New Mexico State Police said they executed a search warrant at the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program as part of an investigation of abuse. But the teens between the ages of 13 and 17 weren't at the 30,000-acre compound in Sierra County and neither was program operator Scott Chandler.
Police said Children Youth and Families Department officials also went to the ranch to serve orders to Chandler to hand over the custody of the teens.
"At this time, Scott Chandler is a person if interest in this case," said Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez, a state police spokesman. "This is an active investigation and all leads are still being followed. At this point and time, State Police has not been able to confirm a location or the safety" of the teens.
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 earlier 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."
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.
"We attempted to avoid exactly this type of situation by requesting an emergency hearing," he said.
Several calls Friday night to Domenici about the status of the teens weren't immediately returned.
Officers at the high desert ranch about seven miles from the town of Hillsboro said that everything looked normal when they arrived. They said there were personal belongings and no indication anyone left in a hurry.
Gutierrez said police launched aircraft and off-road vehicles and called in help from local law enforcement agencies to search the ranch.
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 parents have been subject to verbal bullying and threats from representatives of CYFD for several days," Domenici said in a statement. "Late yesterday afternoon, the Tierra Blanca Ranch received notice of a custody hearing for four of the youths scheduled for Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. No notice of today's efforts to take custody of the nine boys was provided. Instead of handling this matter in an orderly manner, CYFD chose to needlessly escalate the situation."
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 year. 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."
Clausing reported from Albuquerque, N.M.