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New Mexico ranch where boys went missing was under investigation for abuse

It's supposed to be a ranch geared toward helping at-risk kids. Now New Mexico investigators are trying figure out what happened to a group of boys who went missing.

The New Mexico ranch for troubled youth where nine boys were reported missing Friday was under investigation for alleged incidents of abuse, and the owner of the ranch, who is also missing, had just filed a legal complaint trying to block the probe and keep officials from shutting it down.

Scott Chandler, owner of Tierra Blanca Ranch in Sierra County, claimed in documents filed Tuesday that officials from the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department had called parents of youths at the ranch and told them the state was about to close it because of the investigation. Chandler requested that a judge stop the investigation because it was not being properly conducted.

When state officials went to the ranch on Friday to execute a search warrant and deliver a court order shutting the ranch, Chandler and nine students were missing, and an Amber Alert was issued. Two of the boys have since been returned to their families.

A lawyer for the ranch, Pete Domenici, Jr., said 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.”

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 Marc Fleming do it instead.

Learn more about KOB's investigation here.

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.”

New Mexico State Police via Reuters

Scott Chandler, program director for the Tierra Blanca Ranch

According to a police report of the incident, witnesses alleged that a staff member 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 for 15 hours at a time, and forced to beat each other up for infractions.

Chandler held a press conference earlier this 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 a specific staff member had abused any of the teenagers.

Chandler denied that his staffers 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.” 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."

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