It was a kind of camp, just a shack surrounded by tires in the middle of the moor near a tiny town called Amalia, in northern New Mexico. I had no water and it was full of garbage. There, last Friday, the police found two adults, three women and 11 children living in miserable conditions.
The county sheriff defined it this way, “The saddest conditions of poverty that I have seen in my life”. The event took an even more disconcerting turn this Wednesday, when they filed the charges. The police claim that the camp leader was training the children with guns to shoot in schools.
The story begins last December. An Atlanta woman reported to the police that her husband, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 39, had taken his three-year-old son, Abdul-Ghani and had not seen him again. The child suffered from dizziness, could not walk and required constant medical attention. The last thing his father said was that he intended to practice an exorcism because he was possessed by the devil. They were never seen again.
With the help of the FBI, the investigation eventually reached New Mexico, where the Taos County police, near the Colorado border, found the camp last Friday.
There was Wahhaj, another adult male and three women, presumably the mothers of the 11 children who lived there. Wahhaj was heavily armed, with four loaded pistols and an AR-15 assault rifle with 30 magazines. They had also built a kind of rudimentary firing range. They were detained without resistance.
At first there was no trace of the three-year-old disappeared. On Tuesday, the sheriff’s office announced that it had found the remains of a child in the vicinity.
The identification is not official until the forensic analysis is completed but the authorities say that the body is of an age compatible with that of little Abdul-Ghani. “We found him on Abdul’s fourth birthday,” said Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe. The county coroner had not yet confirmed on Thursday morning that it was Abdul-Ghani.
The children found in the camp are between 1 and 15 years old. According to Hogrefe, “they looked like refugees from the third world.” They had no shoes and they were dressed in rags. There was hardly any food in the place when the agents arrived, apart from some potatoes and a pack of rice.
The three women arrested are Huraj Wahhaj, 37, and Subhannah Wahhaj, 35, both sisters of the alleged leader, and Jany Leveille, 35. The other man arrested in the camp is Lucas Allen Morten, 40, and the investigators were the owner of the place that had given refuge to Wahhaj.
All the detainees appeared for the first time before a judge on Wednesday afternoon. Accompanied by public defenders, they pleaded not guilty to 11 crimes of child abuse. Morton is also accused of hiding a fugitive. Everyone is in prison without bail. According to the prosecution, the claim that they were trained to shoot in schools is based on statements made by a foster parent of one of the children.
Reuters reports that at the hearing was a man named Jabril Abdulwani, 64, who assured reporters that he was from Alexandria, Egypt, and Morton’s father. During the hearing, he shouted, ” Allahu Akbar ” (God is the greatest). The man said he had not known anything about his son for a year until he received a message from him last Thursday saying “they were starving.” He described the detainees as “peaceful adult settlers” who tried to “be self-sufficient and found a peaceful community, a peaceful life away from society.”
Little is known about some traces of Wahhaj’s life, whom the police accuse of being the leader of the strange group. According to the Associated Press, he filed a lawsuit in 2006 after being harassed by the customs authorities at the JFK airport in New York on a trip to Morocco.
He said that he had been harassed for being “son of the famous imam Siraj Wahhaj”. He refers to a controversial imam with that name he preaches in a mosque in Brooklyn. On Monday, Imam Siraj Wahhaj posted a message on Facebook asking for help in locating his grandson, Abdul-Ghani. Wahhaj has been singled out as radical on several occasions.