A message pleading for food and water has led police to discover 11 children living in a compound so filthy that they had to be taken into protective custody.
Police had been looking for a toddler missing from the US state of Georgia when they received a message through an investigator which warned that those in the compound were “starving and need food and water”.
After getting a search warrant late last week, officers raided the compound in Amalia, New Mexico, and found the children, aged between one and 15, so starved that they looked like “refugees”.
Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, from Taos County, described the children as being kept in the “saddest living conditions I’ve ever seen”.
He added: “The only food we saw were a few potatoes and a box of rice in the filthy trailer.
“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.”
They were turned over to state child welfare workers for their own health and safety, police said.
Two men from Georgia were arrested during the search, as were three woman believed to be the children’s mothers.
The women were later released pending further investigation.
Sheriff Hogrefe said the two men were believed to be of “extremist” belief and had initially refused to follow police instructions.
One of the men was Siraj Wahhaj, who is accused of kidnapping his toddler from Jonesboro, Georgia.
The child’s mother has told police that the boy, who suffers from seizures, went to the park with his father in December and never returned.
The child was not among those found in Amalia but he is believed to have been in the compound in recent weeks.
Sheriff Hogrefe said Wahhaj had been “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”.
“Many more rounds of ammo were found in the makeshift compound that consists of a small travel trailer buried in the ground covered by plastic with no water, plumbing, or electricity,” he added.
Wahhaj is being held in police custody while the second man, Lucas Morten, has been charged on suspicion of harbouring a fugitive.
Amalia is 145 miles northeast of Albuquerque in an isolated high-desert area near the New Mexico-Colorado border.