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Message leads to discovery of 11 children in squalid New Mexico compound

Message leads to discovery of 11 children in squalid New Mexico compound
This aerial photo released by Taos County Sheriff's Office shows a rural compound during an unsuccessful search for a missing 3-year-old boy in Amalia, N.M. (Taos County Sheriff's Office via AP)

A message that people were starving, believed to have come from someone inside a makeshift compound in rural northern New Mexico, led to the discovery of 11 children living in filthy conditions.

Taos County sheriff's officials said Saturday that the children, ranging in age from 1 to 15, were removed from the compound in the small community of Amalia — 145 miles northeast of Albuquerque in an isolated high-desert area near the New Mexico-Colorado border. They were then turned over to state child-welfare workers.

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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.

A 3-year-old boy reported missing in Clayton County, Ga., since December was not among the 11 children found at the compound.

Three women, believed to be the mothers of the children, were detained and later released.

Siraj Wahhaj, left, and Lucas Morten
Siraj Wahhaj, left, and Lucas Morten (Taos County Sheriff's Office via AP)

"The children are in our custody and our No. 1 priority right now is their health and safety," New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobson 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 state line came amid a two-month investigation in collaboration with Clayton County, Ga., authorities and the FBI, according to Hogrefe.

He said FBI agents had conducted surveillance of 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.

The rural compound in the small community of Amalia — 145 miles northeast of Albuquerque.
The rural compound in the small community of Amalia — 145 miles northeast of Albuquerque. (Taos County Sheriff's Office via AP)

“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 plumbing or 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.

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