Story by the Associated Press; curated by Dave Urbanski
HILLSBORO, N.M. (AP) — State police say they're still searching for nine teenagers reported missing from a ranch for troubled youth in New Mexico.
That's despite an earlier statement from an attorney for the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program that the nine boys are safe and being returned to their parents.
State police say they executed a search warrant at the ranch early Friday as part of an investigation of abuse.
But they say the teens between the ages of 13 and 17 were not at the compound and neither was program operator Scott Chandler.
As of Friday night, police say they haven't been able to confirm a location of the safety of the boys and Chandler is considered a person of interest in the case.
State police issued an Amber Alert and launched an air and ground search of the 30,000-acre ranch.
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.
Ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said in a statement Friday evening 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.
Last week, the Albuquerque Journal reported 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.
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.
The Chandlers had traveled to Albuquerque on Thursday with two graduates of their program for a news conference to dispute the abuse allegations.
"I've never seen anyone beaten," said Kevin Finch, now a freshman at Western New Mexico University. "The accusations are downright lies."
Another graduate, Jon Cowen, said the program "turned my life around 180 degrees."
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.
It is unclear how many such programs are operating in New Mexico or around the country, as many are unlicensed.
"That's the problem," said Varela, noting that the Tierra Blanca is the only such program in New Mexico of which state officials were aware.
He said the administration will push for legislation next year to regulate such programs so authorities know where any programs housing kids more than 60 days are operating and so officials are "able to go in and make sure that whatever youth are in there are safe."
Here's a report from KRQE-TV: