TAOS, N.M. (AP) — Authorities say they’ve arrested three women believed to be the mothers of 11 children found living in filth in a makeshift compound in rural northern New Mexico.
Taos County, New Mexico, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said Monday that the women and two men who were arrested over the weekend face charges of child abuse.
He says 35-year-old Jany Leveille, 38-year-old Hujrah Wahhaj and 35-year-old Subhannah Wahha were arrested without incident in the town of Taos and booked into jail.
The children ranging in age from 1 to 15 were removed from the compound in the small community of Amalia near the Colorado border. They were turned over to state child-welfare workers.
Hogrefe says police still are looking for 4-year-old AG Wahhaj, reported missing from Georgia’s Clayton County. His birthday is Monday.
It was a message that people were starving, believed to come from someone inside a makeshift compound in rural northern New Mexico, that led to the discovery of 11 children on Saturday.
Taos County Sheriff’s officials said the children ranged in age from 1 to 15. Amalia is a small community 145 miles northeast of Albuquerque in an isolated high-desert area near the New Mexico-Colorado border.
Apart from the children’s mothers, who were initially released after brief detentions, two men were arrested during the search. Siraj Wahhaj was detained on an outstanding warrant in Georgia alleging child abduction. Lucas Morten was jailed on suspicion of harboring a fugitive, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said.
It was not immediately clear Sunday if either had retained an attorney.
“The children are in our custody and our number one priority right now is their health and safety,” New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobsons said in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with law enforcement on this investigation.”
The search at the compound just a few miles from the Colorado border came amid a two-month investigation in collaboration with Clayton County authorities and the FBI, according to Hogrefe.
He said FBI agents had surveilled the area a few weeks ago but didn’t find probable cause to search the property.
That changed when Georgia detectives forwarded a message to Hogrefe’s office that initially had been sent to a third party, saying: “We are starving and need food and water.”
The sheriff said there was reason to believe the message came from someone inside the compound.
“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,” Hogrefe said.
What authorities found was what Hogrefe called “the saddest living conditions and poverty” he has seen in 30 years on the job.
Other than a few potatoes and a box of rice, there was little food in the compound, which Hogrefe said consisted of a small travel trailer buried in the ground and covered by plastic with no water, plumbing and electricity.
Hogrefe said the adults and children were without shoes and wore basically dirty rags for clothing and “looked like Third World country refugees.”
The group appeared to be living at the compound for a few months, but the sheriff said it remains unclear how or why they ended up in New Mexico.