TAOS COUNTY, New Mexico — Nine months after young Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj disappeared from Georgia, his family’s worst nightmare may be realized in New Mexico.
There, in a wretched compound where 11 starving children were recently found, authorities have discovered the remains of a young boy.
It’s not clear whether the remains are those of Abdul-Ghani, a child with severe medical problems whose fourth birthday was Monday. But more details about the horrid compound could be revealed Wednesday when the five adults arrested from the site make their first court appearances.
Authorities raided the compound in Amalia, New Mexico, on Friday as part of their search for Abdul-Ghani, whose father allegedly abducted him from Georgia in November.
Investigators found several items at the compound, including ammunition, a white tarp, a camcorder and a passport and Georgia identification for the boy’s father, Siraj Wahhaj.
The big break came after a message
For months, investigators have searched for the boy with no success. Their big break came Thursday when law enforcement officials received a message, setting off a series of actions that led them to the compound the next day.
“We are starving and need food and water,” the message said, according to authorities, who said it was forwarded to them but did not provide details on its origin.
When officers executed a search warrant on the compound, they found a horrifying scene. Stacks of tires, piles of trash and plastic sheets surrounded the compound. Obscured by the junk was a trailer where the 11 children and five adults were living.
The children wore dirty rags for clothing with no shoes, and were surrounded by weapons and rounds of ammunition, authorities said.
“It was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen,” Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said.
For months, authorities have searched for the little boy whose father allegedly abducted him late last year from Clayton County, Georgia.
The father was arrested at the compound Friday along with his sisters Hujrah Wahhaj and Subhannah Wahhaj and two other adults — Lucas Morten and Jany Leveille. All have been charged with abuse of the 11 children. Morten was charged with harboring a fugitive.
Neighbors raised alarm about a suspect
Jason Badger and his wife, Tanya, whose land the compound was on, said they saw a boy they thought was Abdul-Ghani in January and February.
In April, they discovered the boy was listed as missing and his father a fugitive. They reported the sightings to state and local law enforcement, but it was months before police moved in, the couple said.
New Mexico authorities had long suspected the father and son might be at the compound after learning about the abduction in May, the sheriff said. But there was not enough evidence for a search warrant, and surveillance of the property didn’t identify the pair there.
“I had no probable cause to go onto this property. … In hindsight I wish there was, but we would not have been there lawfully,” Hogrefe said.
Everything changed Thursday when authorities said they received a tip about possible starving children living on the compound, and had enough probable cause to put in an affidavit for a search warrant.
“They were dragging their feet; they were taking too long, even if they were trying to build a case or what not. A child’s life is at stake,” Tanya Badger said.
The couple went back to the property to look for Abdul-Ghani after they found out he wasn’t among the children discovered during the raid.
The Badgers told CNN they found two breathing machines. One had “a little bitty mask,” Jason Badger said.
“Clearly, you could tell it was made for a child,” he said.
They also found what looked like a shooting range, with tires stacked up to stop the bullets, bullet holes and casings at the compound. Also on the property, Jason Badger described what looked like “an escape tunnel” that extended 150 feet and had nooks that contained sleeping bags.
Father allegedly took boy in November
Abdul-Ghani’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, could not be reached after authorities announced the discovery of the remains.
But hours earlier, Ramzi told CNN she had no idea he’d disappear with their son for nine months, only to be found across the country with 11 other children.
“My husband said he was taking Abdul-Ghani to the park, and didn’t come back. That was in November 2017. When I would ask him where he was, he said he was on his way, he was coming soon, he was just keeping him for the night. But I haven’t seen him since then,” Ramzi said Tuesday.
She said her son cannot walk and suffers seizures, and requires constant medical attention.
An arrest warrant states that Wahhaj “wanted to perform an exorcism” on the child because he believed he was possessed by the devil.
But Ramzi said her husband was planning to perform a ruqya — an Islamic practice involving prayer that is believed to help rid a body of illness.
“It’s not an exorcism. That was a translation issue in the court,” Ramzi said. He “just wanted to pray for Abdul-Ghani to get better.”
Suspect’s father is a religious leader
Wahhaj’s father — Siraj Wahhaj — is a prominent and controversial New York imam.
The imam was the first Muslim to offer an opening prayer before the US House of Representatives, the Muslim Alliance in North America said. He was also a character witness for convicted 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind Omar Abdel-Rahman.
In January, Imam Siraj Wahhaj posted a message on Facebook calling for the safe return of his three children and 12 grandchildren. He said the younger Wahhaj and two of the women arrested — Hujrah and Subhannah Wahhaj — are his children.
Police stopped the father in Alabama
In December, days after Ramzi reported her son missing, the child’s father was involved in an accident in Alabama, according to a police report. The SUV had seven children — but none of them was listed with Abdul-Ghani’s date of birth.
But at the time, the group told Alabama police they were headed to New Mexico for camping, and continued on their way.
Even though the boy was reported missing, there was no child abduction warrant against Wahhaj because he was married to his son’s mother, and they both had equal custody, Clayton County police said.
The SUV was registered to Leveille, who was also in the vehicle. She would later become one of the five adults arrested at the compound in New Mexico.
The children were taken into protective custody and later turned over to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.