TAOS, N.M. (AP) — They arrived at the start of winter to set up makeshift living quarters on the high-desert plains of northern New Mexico, amid a tiny community of off-the-grid homes on 10-acre lots.
For a time, the newcomers appeared to adapt to life 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the nearest groceries in Amalia by installing solar electricity and stockpiling old tires — just like neighbors who used recycled materials for the region's signature "earthship" self-built homes.
"We just figured they were doing what we were doing, getting a piece of land and getting off the grid," said Tyler Anderson, a 41-year-old auto mechanic who lived nearby.
But by late spring, the extended Muslim family was the target of investigations and surveillance involving the FBI, the local sheriff and authorities in Georgia. The Taos County sheriff said they were searching for a severely disabled 3-year-old boy who had abruptly disappeared in December with his father from Jonesboro, Georgia.
A raid on the property Friday led authorities to find five adults, one of them a heavily armed man identified as the missing boy's father, and 11 malnourished children living in filth, the sheriff said. A second search of the property Monday led authorities to another grim discovery — the remains of a boy. They have been sent to a medical examiner for identification.
The missing boy's father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the 39-year-old son of a well-known Muslim cleric in New York, is under investigation in the death of the child. He is also accused in court documents of training children at the compound to carry out school shootings after a foster parent of one of the 11 youths reported the allegation to authorities.
Prosecutor Timothy Hasson included the claim in a court filing Wednesday, marking yet another dark turn in the story of a squalid compound that authorities have described as a small, camping trailer wedged into the ground. Wahhaj and the four other adults — a man and three women — have been charged with child abuse.
"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," Hasson wrote.
Prosecutors did not bring up the accusation of the training for a school shooting during court hearings Wednesday for the defendants. In court papers, prosecutors also did not say which schools — if any — were targeted. State child-protection authorities said they do not believe any of the children were attending school in New Mexico.
A judge ordered the five adults held without bail.
Aleks Kostich of the public defender's office questioned the new accusations, saying they contained little information beyond the explanation they came from a foster parent. He also said the criminal complaints filed against the adults on the child abuse charges were "thin" and may be legally insufficient.
While he did not elaborate, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe has said adults at the compound are considered to be "extremist of the Muslim belief."
Before the raid that followed a two-month investigation and FBI surveillance, Hogrefe said, there had been reports of gunfire coming from the sagebrush-laden acreage where the group built its compound.
Anderson, the auto mechanic, said he heard gunfire but didn't consider it anything out of the ordinary in the wide-open area, where people are known to take target practice. He said he and his wife bought a plot of land for $8,000 and moved there seven years ago to escape big-city pressures.
He said he didn't recall seeing the missing boy, Abdul-ghani Wahhaj. The boy's mother has said the child cannot walk and requires constant attention because of a condition caused by lack of oxygen and blood flow around the time of birth.
Authorities expected to learn Thursday whether the human remains found at the site are his.
In a Georgia arrest warrant accusing Wahhaj of kidnapping his son, authorities said he told the boy's mother that he wanted to perform an exorcism on the child because he believed he was possessed by the devil.
The boy's grandfather, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, earlier this year posted a plea on Facebook for help finding his grandson.
The grandfather heads the Masjid At-Taqwa in Brooklyn, a mosque that has attracted radical speakers over the years. He met Mahmud Abouhalima when he came to the site to raise money for Muslims in Afghanistan. Abouhalima later helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.
The mosque was founded in a neighborhood plagued by drug violence, and it drew media attention in the 1980s for organizing nighttime anti-drug patrols.
At the compound, Anderson said he had helped the two men with electrical work, including the installation of solar panels. Eventually, he grew frustrated that they couldn't maintain solar equipment on their own and stopped helping.
He visited the property again after the raid Friday and was astonished that it had fallen into disarray — and by reports that the children had gone hungry.
"I don't know what happened to the money," he said. "Maybe they felt like they were being watched and couldn't leave."
Hudetz reported from Albuquerque. AP writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta, and Russell Contreras in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.
Posted on Thu, August 9, 2018
by By MORGAN LEE and MARY HUDETZ, Associated Press