Police in New Mexico rescued eleven children between the ages of 1 to 15 on Friday, from a compound they described as being "surrounded by tires and an earthern berm."
Lucas Morten and Siraj Wahhaj were both arrested following an armed standoff with Taos County Sheriff's deputies.
In a press release from the Taos County Sheriff's office, authorities say the compound was discovered during the course of a two-month investigation into the disappearance of a missing 3-year-old from Georgia. Authorities say deputies received a message from a Georgia detective who was relaying a message they "reasonably believed" came from someone inside the compound. The message said in part, that "we are starving and need food and water."
Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said that after receiving the message, they knew they couldn't wait, and swore out an affidavit for a warrant Thursday afternoon and began preparing his team for a raid on the compound the following morning.
"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, so I began working on a search warrant right after I got that intercepted message – 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 . We also knew from the layout of the compound they would have an advantage if we didn’t deploy tactfully and quickly.”
On Friday, eight members of the Taos County Sheriff's office converged on the compound after securing the warrant to search it. Police say that they did not find the kidnapped 3-year-old there, who authorities believed was taken by Wahhaj.
Instead, deputies discovered the 11 children living in squalor, with little food, no water and wearing rags for clothing.
"The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer," said Sheriff Hogrefe. "But what was most surprising, and heartbreaking, was when the team located a total of five adults and 11 children that looked like third-world country refugees not only with no food or fresh water, but with no shoes, personal hygiene and basically dirty rags for clothing."
Both men are from Georgia and taken into custody by Taos County Sheriff's deputies. Morten was charged with harboring a fugitive and Wahhaj with child abduction. Three women, who may be the children's mothers, were detained briefly, but not charged.
Police are still investigating the women's connection to the case. Hogrefe said deputies did what they could for the children when they found them.
“We all gave the kids our water and what snacks we had – it was the saddest living conditions and poverty I have seen," said Hogrefe.
Police say the eleven children have been handed over to the New Mexico Children Youth and Family Department.
Deputies say the operation to liberate the children took some time because Wahhaj was allegedly holed up inside the compound with several weapons, including an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, five 30-round magazines and four handguns, including one loaded one in his pocket when he was eventually taken down.
Police added that they found "many more rounds" of ammunition at the location where Wahhaj was hiding.
Wahhaj eventually surrendered to police without incident.
No one was injured in the operation, the sheriff's office said.
Photos: Taos County Sheriff's Office