What started as a search for a 3-year-old Georgia boy led to a horrid discovery 1,400 miles away.
There, in the remote New Mexico community of Amalia, 11 skeletal children lived in squalor. Three women believed to be their mothers were also found in the makeshift compound on Friday.
And two men, including the missing boy’s father, were found armed to the hilt with a cache of weapons and ammo, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office said.
But the missing boy from Georgia, Abdul Ghani Wahhaj, was nowhere to be found. Authorities said there was reason to believe he was at the compound a “few weeks ago.”
On Monday, the boy’s fourth birthday, investigators were scrambling to find him — and to understand what happened at the New Mexico compound.
Missing for 8 months
The search for young Abdul started when his mother reported him missing from Clayton County, Georgia, just south of Atlanta in December. The mother said her son left to go to the park with his father, Siraj Wahhaj, on November 30.
But they never returned.
Wahhaj and his son may have been last seen together December 13 after the vehicle they were in was involved in an accident in Alabama, CNN affiliate WGCL-TV reported.
But an Alabama police report on the crash does not list a child with Abdul’s birthday as being in the car.
Police said the vehicle also was carrying five other children and two other adults — including Lucas Morten, to whom the vehicle was registered, the station reported.
Morten, just like Wahhaj, would eventually be accused of child abuse at the New Mexico compound.
But at the time, Alabama police didn’t hold the group after the traffic accident. The group told police they were headed to New Mexico to go camping, and continued on their way.
Even though young Abdul was reported missing, there was no child abduction warrant against Wahhaj because he was married to his son’s mother — meaning they both had equal custody of the boy, Clayton County police said.
But a juvenile court judge eventually issued an arrest warrant to question Wahhaj after he failed to let the mother know where Abdul was.
‘We are starving and need food and water’
What happened between that car accident in December and Friday’s discovery remains a mystery.
But a tip forwarded to a Georgia detective last week set off a series of events that led to a raid at the New Mexico compound.
The message, apparently sent from someone at the compound, contained a desperate plea: “We are starving and need food and water.”
So on Friday, the Taos County Sheriff’s Office and state authorities executed a search warrant on the compound.
There they found 11 emaciated children ranging in age from 1 to 15, along with three women believed to be their mothers — Hujrah Wahhaj, 38; Subhannah Wahhaj, 35; and Jany Leveille, 35. Those three women were eventually arrested, each facing 11 counts of child abuse “related to the neglect and abuse of the children involved,” the authorities said.
But the most dangerous encounter came when authorities tried to arrest the two men at the compound: Morten and Wahhaj.
Both men initially refused to follow verbal orders, and Wahhaj 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,” the sheriff’s office said.
“Many more rounds of ammo were found in the makeshift compound that consists of a small travel trailer buried in the ground covered by plastic with no water, plumbing or electricity.”
The two men were also arrested, each facing 11 counts of child abuse. Siraj Wahhaj also was the subject of a warrant related to his missing son. Morten was also charged with harboring a fugitive.
The first court appearances for those arrested are Tuesday and Wednesday, according to magistrate court officials.
‘Saddest living conditions’
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said officers found deplorable living conditions for the children.
“The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer,” Hogrefe said.
He said the children looked like “third-world country refugees” with no food, no fresh water, no shoes, “and basically dirty rags” for clothing.
“We all gave the kids our water and what snacks we had — it was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen,” Hogrefe said.
The children were taken into protective custody and later turned over to the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department.
But of the 11 children found, Abdul Ghani Wahhaj — the missing boy from Georgia — was not among them. According to Abdul’s missing persons profile, he “needs assistance walking and may have braces for his legs.”
So while his father sits in custody accused of abusing 11 other children, the search for Abdul continues.