(CNN) — A New Mexico couple told authorities months ago they thought a missing Georgia boy and his fugitive father were living in a filthy compound on their property.
But police did not carry out a search of the property until last week, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said, because they did not believe they had probable cause in the case.
That delay is facing scrutiny in the wake of Monday’s discovery of a young boy’s remains at the compound.
“They were dragging their feet. They were taking too long,” said Tanya Badger, who with her husband, Jason, told authorities about the boy’s suspected presence at the compound. “Even if they were trying to build a case or whatnot, a child’s life is at stake.”
It’s not clear whether the remains are those of Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, a child with severe medical problems who disappeared from Georgia about nine months ago. The remains were discovered in a wretched compound along with 11 starving children, authorities said.
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, Siraj Wahhaj, allegedly abducted him from Georgia in November.
Neighbors raised alarm about a suspect
The Badgers, 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.
“We are just beyond frustrated that they took so long,” Tanya Badger said.
New Mexico authorities had 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,” Hogrefe said. “In hindsight I wish there was, but we would not have been there lawfully.”
The sheriff said that “they did surveillance, both ground and aerial, and photographs were shared with the family and mother of the missing boy. The boy Abdul was never identified from those photos. Moving forward we knew that there was this compound, but we had very little details about it or who was occupying it. These people just kind of (sprang) up very quickly.”
The authorities’ view changed Thursday when they said they received a message about possible starving children living on the compound, and had enough probable cause to put in an affidavit for a search warrant.
“We are starving and need food and water,” the message said, according to authorities. Authorities said it was forwarded to them but did not provide details on its origin.
Compound wasn’t searched thoroughly, couple say
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,” Hogrefe said.
The father of the missing boy, Siraj Wahhaj, 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.
However, the Badgers said that police did not do a thorough job searching the property. The couple said they went back over the weekend after they found out Abdul-Ghani wasn’t among the 11 children discovered during the raid.
They said they were surprised to see the scene was not taped off and was still largely untouched. They found two guns, ammo, tactical vests and video cameras that police initially missed, Jason Badger said.
“When we first went up there, nothing was overturned,” he said. “You could tell nobody had looked underneath that, nobody had looked underneath this.”
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.”
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.
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