NM Ranch Teens Safe but Amber Alerts Highlight Abuse Allegations
(HILLSBORO, N.M.) -- New Mexico officials canceled Amber Alerts for nine teenage boys, who they thought were missing from a youth program, but it's just the latest headache for the Tierra Blanca Ranch, which was already under investigation for allegations of abuse, according to court documents.
The nine teenagers who were thought to have been abducted were safe, authorities said Sunday. State police had issued Amber Alerts after going to the Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program near Hillsboro, N.M., to execute a search warrant in connection to the investigation and finding the nine teens were not there, authorities said Sunday.
The boys, ages 13 to 17, were physically accounted for Sunday and returned to their parents. Ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr. released a statement this weekend saying the boys had been "on a previously scheduled activity away from the ranch for several days."
It's unclear where they were.
Either way, the incident has drawn attention to what has been happening behind closed doors at the sprawling ranch prior to authorities' issuing the Amber Alerts.
Officials issued the Amber Alerts after they arrived at the facility with social services to execute a search warrant at Tierra Blanca as part of an investigation of allegations of abuse at the ranch.
Authorities allege that teens at the ranch suffered sexual abuse, neglect and were falsely imprisoned, according to court documents obtained by ABC News. Some teens were handcuffed and forced to wear hoods as punishment, the documents say.
Ranch officials say the claims of abuse are baseless, pointing to former attendees who say they never endured or saw abuse during their time in the program.
"I never witnessed any kind of abuse," said Jessica Olson, 26, who spent two years in the program when she was 14. "And you know, maybe they had to get stern, but I never saw any kind of force of physical abuse or anything like that."
Ranch owner Scott Chandler filed his own lawsuit last week, calling the state investigation "illegal."
Chandler says the state's investigation was prompted by the death of 18-year-old Bruce Staeger, who was killed last month when a ranch pickup truck rolled over. The ranch accuses the state of intimidating parents to pull their kids out of what they call a successful program to turn kids' lives around.
The Amber Alerts for the nine teens were issued Friday after state police couldn't find the teens at the 30,000-acre, high-desert compound.
Ranch attorney Domenici maintained through the weekend that all the boys were safely with their parents. He also said authorities had blown the situation out of proportion.
Yolanda Deines, head of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, said the state wanted to talk to the teens as soon as they were located for the investigation and to ensure their wellbeing.
"We want to be able to interview each of the children to make a determination about how they were treated while they were at the ranch," she said. "We need to make sure that we get a full medical exam for the children."
Attorneys for the state and ranch are expected to appear in court this week for hearings on the abuse allegations.
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