HILLSBORO, N.M. (AP) — Four of the nine teenagers reported missing from a rural ranch for troubled youth are back with their parents, New Mexico police said Saturday.
The four boys have been removed from an Amber Alert. Police said they believe the five others are in danger, while an attorney for the ranch said all are safely with parents.
A search warrant was executed Friday as part of the investigation of abuse at the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program, located at a 30,000-acre compound in high desert country, about 7 miles from Hillsboro. Officials said that the teens, ages 13 and 17, weren't at the property in Sierra County, nor was program operator Scott Chandler, who has been named a person of interest in the case.
The search comes after the Albuquerque Journal reported last week that state authorities were investigating claims that teenage boys were beaten and forced to wear leg shackles and handcuffs for minor violations of rules at the unlicensed program.
Ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said in a statement Friday that the boys had been "on a previously scheduled activity away from the ranch for several days. They are safe and have already been picked up by their parents, or their parents are en route to pick them up."
Domenici accused the state of escalating the situation by failing to agree to an emergency hearing in a lawsuit the ranch filed this week over what the suit contends was an improperly handled investigation.
However, authorities issued an Amber Alert for the teenagers minutes after Domenici's statement was released.
State police said in a statement Saturday night that the parents of the other five boys have made contact with authorities, but the Amber Alert will remain active until an official physically confirms their location and well-being.
Jim Moffat, whose step-son was attending the ranch when he was killed in a rollover accident off the property last month, said Saturday that he has no reason to doubt that the boys are safe.
He said he sent his son — 18-year-old Bruce Staeger — to the ranch after he could no longer deal with him misbehaving at home, running away and getting into trouble with police.
"We didn't know what was going on," he said. "But we saw some great results. He turned into an awesome young man."
Program operators had been ordered to send the kids back to their parents or surrender them to the state after staff members were accused of beating and shackling students.
The operators of the ranch, Scott and Collette Chandler, deny any children have been harmed and filed a lawsuit this week accusing investigators of targeting the ranch for closure following a fatal car crash involving students.
The operators also said investigators have been illegally interviewing students and telling parents to pull their children from the program by Friday or face abuse charges. Their lawsuit said at least one family was contacted directly by Gov. Susana Martinez, a claim her office denies.
At a news conference earlier this week, Chandler said Tierra Blanca has been operating for nearly 20 years. Its website promises a program for unmanageable kids that offers a balance of love, discipline and structure.