(Amalia, N.M.) — Police swarmed a filthy compound in rural New Mexico on Friday and rescued 11 children, ages 1-15, after an armed standoff with one of two men who are now under arrest.
Lucas Morten and Siraj Wahhaj were both arrested after eight members of the Taos County Sheriff’s Office converged on the home, described by police as a compound “surrounded by tires and an earthen berm” after securing a warrant to investigate the location of a missing 3-year-old kidnapped from Georgia. Authorities did not find the 3-year-old, who police believe was kidnapped by Wahhaj, but instead found 11 other children living in squalor, with little food, no water and wearing only rags.
“The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer,” said Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe. “But what was most surprising — and heartbreaking — was when the team located a total of five adults and 11 children that 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.”
Morten and Wahhaj, both from Georgia, were charged with harboring a fugitive and child abduction, respectively.
Three women, believed to be the children’s mothers, were briefly detained but not charged, police said. They are still investigating the women’s connection to the case.
The operation took hours as Wahhaj allegedly holed up inside the compound with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, five 30-round magazines and four handguns upon arrival by the officers. Police said “many more rounds” of ammunition were also found at the location.
Wahhaj eventually surrendered without incident.
The compound consisted of a trailer buried in the ground and covered with white plastic tarps, police said. It had no electricity or running water.
“We all gave the kids our water and what snacks we had,” Hogrefe said in a statement on Facebook. “It was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen.”
The children were given over to the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department, police said.
Hogrefe said the FBI provided surveillance of the compound, which was located in an extremely rural, desert area. However, the Taos County Sheriff could not secure a warrant for probable cause to investigate the location until a Georgia detective investigating the missing child received a message sent to a third party from inside the compound that said, “We are starving and need food and water.”
None of the adults have provided information about the whereabouts of 3-year-old AG Wahhaj, police said. An investigation into his disappearance by the FBI and authorities in Clayton County, Georgia, is continuing.
No one was injured in the operation, the sheriff’s office said.
Amalia, New Mexico, is located in a mountainous region just miles from the Colorado border, about two hours north of Santa Fe.
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