AMALIA, N.M. – Tiny pairs of pants, broken-down bikes with training wheels and discarded children’s shoes haphazardly scattered among the homemade-brick walls and a half-buried RV hint at the tragedy and mystery unfolding in this remote community.
Here, down a dirt road scratched through the sagebrush, investigators are trying to piece together why a group of heavily armed Muslims took up residence on property they didn’t own and built a compound from wooden pallets, clear plastic tarps and dirt-filled tires. Investigators also are trying to understand the death of a 3-year-old child, whose body was found buried on the site about four hours south of Denver.
And they’re trying to unravel whether the group had sinister plans after one of the children told authorities he was taught how to fire a rifle in preparation for a school shooting.
All the while, a property owner who says he repeatedly reported the group to authorities is struggling with the guilt that maybe he could have done more – and anger that police didn’t.
“That’s what’s hard, this kid, this innocent child, is now dead,” said Jason Badger, who owns the land where the group illegally built its compound. “Me and my wife hope we did everything we thought we could.”
Police have arrested five adults and taken 11 children into protective custody following the discovery of a buried child’s body in the aftermath of an Aug. 4 SWAT raid on the rural property just a stone’s throw from the Colorado border. The 11 kids were in various states of dehydration and emaciation, authorities said.
Police said they intervened after intercepting a message from one of the people in the compound begging for help.
All of the adults face child-abuse charges, and one of the men is also being detained on a December kidnapping warrant from Georgia. He’s accused of spiriting his chronically sick son, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, across state lines without access to adequate health care. The boy’s body was discovered on the property during a raid by SWAT officers last week. The cause of death has not yet been released.
According to investigators and neighbors, the group bought a piece of property in the Costilla Meadows sometime last year and moved onto it in December. The problem: Due to snow and a misunderstanding of the boundary markers, the group mistakenly set up on Badger’s land, instead of the adjacent 10-acre parcel they owned.
Badger said he discovered them on his land about two weeks after they moved in. Some were living in tents, while others were living in a small moving truck fitted with bunk beds, authorities said. Badger said he tried to work with the two men, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Lucas Morton, to resolve the property problem by simply flip-flopping their ownership. While the two pieces of property are virtually identical, Badger said the group had already begun building up their compound to shelter from the winter’s cold.
“If I had kicked them off the property, those kids would have literally been living in the dirt,” Badger said.
The group appeared ill-equipped to handle the December cold, although it’s unclear where they came from initially. Wahhaj’s family lives in New York City, and the mother of his son lives in Georgia. But in Amalia, about 8,000 feet above sea level, summertime temperatures can easily hit 90 degrees, and below-zero temperatures are common in winter. The property has no electricity or natural gas-service, and the large pile of propane tanks suggests the group tried to stay warm with portable heaters.
Several collapsed tents still sit on the site, weighed down by discarded books and clothing. Authorities say the group was living in a half-buried RV and the moving truck. There is no running water on the site, although there are several large water containers, and investigators say the group also appeared to be catching rainwater to drink.
Shortly after arriving in December, Morton sought to buy an RV from Paul Jones, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Costilla County, in nearby Mesita, Colorado. Jones, who's known as Preacher Paul, said Morton decided the RV was either too big or too expensive but paid cash for some double-paned windows and old solar panels.
"Being a pastor, I invited him to church, but he said he was Muslim and wasn't interested," Jones said. "We never saw any of the children."
All five of the adults from the compound are black, and the southern Colorado-northern New Mexico area is predominately white. That meant Morton and Wahhaj stuck out when they stopped in at the Costilla Gas & Grocery, the closest store, about as much as the suit-wearing FBI agents did when they came by in May, residents said. At the time, Wahhaj was wanted on the kidnapping warrant, but FBI agents told local law enforcement they lacked evidence to intervene at that time.
People who move to the area often are trying to escape something – the law, the military or a broken relationship, said Mary Helen Trujillo, who owns Garcia Liquors on the Colorado side of the border. Here, people tend to keep to themselves, although neighbors often lend a helping hand when asked. That's how Trujillo met Morton, who she said came in with a neighbor looking for an RV. Trujillo directed them to Preacher Paul.
Like many other area residents, Trujillo said she never saw the kids or the women. Although the Rio Costilla Elementary School is near the town's central crossroads, no one remembers the kids attending. Neighbors say they were also unaware three adult women lived on the site or that so many kids lived there.
"I never want to see the ugly in people, and when I found out about this, my god, it's so ugly," Trujillo said.
Badger said he found the men easy to deal with, at least initially. They even agreed to pay to swap the land title with him so they could just stay on the site, he said. But after months of wrangling, Sirahhj said he couldn't pay the small title fee.
The 10-acre lot is worth less than $8,000, largely because there's no services or infrastructure. Some of the other houses scattered across the field appear to have outhouses, but there's no trash pickup or electrical power.
“Whenever I would go up there and talk to Lucas, he pretty much met me at the road every time. I never saw the living conditions," Badger said. “I never intruded on his privacy. I respected his privacy.”
Over time, Badger grew frustrated the group wasn't following through on its promise to fix the paperwork.
“At that point in time, I said you have to go. And they just didn’t leave," Badger said.
It was about that time Badger says he heard rumors some law enforcement agency was spying on the compound. His curiosity piqued, a quick bit of Googling revealed Sirahhj's outstanding kidnapping warrant and the increasingly anguished Facebook posts by the child's mother. Wahhaj's father is Imam Siraj Wahhaj, a prominent Muslim cleric from the Masjid At Taqwa, a well-known mosque in Brooklyn.
Badger said he alerted local law enforcement and authorities in Georgia who had issued the arrest warrant for Wahhaj. That was in May, he said, and nothing happened – even after he signed a consent form giving police permission to search what was, after all, his property.
Nothing apparently came of that, although that's around the same time a few people remember FBI agents briefly visiting the town.
Everything changed a week ago: The Taos County Sheriff’s Office obtained an intercepted message sent by someone in the compound begging for food and water, and that was enough information to act, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said.
“It had to be a search warrant and a tactical approach for our own safety because we had learned the occupants were most likely heavily armed and considered extremist of the Muslim belief,” Hogrefe said in a statement. “We also knew from the layout of the compound they would have an advantage if we didn’t deploy tactfully and quickly.”
No one was hurt in the raid. The children, ranging in age from 1 to 15, were placed into the custody of the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department, the sheriff said. In addition to Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Morton, also arrested were Jany Leveille, 35, Hujrah Wahhaj, 38, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35, according to court records. Hujrah and Subhannah Wahhaj are Siraj Ibn Wahhaj's sisters.
Wahhaj's father, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, said in a Facebook broadcast on Thursday evening that he was the one who turned over the message to authorities, giving them the exact location of the compound via delivery instructions for a food shipment. The elder Wahhaj rejected the suggestion that either he or his son hold extremist beliefs.
"We just want the truth," he said in the Facebook broadcast. "He may be my son, they may be my daughters, but we just want the truth."
Prosecutors so far have persuaded the judge hearing the cases to keep the five adults locked up, saying in a court filing that “the defendant transported children across state lines for the purpose of the children receiving advanced weapons training to commit future acts of violence. Should the defendant be released from custody he poses a great danger to the children found on the property as well as a threat to the community as a whole due to the presence of firearms and his intent to use these firearms in a violent and illegal manner.”
While the group is detained, Badger has been escorting journalists to the site, which investigators have released back to him. A heavy stench of urine and old trash hangs over the compound. There's no apparent toilet on site. Several Qurans were left out, along with ammunition boxes. The sheriff’s office said Wahhaj was armed with an AR-15 rifle, four pistols and extra ammunition when he was “taken down” by the SWAT team.
Badger is now expecting to pay tens of thousands of dollars worth of cleanup costs.
The group built adobe walls, strengthened by glass bottles and cans, and embedded the tops with broken glass. A curtain wall of dirt-filled tires blocks easy access to the compound's front, and the rest of it is pockmarked with ditches and holes. Stacked wooden pallets lead down to the tarp-covered RV, which is filled with garbage, clothing and household goods. There was no obvious food supply, although hammers and power saws are scattered around.
Authorities have not yet responded to Badger's complaints that he was ignored.
“I tried to bring water … and he said he couldn’t take it due to religious beliefs," Badger said of the men. "It just sucks. It’s hard to swallow.”
Adult members of the group are due back in court next week for a status hearing, according to court records. They remain jailed at the Taos County Jail in Taos. Citing their status as juveniles, authorities have not released any additional information about the location or health of the 11 children. Imam Siraj Wahhaj said he soon hopes to travel to New Mexico to gain custody of the children, some of whom are his grandchildren.