(CNN) — The compound was hiding in plain sight, a white smudge in the dusty green expanse of sagebrush and juniper stretching across the Colorado-New Mexico border.
A few feet past a handwritten “no trespassing” sign on the ground, a box truck sat unlocked. Inside, a wooden bunk bed was propped up against the wall, surrounded by piles of dirty clothing and worn-out books. Identity documents were mixed on the floor with children’s math workbooks, self-help guides and gun manuals. A dusty bulletproof vest lay nearby.
It had been two weeks since law enforcement raided lot 78 in Costilla Meadows, a rural subdivision in Amalia, New Mexico, where homes are off the grid and you can see your nearest neighbor miles over the dry grassland. Police found 11 malnourished children there, shoeless and in tattered clothes, and arrested five adults. Days later, they found the remains of the 3-year-old boy they were searching for.
Two weeks after the raid, reminders of the family’s months-long stay were piled in heaps of garbage on the property, where they had built the compound on a lot belonging to someone else, adjacent to their own.
Residents of this sparsely populated region of northern Taos County encountered members of the black Muslim family in familiar places: the gas station, the Family Dollar, the hardware store, the body shop. Little about the family members stood out, they said, apart from their dirty clothes and their skin color, a rarity in this area primarily populated by Hispanos — descendants of Spaniards who settled in the Southwest centuries ago.
Otherwise, those who met them said they seemed friendly. A resident recalled how one of the men tenderly wiped the nose of a crying child. What little the residents knew about the compound didn’t raise eyebrows in an area where many people live “in unconventional ways,” as the judge in the case has said.
Individuals from society’s periphery have long sought refuge in this part of the state, where cheap land far from the nearest power line or shopping center is easy to find. The region’s history of welcoming outsiders has contributed to cross-cultural exchanges and a tolerant attitude that locals consider points of pride. Many are quick to distance the state’s countercultural vibe from the compound. But they also fear that the publicity around a case infused with allegations of child abuse and terrorism might contribute to a rise in racism and Islamophobia.
“People come here and they want to be left alone and sometimes they do things that are unconventional,” said Malaquias “JR” Rael, whose family arrived in the Taos region in the mid-1800s. Newcomers are drawn to the area for its proximity to nature, breathtaking views and simple way of life, he says. Other families like his — predominantly Hispanos — have been here for generations.
“It can be difficult to be alarmed or judgmental, because people have been doing this kind of stuff for a long time.”
Rael owns North Star Tire & Auto in Questa, a mountain town of some 2,000 people about a 30 minutes from the compound and another 30-minute drive from Taos, the nearest “big city.” Given his family tree, it’s a place where Rael can’t go far without being greeted by a customer or relative.
One of the men from the compound, Lucas Morten, visited Rael’s body shop in early spring looking to buy a large quantity of tires. “He seemed real personable, very mild-mannered,” Rael recalled over a smothered burrito lunch on a recent weekday in Questa.
Morten said he planned to build an “earthship,” a self-sustaining home made from natural and upcycled materials, which uses tires packed with earth as bricks. “I said, ‘OK, good luck,’ because it’s real labor intensive,” Rael said. Otherwise, nothing about the request raised any red flags, he said.
Plenty of people live off the grid here in various types of homes that don’t use public energy sources or fossil fuels, he said. Not him, though. “There’s nothing wrong with being normal,” he jokes.
Living off the grid is not for the faint of heart, he said. It takes planning and work, especially in the winter, when temperatures dip well below freezing. But plenty of people do it.
“It’s hard for people from urban communities to try and understand, but this is how people live out here,” Rael said.
It appears to have been a life that the family on the compound struggled with. Authorities say a break in the case came when a member of the compound sent a note to a friend saying they were starving.
After the arrests, reports of the children’s living conditions emerged, and Rael came to see the family on the compound in a different light. The five adults are accused of child abuse, and Friday, two of them were charged with abuse of a child resulting in death for the boy whose remains were found — a first-degree felony that carries a potential life sentence. The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the initial child abuse charges.
Rael says he’s reserving judgment about their culpability until all the evidence comes out. “Adults can do what they want, but the conditions they had those children in are unacceptable,” Rael said.
“They were unprepared for what they were doing,” he says, “but we have to let the system play out to find out the truth.”
Not everyone in Taos County shares Rael’s opinion. And since the judge in the case granted bail to the defendants, some fear they could pose a threat to the community.
A danger to the community?
Costilla Meadows sits in the northern Rio Grande Valley, miles bounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the San Juan Mountains far off to the west.
The compound is about a 10-minute drive from the nearest gas station in Costilla, past a cemetery and a large group of solar panels. From Ventero Road, the rocky dirt road bisecting the land about a mile away, you can see the white box truck that prosecutors say Siraj Wahhaj and his family used for their cross-country journey from Alabama.
The truck and the debris collection at the compound stand out from nearby dwellings, a mix of piecemeal houses and trailers, some bedecked with solar panels, gardens or water catchment systems, necessities for survival out here.
A months-long search for Wahhaj’s young son, Abdul-Ghani, led authorities here. They arrested Wahhaj, who is accused of kidnapping the 3-year-old from Georgia late last year. Along with the 11 emaciated children, nine of whom were Wahhaj’s, authorities found four more adults: Wahhaj’s partner, Jany Leveille; Morten and his wife, Subhannah Wahhaj; and her sister, Hujrah Wahhaj. Each faces 11 child abuse charges. Siraj Wahhaj and Leveille face additional charges for Abdul-Ghani’s death.
Now that the property is no longer a crime scene, it’s up to its owners, Jason and Tanya Badger, to clear it. They believe that they saw the missing boy during visits to the compound in January and February, though prosecutors say the boy was dead by then.
Though the family seemed odd, and their living conditions squalid, the Badgers say they didn’t necessarily want them to leave the area — they just wanted them off their land. They even offered to do a land swap but the group couldn’t come up with the funds. Then, they tried unsuccessfully to evict them.
When they learned that Wahhaj was wanted for kidnapping, they contacted the Taos County Sheriff’s Office and gave them permission to search the property. Since the arrests and the discovery of the missing boy’s remains, Jason Badger says he’s heard enough to believe that the defendants are a danger to the community.
“They let their son suffer and die. How much more dangerous do you want them to be?” he said.
“What’s to stop them from coming up here where I live? If they really want to do something, you think a little ankle monitoring is going to stop them?”
The partially buried trailer where law enforcement found Wahhaj and some of his children is gone. In the footprint it left behind, children’s shoes, a soccer ball, plastic jugs and aluminum cans remained. A wooden panel nailed into the earth blocked the entrance to a tunnel where authorities say they found Abdul-Ghani’s remains.
Piles of tires surrounded the area where the trailer had been, potentially material for an earthship — or, as prosecutors and law enforcement have argued, the beginnings of a barrier for a shooting range where they were training their children to use guns for unspecified violent acts. Behind the trailer, the ground was littered with shell casings and a human target with the name “Khadijah” scribbled on it.
While they have been granted bond, the defendants face a long list of restrictions that have hindered their release, said Morten’s lawyer, Aleksandar Kostich. They must remain in Taos County under house arrest and GPS monitoring — an extraordinary set of circumstances for defendants who don’t have jobs or financial means to satisfy the requirements, Kostich said.
“We have not been able to get those conditions fulfilled so they could potentially leave,” he said.
‘I never had a reason to call police’
On a clear day, you can see to Colorado from the compound — to be exact, to Erminio Martinez’s plot of grazing land. The retired Taos county magistrate judge is a lifelong Taoseño whose family goes back some 400 years to the Spanish colonial era. At 75, he says, he knows the terrain like the palm of his hand, just like he knows his neighbors.
In visits to his land, he often saw one of the men from the compound driving the box truck along the dirt road, but he’s not sure which man it was. He also saw one of them at the nearest grocery-gas station in the town of Costilla. They never spoke, but Martinez never had a bad feeling about him, he says. And he never thought to question what they were up to.
“It’s just not the way we do things around here,” he said as he drove his pickup truck to his land on a recent Thursday afternoon. “We’re used to people coming and going, doing their own things. And with law enforcement, you know they need a reason to check on someone. Well, I never had a reason to call police on them.”
Martinez says he remembers the last time an influx of newcomers changed the fabric of the area. Coming home after spending two and a half years stationed overseas in the early 1960s, he was shocked to find the hippie invasion underway.
“These long-haired Anglos were walking around the plaza smoking marijuana and playing music where Hispanic families used to bring their children,” he said.
He doesn’t recall much resistance to the outsiders, he says. “We were passive, the Hispano families. Most of us were Catholics, conservatives. We learned to live with them.”
But it wasn’t all peace and love. The white hippies came in large numbers and were a “real jolt” to Catholic families who disapproved of their permissive attitudes toward sex and drugs, said archaeologist Severin Fowles. Reports of clashes between members of the Hispano communities and the hippies emerged north of Taos.
A history of counterculture movements
The region’s countercultural history predates the arrival of European-Americans. In pre-colonial times, the Taos region was on the northeastern edge of the Pueblo world, which attracted “malcontents from other Pueblo centers who reinvented themselves in Taos through the rejection of certain cultural practices,” said Fowles, chair of Barnard College’s Department of Anthropology.
In early colonial times, Taos was the northernmost outpost in the Spanish empire. “Then too, it was a place where the central government had little control and where folks could seek a kind of escape from the state,” Fowles said.
In the early 20th century, the aesthetics of the landscape and the indigenous community at Taos Pueblo drew artists and intellectuals critical of the modern industrial age. The next major wave came in the late ’60s and early ’70s with the hippies, a diverse bunch that included peaceniks, back-to-the-land utopianists and neo-primitivists, as well as fringe Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, he said.
Some sought to learn from indigenous ecological and spiritual traditions, and developed close relationships with Native American communities, he said. Others were accused of “playing Indian” by appropriating aspects of those traditions for their own ends.
Communes were established with different orientations — religious, artistic and agricultural. They shared a sustained critique of urban society and American militarism during and after the Vietnam War, he said.
As the commune culture in Taos began to fall apart in the 1980s it was replaced by individualist, off-the-grid experimental spaces, he said. Earthship architecture, pioneered by environmentalist Michael Reynolds in the 1970s, became an influential model. Neighborhoods of earthships and their variants began popping up in and around Taos. Some were built by wealthy off-the-gridders who considered themselves environmentalists; others had more radical anarchist tendencies; some were veterans or social misfits seeking to escape society, he said.
“They all found cheap land and privacy out on the sage flats west and north of Taos,” he said.
While most communes dried up and hippies left, the counterculture movement evolved, said Meredith Davidson, director of public programs and communications with the School for Advanced Research. Spiritual communities remain in the area and many individuals have incorporated the practices of counterculture into their everyday lives.
Life in an earthship
Of all the countercultural strains in Taos County, the earthship movement might be the most mainstream. An episode of “Bob the Builder” featured one. Tourists from around the world flock to the Earthship Biotecture’s headquarters north of Taos. A nightly rental in the adjacent Greater World Community costs anywhere from $140 to $400, depending on the size and amenities.
Judy, a retired State Department employee, moved into her home on Earthship Way seven years ago. She asked to not use her last name to avoid attracting burglars to her home. Her one-bedroom home looks like a cross between an adobe home from the Star Wars universe and a greenhouse — in fact, it is one.
Her home may be off the power grid, but it includes a washing machine and a hot tub. As in any true earthship, rainwater collects in cisterns and is filtered and pumped into the house. Her electricity comes from solar panels and a windmill.
Her utilities come out to about $200 a year for propane she uses for her stove and hot tub, and roughly $100 more for the county dump, a mandatory fee.
“There’s something to be said for way of life here. People are just nice and interesting, but not in the pretentious way you encounter in bigger cities,” she said.
The outer frame of the house is made of tires packed with earth and the walls are made of adobe, keeping the home cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Inside, walls of recycled bottles splash colored light across the rooms.
A similar bottle wall in progress sits among the rubble of the Amalia compound. In November, Morten took a class at the Earthship Academy in Taos, an employee confirmed.
“We’re just as shocked as anyone about what happened at the compound,” the employee said in a phone call. She declined to give her name, wary of the exposure it could bring, having moved to Taos — like so many others — “to get away from the craziness of the world,” she said.
“Many of us can’t believe this is happening in our little town,” she said.
When the school learned about his arrest, they notified police that he had been a student, but had nothing more to say about him, she said. Like many of the 500-odd people who pass through the academy each year, they never heard from him after he left.
Off the grid on the Mesa
More unconventional than the Earthship-dwellers, several locals said, are the people who make their home in the flat-topped mountains west of Taos, in the area known as the Mesa.
The area was the subject of “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa,” a documentary that captures the variety of its inhabitants: war-scarred veterans, teenage runaways, garden variety social misfits, among others. The cheap land and lax regulatory oversight attract economic refugees, some by choice, others by necessity.
The arid desert was home to numerous hippie communes at the peak of the counterculture movement. Though most of them disappeared, small independent communities have taken their place.
On a patch of land past a large junkyard lies a community of converted school buses, a remnant of the hippie the days.
Ross Charmoli, 32, and his girlfriend, Rosie Ruby, 26, live in a pink bus on the property. The woman who owns the lot collects the buses and outfits them with beds and basic necessities, but no running water or electricity, Charmoli said. The owner of the property declined to comment for this article.
Residents obtain water from a tank on the property near the outhouse. A communal area of second-hand couches and recliners sits in the middle of the buses along with a charcoal grill for cooking.
Charmoli and Ruby have worked on several organic farms outside of Taos over the past two years and decided to return. The itinerant pair of artists work odd jobs, and seldom stay in the same place for long.
After the couple moved in, the property owner offered them jobs preparing coffee drinks from a bus at the rest stop on Route 64 near the famous Rio Grande Gorge River Bridge.
“There’s something beautiful about the community, the feeling that we’re all in this together,” Charmoli said.
In another part of the Mesa, a handmade flag announces the community of Tres Orejas, named for the mountain peak looming over the dusty neighborhood of trailers and improvised dwellings.
About a mile down a rocky dirt road, a trailer with the name Sky Cafe sits beckoning to visitors with its door open.
Inside the mural-bedecked trailer, Dylan Knee explains that Sky Cafe is part community center, part food pantry. No one person presides over it at any given time; anyone is welcome to crash on its worn-in couches or pull up a chair to the faded poker table. Cats and dogs wander in and out.
Knee’s home on the Mesa has no electricity or running water, he says. Like many of his neighbors, the 27-year-old pieces together jobs and uses food stamps to make ends meet. Steady work is hard to come by, he says. He splits his time between his place here and his father’s home in Ojo Caliente. He spends his free time dreaming up ideas for movies and art projects.
If he could improve his lot, he says, he would like to have a home on the mesa with solar panels and a water catchment system and another in Taos. But he can’t see himself leaving the area. His fi
“They call it the land of enchantment, but I also say New Mexico is the land of entrapment,” Knee said. “People keep coming back and can’t stay away.”