Children ranging in age from 1 to 15 years old were discovered living in filth, with no food, no running water or electricity by the Taos County (N.M.) Sheriff's Office (TCSO) while serving a search warrant to 39-year-old Siraj Wahhaj, who was wanted in Georgia for allegedly abducting his 3-year-old son, AG Wahhaj. The abducted boy, however, was not found among the other children.
According to the TCSO's Facebook page, the warrant followed a two-month investigation in conjunction with the FBI and Clayton County, Georgia officials. However, despite knowledge obtained during the FBI's surveillance, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said in the statement that the FBI did not feel there was enough "probable cause" to get on the property.
“That all changed for me when a message was forwarded to us from a Georgia detective that we reasonably believed came from someone at the compound," Hogrefe said in a statement.
"The message sent to a third party simply said, in part, 'we are starving and need food and water.' 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 continued.
Hogrefe wrote on Facebook that he was concerned for the safety of his officers after learning that the occupants were, most likely, heavily armed. "We also knew from the layout of the compound they would have an advantage if we didn’t deploy tactfully and quickly”—which is why he issued the warrant.
After an “all-day” operation on Friday, two men, Siraj Wahhaj and Lucas Morton (both from Georgia), were arrested without injuries. Police say 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 kids were taken into protective custody and later turned over to New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD).
TSCO described the compound as filthy and heartbreaking.
"I'm a 30-year police officer," Hogrefe wrote. "This is, by far, the worst thing I've ever seen as far as living conditions."
In total, five adults—three of whom were women, believed to be the children’s mothers—and 11 children were found inside the makeshift residence, which "consisted of a small travel trailer buried in the ground covered by plastic," Hogrefe said in the statement. They "looked like third world country refugees not only with no food or fresh water, but with no shoes, personal hygiene and basically dirty rags for clothing.”
He went on, praising the coordination efforts of his team, as well as officials from Clayton County, Georgia; the FBI; and CYFD, saying they “gave the kids our water and what snacks we had—it was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen."
In a Facebook post yesterday, TCSO updated the public, stating that all three females found inside the compound—Jany Leveille (35), Hujrah Wahhaj (38) and Subhannah Wahhaj (35)—were arrested without incident and booked in the Taos Adult Detention Center.
"After gathering facts, conducting interviews, and discussion with the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe swore an affidavit for arrest warrants charging 11 counts of child abuse for all five adults related to the neglect and abuse of the children involved. Each count is a third-degree felony," according to the post.
Siraj Wahhaj and Morton remain in custody at the Taos Adult Detention Center pending the outcome of their investigation.
Meanwhile, investigators are still searching for the missing boy, AG Wahhaj, who turned 4 years old yesterday.