(Photo: New Mexico State Police)
(USA Today) -- At least one of the nine New Mexico teens missing from a Sierra County ranch for troubled youth may be back home with his parents, but New Mexico State Police said Saturday that an Amber Alert remains in effect until authorities can confirm they're all safe.
State Police want parents or relatives of the missing boys to contact them at 575-382-2500.
"The safety and well-being of the missing boys is our priority, and we continue to call upon the public for assistance,'' State Police spokesman Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez tells USA TODAY.
Gutierrez declined to provide information on the teens who may be back home, citing the on-going probe into the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program.
New Mexico State Police executed a search warrant at the 30,000-acre facility as part of an investigation into alleged abuse, but the teens could not be located. Program operator Scott Chandler, who is being sought for questioning, was also not present at the facility.
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."
Gutierrez says until parents or relatives confirm the teens whereabouts, the Amber Alert will continue and police will treat the matter as an on-going investigation.
"They're still missing today,'' Gutierrez says. "We want to find them, and we want to get this resolved."
Chandler is "a person of interest,'' Gutierrez added.
The Albuquerque Journal reported last week that the state is investigating claims that teens were beaten and forced to wear leg shackles and handcuffs for minor violations of rules at the unlicensed program. The Journal also reported that investigators had found evidence of pervasive medical neglect, systematic emotional and psychological abuse, potential criminal sexual contact and shackling, handcuffing and hooding of children - in some cases for prolonged periods.
Program operators had been ordered to send the kids back to their parents or surrender them to the state.
Gov. Susana Martinez said Friday afternoon that officials were concerned the teens had been moved to keep them out of state custody.
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.
Chandler has denied harming any children. In the lawsuit, he accused 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. 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.