Compound suspects built in tiny off-the-grid community
By MORGAN LEE and MARY HUDETZ, Associated Press
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 used 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 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 and without clean drinking water, the Taos County sheriff said. A second search of the property Monday led authorities to another grim discovery — the remains of a young boy that have since been sent to a medical examiner to be identified.
The missing boy’s father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, who is the son of a well-known imam in New York, is under investigation in the death of the unidentified child found on the property. He also is 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 removed from the property 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, including a man and three women, all have been charged with 11 counts of child abuse in the case.
“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 in the filing as he sought to have Wahhaj remain jailed without bail.
Prosecutors did not bring up the accusation of the training for a school shooting during initial court hearings Wednesday for the abuse suspects. A judge ordered them all held without bond pending further proceedings.
Aleks Kostich of the Taos County Public Defender’s Office questioned the new accusations, saying the claim was presented with little information beyond the explanation that it came from a foster parent. He also has questioned “thin” criminal complaints filed against the five adults on child abuse charges, saying they are vague and may be legally insufficient.
While he did not elaborate, Taos County 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 sage-brush laden acreage where the group built their compound.
But Anderson, the auto mechanic, said the sound of gunfire hadn’t bothered him in an area where target practice on private property attracts little notice. He says he and his wife bought a plot of land for $8,000 and moved to the rural subdivision seven years to escape big-city economic pressures and stress.
He remembered this week that two adolescent boys from the compound rode a motorbike on the community’s private dirt roads. The younger children at first had visited neighboring properties to find playmates.
Anderson didn’t recall seeing the missing boy, Abdul-ghani Wahhaj, whose mother says cannot walk and requires constant attention due to a condition caused by lack of oxygen and blood flow around the time of birth.
Authorities expected to learn Thursday from medical examiners whether the human remains found at the compound site are his.
His 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 to 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 that, at the time, was plagued with drug violence, and got press attention in the 1980s for organizing nighttime anti-drug patrols intended to improve public safety.
In a Georgia arrest warrant, authorities said 39-year-old Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the imam’s son, had told his son’s mother that he wanted to perform an exorcism on the child because he believed he was possessed by the devil. He later said he was taking the child to a park and didn’t return. He is accused of kidnapping in Georgia.
At the compound, Anderson said he had helped the two men with electrical work as they hired another neighbor to excavate, and with installing 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 decay and disarray — and by reports that children at the compound 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.