Taos County sheriff: Boy’s body found at compound

August 10, 2018

TAOS — Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said unidentified remains of a young boy were found Monday at a remote compound in Northern New Mexico where five adults were arrested and 11 children were taken into protective custody last week.

A boy, 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, are in the custody of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

Hogrefe told reporters and residents gathered at the Taos County Commission chambers Tuesday that his office is waiting for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator 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; he is accused kidnapping the boy from his Georgia home late last year.

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 a set of remains that appeared to belong to a small child.

Other information was gathered through interviews conducted throughout the weekend, Hogrefe said.

Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, whose fourth birthday was Monday, was reported missing in December from his Clayton County, Ga., home by his mother. She told police the boy’s father had taken his son. The child was born with a medical condition that caused seizures, and the mother worried the boy’s father had not taken any medication to give his son. She told police the father believed the boy was “possessed.”

The family is related to a well-known Muslim imam in Brooklyn, N.Y., Siraj Wahhaj, who, along with others, had pleaded on Facebook for the little boy’s return.

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 child more than once.

“That was back in end of January or February,” he said, adding that while he also saw the other 11 children, he never saw the three women law enforcement officials said also lived at the makeshift dwelling.

Badger said a dispute regarding the group began in January, but once he learned children were living at the property a few miles from the Colorado border, 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 from his home.

After the group refused, Badger filed a complaint and began contacting law enforcement with concerns about what was happening on his land.

“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 officials to take action.

Hogrefe reiterated at the news conference that he didn’t have sufficient probable cause to raid the property until a distress message “reasonably believed” to have come from within the compound was relayed to his office last week by a detective in Georgia.

In the aftermath of the raid, Badger visited the compound, where he found a combat shotgun and other “locked and loaded weapons, plus bulletproof vests, ammunition and surveillance cameras.

Beneath his property, Badger said he was shocked to find a 150-foot tunnel he said might have been intended as an “escape tunnel” or a “place to keep the children.”

Hogrefe and 8th Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos said the charges against the defendants might be amended as the investigation moves forward. Gallegos also said he is considering filing a petition for no-bond holds for the defendants, which would keep them incarcerated.

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 the end of the day Wednesday, Gallegos said.

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