TAOS – A severely disabled Georgia boy who authorities say was kidnapped by his father and marked for an exorcism was found buried at the ramshackle compound in the New Mexico desert that has been the focus of investigators for the past week, the toddler’s grandfather said Thursday.
New Mexico authorities, however, said they had not identified the remains, discovered Monday. And prosecutors said they were awaiting word on the cause of death before deciding on any charges.
The boy, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, would have turned 4 on Monday. Prosecutors said he was snatched from his mother, Hakima Ramzi, in December in Jonesboro, Ga., near Atlanta.
The search for him led authorities to New Mexico, where 11 hungry children and a youngster’s remains were found in recent days at a filthy compound shielded by old tires, wooden pallets and an earthen wall studded with broken glass.
The missing boy’s grandfather, Siraj Wahhaj, a Muslim cleric who leads a well-known New York City mosque, told reporters he had learned from other family members that the remains were his grandson’s.
The imam said he did not know the cause of death.
“Whoever is responsible, then that person should be held accountable,” Wahhaj said.
In an interview with WSB-TV in Atlanta, Ramzi also called for “justice” as she described how her life had been taken from her after her son was abducted by his father, which she said was out of character for him. She and Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the imam’s son, had been married almost 14 years.
“I wasn’t able to save my son,” she told the television station.
In Facebook messages, Naeemah Rashid, Ramzi’s sister-in-law, told The Associated Press that she, too, was surprised by Wahhaj’s actions, saying he had always valued the closeness of their family.
Rashid also recalled from Atlanta the deep bond between the boy and his mother, saying the boy cried whenever his mother left the room.
Although the boy could not walk, Rashid remembers that he smiled and laughed as he watched his cousins play.
“Of course, this is a hard time for her,” Rashid said of the mother.
Ramzi, who is from Morocco, filed for divorce in December – the same month neighbors say Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and others arrived in Amalia.
A Georgia arrest warrant accused him of kidnapping his child. Authorities said the father at some point told his wife he wanted to perform an exorcism on the boy, who suffered seizures and required constant attention because of a lack of oxygen and blood flow at birth.
The child’s father was among five adults arrested on suspicion of child abuse in the raid at the compound. In court papers, prosecutors also said Wahhaj had been training children there to carry out school shootings.
Speaking at his Masjid At-Taqwa mosque in Brooklyn, the elder Wahhaj said he had no knowledge of any such training.
“It sounds to me, it sounds crazy. But I don’t know,” he said. “I make no judgments yet, because we don’t know.”
The mosque has attracted a number of radicals over the years, including a man who later helped bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. At the time, Siraj Wahhaj was listed by a federal prosecutor as among 170 “unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators” in the bombing. But he is also known for community service work.
A representative from the mosque, Ali Abdul-Karim Judan, said in a video on the mosque’s Facebook page that the government doesn’t have any proof that the children were being trained to commit mass shootings.
“That’s hearsay, and it cannot be substantiated,” Judan said in the roughly 24-minute video. “Even if it came from a child like that, it would be disregarded. You have to have concrete evidence. You have to have some proof.”
Judan said the media are creating a “false narrative” because Muslims are involved and are trying to tie the imam to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“They want to change the narrative,” Judan said. “They want to change the direction of this case. This case is, on the face of it, a domestic case. This is a domestic case of people squatting and trying to survive.”
Judan added that he’s not making light of the alleged abduction and the discovery of a child’s body.
The elder Wahhaj said all 11 of the children, ages 1 to 15, were either his biological grandchildren or members of his family through marriage.
“I’m very concerned with the condition of my grandchildren,” he said.
He said he didn’t understand why his son had taken the family and disappeared into the desert, but suggested a psychiatric disorder was to blame.
“My son can be maybe be a little bit extreme,” he said, adding that he never thought he was extreme enough to kill anyone. “High-strung,” he said.
The elder Wahhaj said he did not know anything about his son wanting to perform an exorcism on the boy. But he said his son and one of his daughters had become “overly concerned” with the idea of people becoming possessed.
New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator said it was still working to identify the remains.
Dr. Kurt Nolte, New Mexico’s chief medical investigator, said the remains “are in a state of decomposition that has made identification challenging.” The agency said the process could take weeks.
Taos-area District Attorney Donald Gallegos said he will await the findings on how the boy died.
Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said the FBI in recent months put the place under surveillance that included photographs of the compound and interviews.
He said the images were shared with the mother of Abdul-Ghani, but she did not see her son, and the photographs never indicated the father was at the compound, leaving the sheriff without the information he needed to obtain a search warrant.
That changed when Georgia authorities received word that children inside the compound were starving, Hogrefe said.
The elder Wahhaj said the tip came to law enforcement through him. He said he was able to learn their whereabouts from a note that his daughter, one of the five adults at the site, sent to a man in Atlanta saying they were starving and asking for food.
That man then notified Wahhaj, who said he decided to send food and contact police.
Journal North staff writer Edmundo Carrillo contributed to this report.