New Mexico officials have canceled an Amber Alert issued for nine teenage boys who were reported missing from a rural New Mexico ranch for troubled youth Friday.
Police on Sunday said that the teens who had gone missing from the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program have been “physically accounted for by authorities,” with at least four already returned to their families.
Four of the boys — Ryan Sibbett, Michael Rozell, David Easter and Charlie Lamb — were found safe and were in the custody of their parents Saturday, according to statements from the New Mexico State Police.
It was not immediately clear if the seven other boys recovered Sunday — Bryce Hall, 17; Mayson Myers, 13; Peter Adams, 16; Oscar Ruiz, 17 and Evan Kogler, 16 — were in the custody of their parents or guardians.
At a news conference Sunday evening, state police declined to disclose where the boys were located, but raised the possibility that "the boys may have traveled as far as out of state."
A spokesman for the State Children, Youth and Families Department said law enforcement officials could not consider the boys safe until they saw them, according to the Associated Press.
An Amber Alert was issued on Friday evening for the missing boys, who were last seen at the ranch in Sierra County, N.M. The ranch serves “troubled or at-risk youths,” according to its website.
A search warrant was executed at the Tierra Blanca ranch on Friday amid an abuse investigation, The Associated Press reported, and the boys were found not to be on the property.
Scott Chandler, the program’s operator, is a person of interest, according to authorities. The ranch sprawls over 30,000 acres, according to a Dun & Bradstreet business report, and lists two employees. An attorney for the ranch, Pete Domenici Jr., did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News on Saturday.
State police on Sunday said "something" would happen "in the near future" in regards to Chandler, but declined to provide details.
Domenici issued a statement Friday in which he said that the teenagers 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,” according to the AP.
Chandler said he learned that his ranch was under investigation for alleged abuse after an 18-year-old student died in a car accident, falling out of the back of a moving pick-up truck. Chandler said that a Sierra County Sheriff’s Department Deputy who was questioning one of the Tierra Blanca students about the accident started asking questions about alleged abuse instead, and told the student there was an investigation.
Chandler filed a complaint last Tuesday asking a judge to stop the investigation and block the closure of the ranch.
An ongoing investigation by NBC affiliate KOB of Albuquerque found that there had been multiple police reports since 2006 in which past residents of the ranch alleged physical abuse by staff. KOB investigative reporter Chris Ramirez interviewed three of the boys on camera. One of the boys, Ryan Morgan, was too emotional to tell the story of his alleged beating, so he let his friend Mark Fleming do it instead.
Fleming described an alleged incident in which a staffer had repeatedly hit Morgan in the head with a short metal rod called a kubotan. “He just smashed his forehead repeatedly,” said Fleming, “and it went on, gosh, for hours.”
According to a police report of the incident, witnesses alleged that a staff member named Harold Gifford, a former police officer, hit Morgan on the head for an hour and a half and then threatened to castrate him. Morgan allegedly replied, “Go ahead, I don’t care,” and said that when it was over at least he would get some sleep.
Students also alleged that they had been shackled and handcuffed, forced to work and exercise of long hours, and forced to beat each other up for infractions.
Chandler held a press conference last week to say that he would be taking legal action against CYFD. At the event, KOB’s Ramirez asked Chandler if the allegations of abuse were true and if Gifford had abused any of the teenagers.
Chandler denied that Gifford had abused students, called the charges baseless and said, “It's all been very exaggerated and blown out of proportion ... We do not do anything illegal.”
Tierra Blanca Ranch is not licensed by the CYFD. The students interviewed by Ramirez said they did not meet with therapists, counselors or substance abuse specialists.
When Ramirez asked about the ranch’s credentials to work with troubled kids, Chandler said, “The proof is in the pudding.”
"We do not claim to be a facility," said Chandler. "We claim to be extensions of [the] parents."
Daniella Silva of NBC News contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.
First published October 13 2013, 6:10 PM