For months, the authorities have been searching for Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a boy from a small Georgia city whose fourth birthday was Monday. The search led them to a filthy compound in New Mexico, where law enforcement officers made a startling discovery over the weekend: 11 malnourished children living without fresh water or plumbing.
Abdul-Ghani was not found at the compound, which investigators described as a trailer buried in the ground and covered in plastic, according to a news release issued by the Taos County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday. In the makeshift compound, officers found the 11 children, ages 1 to 15, along with three women believed to be the children’s mothers and two men.
After the authorities obtained a search warrant and raided the compound in Amalia, N.M., on Friday, one of the men, Siraj Wahhaj, believed to be Abdul-Ghani’s father, was jailed on a warrant for his arrest on an abduction charge in connection with the young boy’s disappearance from Georgia. The five adults, including the three mothers, were charged on Sunday with child abuse, the sheriff’s statement said.
Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj was reported missing in Jonesboro, Ga., in December. That month the Clayton County Police Department in Georgia identified Siraj Wahhaj as the boy’s father. A spokesman for the Taos County sheriff would not confirm their relationship.
Siraj Wahhaj, 39, was heavily armed in the compound, which was ringed with stacks of tires, and would not initially cooperate with officers’ instructions, the sheriff’s office said. In the compound, the authorities found an AR-15 rifle, five loaded magazines, four loaded pistols and more rounds of ammunition.
Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said the children and adults exited the compound in Amalia, a mountainous area about six miles from New Mexico’s northern border with Colorado, looking like “third world country refugees” without food or fresh water. They wore no shoes and “basically dirty rags for clothing,” he said.
“The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer,” he added.
The authorities are continuing to search for Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, the 4-year-old. They believe he was at the compound a few weeks ago.
Their search began last December, when the boy’s mother told the authorities that he had gone to the park with his father about 10 days earlier and that they had not returned, according to the Clayton County Police Department.
His mother told the police that Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj had developmental and cognitive delays, suffers from seizures and was unable to walk because of a brain condition.
“He’s sick. He needs his medication,” the boy’s mother, Hakima Ramzi, said in a video posted to Facebook in January. “I want my son back to me.”
Days after the child went missing, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj and his father were involved in a single-vehicle accident on a highway in Alabama, the police said in December. The pair were in the company of five other children and two adults, the police said.
The group told the Alabama police they were on their way to New Mexico for a camping trip.
In court documents filed Monday in New Mexico, the authorities said Siraj Wahhaj informed the boy’s mother that he wanted to perform an exorcism on him because he believed the child was possessed by the devil, according to The Associated Press.
Sheriff Hogrefe in New Mexico said he sought a search warrant for the compound last week after a detective obtained a message from someone the authorities believed was inside. The message, sent to a third party, said, in part, “We are starving and need food and water,” he said.
At that point, the sheriff said, the investigators believed the occupants of the compound were armed.
After the raid, one of the two men found in the compound, Lucas Morton, was charged with harboring a fugitive. The women were initially detained for questioning and then released, until they were arrested and charged with child abuse on Sunday.
The women, who were being held in jail, were identified as Jany Leveille, 35; Hujrah Wahhaj, 38; and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35. It was unclear whether the women were related.
Each count of child abuse is a third-degree felony that could carry up to three years in prison.
A spokesman for Taos County Sheriff’s Office declined to answer any questions about the case on Monday but said the authorities would hold a news conference on Tuesday afternoon to provide an update. The F.B.I. in New Mexico deferred to the sheriff’s office.