NEW YORK — Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe walked out of a CNN interview after defending his decision not to search a squalid New Mexico compound for a missing boy, despite having the property owners’ permission to comb it.
The sheriff has been criticized by the owners of the property where the compound sits illegally. Jason and Tanya Badger believe a missing child, 3-year old Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, may have been alive on the compound when they say they alerted law enforcement months ago.
The Badgers gave written consent for a search, but it was August 3 before authorities moved in, finding 11 malnourished children and five adults. The adults have been charged with child abuse. The body of a young child was discovered days later but has not yet been positively identified.
This was the exchange that led to Hogrefe abruptly ending the Saturday interview declaring, “I think we’re done.”
Hogrefe: Unfortunately, it takes time to build a proper case. Time will tell if we did build a proper case, but I can promise you this: Had we have gone on that property based on a consent from an owner that was not an occupant of that property, we would not have valid right to be there and therefore the fruits of the unlawful tree would have come into play and we would have lost anything we could have possibly been able to criminally charge.
CNN: But you might have been able to save a child if he was still alive…
Hogrefe: Yeah. Thanks for reminding me of that. It’s not like it’s hard enough to live every day wishing that I could have got there quicker, but you’ve got to get there lawfully.
Sheriff denies he knew missing child was on the compound
The Badgers said they saw the child, Abdul-Ghani, and spoke directly with his father, Siraj Wahhaj, twice in January and February. Months later, after internet research, they realized Wahhaj was a fugitive from Georgia, sought in the disappearance of his child, and they reported the sighting to the sheriff’s office.
Hogrefe said that information was never reported to him.
“The first time I ever talked to [the Badgers] was only about two weeks ago,” he said.
Jason Badger showed CNN text messages he exchanged with Sgt. Jason Rael discussing the compound, though not specifically the sighting of Wahhaj. Rael deferred comment on the Badgers’ statements to Hogrefe.
Hogrefe said that information would have been “stale,” and unusable, yet later acknowledged Rael should have acted on it “if it was credible.”
FBI started watching property in May
Authorities may have been aware of the squalor on the compound some time before they raided it.
Hogrefe said the FBI surveilled the property for weeks starting in May. In June, a sheriff’s deputy showed up to serve an eviction notice.
The horrifying conditions that investigators later encountered didn’t prompt more immediate action, Hogrefe said, because no children were spotted the day the eviction notice was served. But Hogrefe said the FBI surveillance had spotted children, including one who walked with a limp.
According to his mother, little Abdul-Ghani had serious health issues and difficulty walking.
During the August 3 raid, sheriff’s deputies searched the compound but left without locating Abdul-Ghani.
A day later, the Badgers returned to their property and searched the debris-strewn compound themselves. They found a passport, a cell phone and two guns.
“Could we have missed (those things)? Yeah, absolutely,” Hogrefe said.
On August 6 deputies returned to the compound with new information and found the body of a child buried under human waste inside a 40-yard long tunnel underneath the compound.
“I cried. I’m human,” said Hogrefe.
He said the tunnel was searched initially, but even a police dog didn’t find the remains during that first search.
Sheriff: Suspects ‘extremist of the Muslim belief’
Police found five guns, including an AR-15, and ammunition on the property.
Criminal complaints filed against the five adults said, “a foster parent of one of the 11 children stated the defendant had trained the child in the use of an assault rifle in preparation for future school shootings.”
Hogrefe initially called the suspects “extremist of the Muslim belief,” telling CNN later that the statement was based only on the defendants’ appearance.
“You can look at their mugshots, their pictures, their dress, their attire. They fit that profile. That was not meant to be a derogatory statement towards any race or religion,” he said, adding it was not meant to imply violence.
Pressed on why it was relevant at that time he made the remark, Hogrefe said, “Why would it not be?”