Search for missing toddler leads to discovery of 11 emaciated children

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 8/6/2018, 11:54 a.m.
What started as a search for a 3-year-old Georgia boy led to a horrid discovery 1,400 miles away.
Five people have been charged with child abuse after 11 emaciated children found in trailer.

By Holly Yan and Susannah Cullinane, CNN

(CNN) -- What started as a search for a 3-year-old Georgia boy led to a horrid discovery 1,400 miles away.

There, in the remote New Mexico community of Amalia, 11 skeletal children lived in squalor. Three women believed to be their mothers were also found in the makeshift compound.

And two men, including the missing boy's father, were found armed to the hilt with a cache of weapons and ammo, the Taos County Sheriff's Office said.

But the missing boy from Georgia, Abdul Ghani Wahhaj, was nowhere to be found. On Monday, the boy's fourth birthday, investigators were scrambling to find him -- and to understand what happened at the New Mexico compound.

Missing for 8 months

The search for young Abdul started back in December, when his mother reported him missing from Clayton County, Georgia, CNN affiliate WGCL-TV reported. The mother said she last saw her son as he left to go to the park with his father, Siraj Wahhaj.

But they never returned.

Wahhaj and his son were last seen together December 13 after the vehicle they were in was involved in an accident in Alabama, WGCL-TV reported.

The vehicle was also carrying five other children and two other adults -- including Lucas Morten, to whom the vehicle was registered.

Morten, just like Wahhaj, would eventually be accused of child abuse at the New Mexico compound.

But at the time, Alabama police didn't hold the group after the traffic accident. The group told police they were headed to New Mexico to go camping, and continued on their way.

And because there were no custody issues with the father, no charges had been filed against Wahhaj, WGCL said.

'We are starving and need food and water'

What happened between that car accident in December and Friday's atrocious discovery remains a mystery.

But a tip forwarded to a Georgia detective last week set off a series of events that led to a raid at the New Mexico compound.

The message, apparently sent from someone at the compound, contained a desperate plea: "We are starving and need food and water."

So on Friday, the Taos County Sheriff's Office and state authorities executed a search warrant on the compound.

There they found 11 emaciated children ranging in age from 1 to 15, along with three women believed to be their mothers -- Hujrah Wahhaj, 38; Subhannah Wahhaj, 35; and Jany Leveille, 35. Those three women were eventually arrested, each facing 11 counts of child abuse "related to the neglect and abuse of the children involved," the authorities said.

But the most dangerous encounter came when authorities tried to arrest the two men at the compound -- Morten and Wahhaj.

Both men initially refused to follow verbal orders, and Wahhaj was "heavily armed with an AR15 rifle, five loaded 30 round magazines, and four loaded pistols, including one in his pocket when he was taken down," the sheriff's office said.