews conducted throughout the weekend, Hogrefe said.
Abdul Wahhaj, who would have turned 4-years-old Monday, was reported missing in December from his Clayton County, Georgia home by his mother, Hakima Ramzi. The child was born with a medical condition that caused seizures. She was worried that the toddler’s father had not taken any medication to give to their son. She told police the father believed the boy was “possessed” and wanted to perform an “exorcism” on him.
The family is related to a well-known Muslim imam in Brooklyn, Siraj Wahhaj, who, along with others, had pleaded on Facebook for the little boy’s return.