Three women believed to be the mothers of 11 children found living in filth in a makeshift compound in New Mexico have been arrested.
Taos County, New Mexico, Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said the women and two men who were arrested over the weekend face charges of child abuse.
He said 35-year-old Jany Leveille, 38-year-old Hujrah Wahhaj and 35-year-old Subhannah Wahha were arrested without incident in the town of Taos and taken into custody.
The children ranging in age from one to 15 were removed from the compound in the small community of Amalia near the Colorado border. They were turned over to state child-welfare workers.
Mr Hogrefe said police still are looking for four-year-old AG Wahhaj, reported missing from Georgia’s Clayton County. His birthday is on Monday.
The boy’s mother told police he left with his father, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, for a trip to a park and never returned. The child was three at the time.
Siraj Ibn Wahhaj was detained on an outstanding warrant in Georgia alleging child abduction. Lucas Morten was jailed on suspicion of harbouring a fugitive.
Clayton County police said in a missing persons bulletin that Wahhaj and his son were last seen on December 13 in Alabama, travelling with five other children and two adults.
A message that people were starving, believed to be sent by someone inside the compound, led to the discovery of the children.
The search at the compound came amid a two-month investigation in collaboration with Clayton County authorities and the FBI, according to Mr Hogrefe.
He said FBI agents had surveilled the area a few weeks ago but did not find probable cause to search the property.
That changed when Georgia detectives forwarded a message to Mr Hogrefe’s office that initially had been sent to a third party, saying: “We are starving and need food and water.”
The sheriff said there was reason to believe the message came from someone inside the compound.
Authorities found what Mr Hogrefe called “the saddest living conditions and poverty” he has seen in 30 years on the job.
Other than a few potatoes and a box of rice, there was little food in the compound, which Mr Hogrefe said consisted of a small travel trailer buried in the ground and covered by plastic with no water, plumbing and electricity.
Mr Hogrefe said the adults and children had no shoes, wore dirty rags for clothing and “looked like Third World country refugees”.
The group appeared to have been living at the compound for a few months. It was unclear how or why they ended up in New Mexico, Hogrefe said.