After about eight hours of deliberation stretching across two days, a jury on Thursday convicted the alleged ringleader in the deaths of sisters Hannah Marshall and Makayla Roberts on a farm in Norwood in 2017.
Madani Ceus faced two counts of first degree murder in the girls’ deaths, but the jury, swayed by the defense’s powerful arguments, instead found her guilty of a lesser charge of two counts of child abuse resulting in death, knowingly and recklessly, a class 2 felony. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 24 years.
Ceus, wearing a long flowing white garment, a white head wrap and a lavender scarf, stood beside her defense team to receive her verdict in the Gunnison courtroom, where her trial had dramatically unfolded over the past four weeks.
Ceus’ defense had argued there was not sufficient evidence to prove Ceus was in a position of trust regarding Hannah, 8, and Makayla, 10, and that she was not responsible for ensuring that her codefendant and the victims’ mother, Nashika Bramble, was adequately caring for her daughters.
The girls’ mummified remains were found in the back seat of a car covered up with a tarp on a Norwood farm belonging to Ceus’ codefendant Alec Blair on Sept. 8, 2017. Pathologists testified they had likely died of starvation, dehydration and hyperthermia or overheating, although their remains were so decomposed that there was no way to know for sure.
“It was an extremely thorough investigation,” said Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan after the verdict was delivered. He expressed his appreciation of the hard work of his staff, his fellow prosecutors, including Robert Whiting, who wasn’t present for the conclusion of the trial, and the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s been a long process,” he said.
Throughout the trial, defense attorneys Patrick Crane and Shandea Sergent attacked the credibility of Ceus’ codefendants Blair and Bramble, and cited lack of sufficient evidence to pin Ceus to the crimes. They also argued the state had intentionally failed to properly investigate certain aspects of the crime that did not match their version of the story as put forward by their key witness Blair.
Crane filed a mid-trial motion for Judge Keri Yoder to acquit Ceus based on lack of evidence. Yoder denied the motion.
“There will be an appeal,” Crane promised as he left the courtroom with Sergent on Thursday afternoon to head back to Montrose for the first time in a month. “We have a disagreement over legal principals in this case.”
Crane and Sergent had argued that there were many ways that the girls might have died that didn’t match up with what they described as a farfetched story that the prosecution had concocted, based on the untrustworthy statements of Blair.
But one thing was for certain, Crane told the jury in his closing arguments. “Nashika Bramble is the one who's responsible for the deaths of her two children. And she has been sentenced to a lifetime in prison because of what she did or did not do for her children,” he said.
Through the trial, the defense was able to bring out compelling and convincing evidence that Bramble had a track record as a violent, abusive and neglectful mother, and that Blair was untrustworthy and manipulative.
Ceus and her husband, Ashford Nathanial Archer, were the alleged spiritual leaders of a small religious group that encountered Blair in May 2017. Blair ultimately invited the group to stay at his marijuana and vegetable farm in Norwood. He testified that he quickly became indoctrinated into the group, and that Ceus in effect adopted him as her spiritual son.
In one of the strangest twists of the case, Blair testified that for the first six weeks that the group was on his property, he was only aware of three girls belonging to the group — two daughters of Ceus and Archer, and one daughter of Bramble. He knew Bramble’s daughter only as “Pink,” but her real name was Makayla Roberts. Eventually, Blair said he overheard Ceus and Archer discussing “Pink 1” and “Pink 2.” He asked them if there was another “Pink.” And they disclosed to him that there was another little girl, “Pink 2” (Makayla’s little sister Hannah Marshall) who had been hidden in a car the entire time.
Ultimately, according to Blair’s testimony, Makayla was forced to join Hannah in the car after Ceus declared that both girls needed to be “purified.”
Ceus, who cooked for the group, allegedly decided that Hannah and Makayla, confined to the car, would no longer be allowed to have food that Ceus had prepared, because it had her “essence” in it. Records show that Bramble and Blair made a trip to the Telluride Food Pantry to get food for the girls on July 20, 2017. This was the last time the girls are known to have received any food.
According to Blair’s testimony, the rest of the group then shifted to another portion of his property nearby, to engage in a period of intense spiritual cleansing and preparation for the August 2017 solar eclipse, which they believed would usher in the apocalypse, all the while ignoring the girls in the car.
Blair testified that Bramble eventually came to tell him that the girls were dead. After Blair shared a “dream council” with the rest of the group that law enforcement officers would be coming to the property, he alleged that Ceus instructed him and Archer to cover up the car with a tarp and seal it with duct tape to conceal the girls’ remains.
Already isolated on the property about a mile outside of Norwood, the group essentially went on “lockdown,” Blair said, with nobody leaving the property from that time forward. However, on several occasions when people from the outside came to check on him for various reasons, nobody on the property reported the girls’ deaths.
Their bodies were discovered by authorities only after five of Blair’s friends, concerned about the condition of his dog Lion after a visit to the farm, contacted Blair’s father Franklin Fletcher. Fletcher drove from Texas to Norwood to check on his son. Blair ultimately confessed to his father that there were two dead girls on the property. Fletcher immediately notified the authorities.
The defense argued that Blair was given preferential treatment from the start, pointing out that he was not handcuffed right away, and was offered the promise of food at the sheriff’s office where he was eventually taken in for questioning. Meanwhile, a veritable SWAT team, wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying assault-style rifles, stormed the property and handcuffed Ceus and the rest of the codefendants, “ripping her children from her arms” as the defense attorneys said.
Prosecutors argued that all of the adults on the property were well aware that the girls were in the car without food or water for a lengthy period, yet did nothing to help them after Blair and Bramble’s trip to the food pantry in Telluride in late July.
Ceus, in an interrogation video, described how the situation “escalated” from the girls being separated from the rest of the group to their eventual deaths. In the video, Ceus also said that Bramble’s daughters were “wild” and touched her own daughters in a sexual way, leading to her decision to have them separated.
Crane, during his closing arguments Thursday, said Ceus was not in a position of trust over the girls at the time that they died, because she had informed Bramble that she was no longer going to be responsible for feeding them.
Witness testimony at Ceus’ trial stretched out over a full three weeks, drawing in many witnesses who had already been subpoenaed for the trials of codefendants Bramble and Archer last year. Some were clearly traumatized by the experience.
On Monday this week, defense witness Yvonne Scott gave emotional testimony about how she met Bramble and her girls in Orlando, Florida, in 2009, and got to know the small family when the girls were very young. She testified that Bramble was at times neglectful and abusive toward her two daughters, and broke into tears when the prosecution showed her school photos of Makayla and Hannah, causing the court to abruptly recess. Scott also testified about a letter she received from Bramble after she was incarcerated, in which Bramble wrote about what had happened to her daughters and expressed no remorse, calling the girls “those two bitches.”
Numerous expert witnesses were also called to the stand, including Melissa Connor, a professor of forensic anthropology and director of Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station. Connor, called in as an expert witness for the defense, described in graphic detail the stages that a human body goes through as it decomposes if left out in the elements. The purpose of her testimony seemed to be to establish that due to the activity of blowfly larvae inside a corpse, it is impossible to tell whether an individual was underweight before they died, once they reach the mummification stage of decomposition.
The final witness for the defense was Ceus’ first cousin, McGregor Sylvain, a professional land surveying technician based in New York who described how Ceus had joined his family from 1999 to 2002 after her mother died. Sylvain testified that Ceus went through a period of illness “where she would have seizures and would faint” and “would sit in a dark room for hours.” She cured her illness through adopting a vegan lifestyle. Ceus was more of an introvert than an extrovert, Sylvain said, and had always been deeply spiritual, but became increasingly so after meeting her husband Ashford Archer.
The last time Sylvain saw Ceus before testifying at her murder trial was in 2013. He attentively sat through closing arguments on Wednesday before catching a plane back to New York.
Ceus’ sentencing is set for March 26 at 10 a.m. in Telluride.
Nashika Bramble, the victims’ mother, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in July 2019 and sentenced to two consecutive life terms with no parole. Her case is in early stages of appeal.
Ashford Archer, Ceus’ husband, was convicted of two counts of negligent child abuse resulting in death and of helping to conceal a crime. He has been sentenced to 24 years in prison. His case is also under appeal.
Ika Eden of Jamaica was found incompetent to stand trial and is being treated in Pueblo.
Frederick Alexander “Alec” Blair pled guilty to being an accessory in the deaths of the two girls in exchange for a sentence capped at 12 years, a sentence he is serving in the Trinidad Correctional Facility.