HILLSBORO, N.M. (AP) — The search for nine teenagers reported missing from a ranch for troubled youth is moving forward Saturday, authorities said, despite claims from the facility's attorney that the boys were OK and being taken back to their parents.
Until officers can "visually confirm the children are safe or in confidence know that" the search will continue and the Amber Alert issued for the boys will stand, New Mexico State Police spokesman Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said Friday night.
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.
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 seven 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.
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 earlier this week over what the suit contends was an improperly handled investigation.
However, authorities issued an Amber Alert for the teenager minutes after Domenici's statement was released.
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 they filed a lawsuit earlier this week accusing investigators of targeting the ranch for closure following a fatal car crash involving students.
The operators also claimed 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.
During a press 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.