HILLSBORO, N.M. (AP) — An Amber Alert remained in effect Sunday for five teenage boys reported missing from a rural New Mexico ranch for troubled youth, and state police said they believe they are in danger.
Meanwhile, an attorney for the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program near Hillsboro maintained that the children are safely with parents and said authorities have blown the situation out of proportion.
A spokesman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department, Henry Varela, said Sunday that the agency cannot take the attorney's word on the teenagers. Authorities won't consider the boys safe until they can see them.
"The key fact of it all is being able to physically confirm the whereabouts of the kids," he said.
Varela said the agency has been in contact with the parents of the five boys, is "making every effort to locate these kids," and will interview them when possible. State police spokesman Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said officers and agents aggressively are searching for the boys.
"This is a very important case to us and is of priority," he wrote in an email Sunday.
State police executed a search warrant at the ranch located at a 30,000-acre compound in the high desert country last week and discovered the teens weren't there.
Ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said the boys were away on what was supposed to be a two-week camping trip in southeastern Arizona. Each of them was picked up by family members, who were asked to let state police know they had done so, he said.
"I would respectfully disagree that they're in danger, missing or abducted," Domenici said Sunday.
Domenici said efforts by police to verify the whereabouts of the boys likely are complicated by custody proceedings filed by the state.
Authorities had issued an Amber Alert for the nine boys, ages 13-17. State police said late Saturday that four of them are back with their parents.
The search of the ranch came after the Albuquerque Journal reported that 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 filed a lawsuit this week accusing investigators of targeting the ranch for closure following a fatal car crash involving students.
Domenici has 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.