The timing was ironic, to say the least.
Last Friday, June 19, as Americans across the country celebrated Juneteenth — also known as African American Liberation Day — Madani Ceus of Haiti sat in a Telluride courtroom and learned she would spend the next six decades of her life in jail.
She had lost her freedom for the role she played in the deaths of sisters Makayla Victoria Roberts, 10, and Hannah Elizabeth Rosalina Marshall, 8, whose remains were found in a tarp-covered car sealed with duct tape on a farm near Norwood belonging to Frederick Alexander “Alec” Blair on Sept. 8, 2017.
Ceus had originally faced two counts of first-degree murder in the girls’ deaths, but was acquitted of those charges by a Gunnison jury in February and convicted of two lesser counts of felony child abuse resulting in death.
Shackled and handcuffed, and wearing the same floor-length loose white garment and head covering that she had worn throughout her trial in Gunnison, Ceus turned her head away and stared at the wall as District Judge Keri Yoder delivered her sentence: two consecutive 32-year terms with credit for time served.
For Ceus, who turns 40 this week, the sentence could mean that she spends the rest of her life behind bars, thus ending what her codefendant and alleged former follower Alec Blair had described as a “reign of terror” that he said Ceus presided over on his property throughout the summer of 2017.
MURDER STRIKES TWICE
The last time a murder case darkened this Telluride courtroom was when Eva Shoen, the wife of U-Haul trucking heir Sam Shoen, was shot in the back in her Telluride home while sleeping in her bed on Aug. 6, 1990. The killer, Frank Marquis, confessed to the crime and was convicted in 1994.
Robert Whiting of Telluride remembered that case well. The victim’s son happened to be one of Whiting’s best friends in elementary school, whose house he spent the night in every single weekend. One of those weekends when he wasn’t at the house, because he happened to be visiting an aunt and uncle in Alabama, was the weekend that Ava Shoen was killed.
The tragic incident left an indelible mark on Whiting, who went on to become a deputy district attorney based in Telluride.
One day in the waning summer of 2017, Whiting remembers saying to an acquaintance, “I wonder when I am going to see a murder? The last murder case was Ava Shoan, and that was 30 years ago.” The very next day, Whiting received a call from Sgt. Dan Covault, the lead investigator with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office.
The skeletal, mummified remains of two young Black girls had been discovered in a car covered up with a tarp on a wooded property near Norwood, off County Road Y43 and Thunder Road, their bodies too far gone to determine what had killed them.
Five adults were ultimately charged in the deaths of the two girls, and Whiting became part of the team that prosecuted them. Ceus, 37, was described as the “spiritual leader” of the group. She and her husband Ashford Nathanial Archer, also of Haiti, had two young daughters together who were taken into protective custody. Other members of the group included a Jamaican woman named Ika Eden (who was found incompetent to stand trial), and an African American woman named Nashika Leonie Bramble, 36, who was the mother of the two deceased girls.
Blair, the only white person in the bunch, pled guilty in 2018 to an accessory charge in the girls’ deaths and received a capped sentence of 12 years and immunity for the testimony he went on to provide at the trials of his codefendants.
As a key witness for the prosecution at each of these trials, Blair recounted the same bizarre story of what had unfolded from the time he said he first encountered Ceus’ group at a truck stop near Grand Junction in May 2017 and invited them to stay on his Norwood property, to the time that the girls’ decomposed remains were discovered by authorities four months later.
Blair described how he quickly fell under Ceus’ powerful spell and settled in with the group to await the total solar eclipse of 2017, and an ensuing apocalypse Ceus allegedly claimed would transport them to another spiritual realm called “light body.”
Ceus allegedly deemed the victims, whom the group referred to as “the Pinks,” to be spiritually impure and banished them to Eden’s 1999 Toyota sedan parked in a wooded area on the property, while the rest of the group continued to spiritually purify themselves.
Blair testified he was forbidden to have contact with the children, and that food and water were withheld. Eventually the girls died. Blair and Archer then worked together to seal the car with duct tape and ratchet straps, and covered it with a tarp.
Ceus allegedly then banished Bramble, who had become Blair’s lover but was in an advanced state of pregnancy by former group member Cory Sutherland, to another vehicle on the property with no food or water. After a day, Bramble fled to Grand Junction, but turned herself in shortly after learning that law enforcement authorities had discovered the remains of her daughters on Sept. 8, 2017, and took the other group members into custody.
While Ceus never threatened Blair with physical violence, she did threaten him and the others in the group with psychological and spiritual harm, Blair said. He testified that he believed she would harvest his soul if he disobeyed her — a fate that would be worse than death.
The cases of Blair’s codefendants wound their way through courtrooms in Telluride, Montrose and Gunnison throughout 2019 and 2020, as the court sought fresh jury pools to evaluate the gruesome evidence and weed through the agonizing thickets of testimony to arrive at their various verdicts.
A Telluride jury in 2019 found Archer guilty of two counts of felony child abuse resulting in death. He is now serving a 24-year prison sentence. A Montrose jury found Bramble guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. She’s now serving two consecutive life terms in prison with no possibility of parole.
Ceus, facing the same charges as Bramble, was acquitted of murder by a Gunnison jury, which instead found her guilty of the lesser charge of fatal child abuse.
Many of the same witnesses were called to the stand for each of these trials, including Covault, who was forced to recount three times in exhausting detail his investigation at Blair’s farm after the girls’ bodies were discovered, and the many items he retrieved from the gray 1999 Toyota sedan that had become their tomb.
Everything was evidence, he said. An empty Styrofoam ramen noodle container. An empty instant oatmeal packet. An empty juice bottle. An empty jar of generic, creamy peanut butter. An empty, full-sized box of corn flakes that had been torn. An empty bag of brown rice. An empty can of Campbell’s tomato soup, pried open with an unidentified sharp object. A pink Maruchan ramen packet. Shrimp flavored. Also empty.
Covault used the girls’ given names — “Hannah’s side” and “Makayla’s side” — to describe the locations where he had discovered certain items in the car in relation to where the girls’ bodies had been found.
Various garments of a child’s size, found on the rear floorboards — a pink tunic or dress, and some pink and white leggings — wadded up in a ball. A backpack containing feminine hygiene pads. A Ziploc bag of miscellaneous things: pens, pencils, rubber bands, drinking straws. A long, cylindric bag full of human hair of afro-American origin. The remnants of a journal. A pull-up diaper, soiled with urine. Child’s drawings. Deep drifts of fly pupae. A little pink ribbon, about eight inches long.
Most days at her trial last summer, Bramble wore a black suit jacket. But on the day of Covault’s testimony, she wore pink — the same color that her girls were known to wear before they died. The color that became their very names — Pink 1 for Makayla, and Pink 2 for Hannah — when they settled on Blair’s farm in the summer of 2017.
Ceus favored white robes and a white head covering at her own trial. Here, her defense team drew out new testimony from Covault about his ongoing investigation into Blair’s illegal marijuana trafficking operation, casting doubt on Blair’s character and the veracity of his testimony and strongly suggesting his own culpability in the girls’ deaths.
Defense attorneys Patrick Crane and Shandea Sergent also presented evidence that Bramble had a long history of abusing her daughters.
While the girls’ exact cause of death could not be determined due to the skeletonization and mummification of their remains, pathologists who were called as expert witnesses for the prosecution testified at all three trials that the girls likely endured starvation, dehydration and hyperthermia or overheating.
Ceus’s defense team countered with their own expert witness, Melissa Connor, CMU professor of forensic anthropology and Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS) director, who described in detail how blowfly pupae can reduce even a well-fed corpse to skin and bones in a matter of days, creating the illusion of starvation.
THE CASE OF RACE
With four Black defendants and two Black victims in a lily-white rural community, it was only a matter of time until the matter of race came to the forefront in the case. At Ashford Archer’s sentencing hearing in the spring of 2019, he alleged that racism had fueled the investigation into the victims’ deaths, pointing out that Blair had received a plea deal offer, while he had not, even though they faced the same charges.
Racism allegations again flared up at Ceus’ trial when her defense attorneys tried to bring out testimony that a San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office supervisor had repeatedly called Ceus the N-word while she was in custody at the San Miguel County Jail. Judge Yoder upheld an objection from the prosecution to this line of questioning, however, and it was stricken from the court record.
But at Ceus’ sentencing hearing on Friday, her defense team leaned into the tension of the moment, the protests taking place across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death, to raise the issue of race once more.
They pointed out that Blair had received “soft” treatment when being taken into custody. He was given something to eat and allowed to borrow a cellphone to call his mother, while the remaining defendants on the property, who were all Black, were aggressively rounded up by a SWAT team bearing rifles.
Moreover, the defense team argued, Blair had received preferential treatment while he was in custody at the San Miguel County Jail; he was allowed to co-mingle with other inmates and work in the kitchen, while Ceus was held in solitary confinement, even as Blair passed contraband in the jail, lied to investigators and allegedly violated the terms of his plea deal.
The recent explosive tension between the Black community and law enforcement bore sharp relevance to Ceus’ case, her lawyers argued, as they raised the specter of whether she could have safely left Blair’s property to tell law enforcement there were dead children on the property.
In the 1,016 days since Ceus had been taken into custody, she had been called many things: Amma, Yahweh, Mother of All, the Creator of Everything. Doomsday cult leader, voodoo witch and felon. Through it all, Ceus invoked her right to remain silent.
But toward the end of her sentencing hearing on June 19, she finally lowered her COVID-19 mask and took the opportunity to describe herself with her own words: immigrant, mother, survivor of an abusive marriage, creator of heaven and earth, perfection.
“Yes, my name is Madani Ceus,” she began, quietly, her voice low and resonant, melodious almost and tinged with her native Creole accent.
For 26 minutes, she held the floor in a free-flowing, impassioned tirade, her voice rising and falling in waves of tears and anger, as she stabbed the air with a quivering finger, attacking Bramble’s character and the sexualized behavior of Bramble’s daughters, whom she alleged were allowed to watch porn, and had been sexually assaulted by Sutherland.
“Her children started exhibiting the same madness, touching my children,” she said. "I would not allow my children to be defiled.”
Ceus angrily denied that she was responsible for the victims’ deaths. “I will stand on the truth until the day I die. Truth is truth, no matter what bias or prejudice,” she said. “Truth is naked. I want to know, where is justice?”
Finally, her words all spent, Ceus began to cry. “I want my babies to see me again,” she said. “I want to tell them, ‘I love you.’ That is all.”
JUDGE YODER SPEAKS
District Judge Keri Yoder listened attentively to Ceus’ statement before lowering her own facemask to deliver the sentence, along with a long, strong rebuke to Ceus for failing to take action to protect the victims or report their deaths to authorities.
“Miss Ceus, you have said a lot,” she began. “Certainly more than we have heard, ever. But, what you were just saying and a lot of the ways you were just saying it supports the prosecution’s case here. And we do know what happened to those babies. We do. We have a lot of evidence. They died because they didn’t have any food. It’s simple. They died because they didn’t have any water. They died because they were ignored. They were ignored by all of you. So it’s not a mystery.”
Yoder acknowledged that, “Mr. Blair doesn't always tell the truth” and said she felt that he had deserved more prison time than the capped 12-year sentence that came as a condition of his plea deal.
“But the bones of what he said, are supported by what you said,” Yoder told Ceus. “And they're supported by what Mr. Archer said. And they're supported by what the witnesses said. It is very clear, based on credible evidence presented, and based on what you told me today, you do believe you are God or a godlike figure and then you in fact played God with the lives of Makayla and Hannah in the summer of 2017.”
Yoder commended Ceus for her respectful behavior throughout the court proceedings. “And I, under no set of circumstances, would say that you are an evil human being,” she said. “But how you conducted yourself was evil.”
Yoder concluded with the analogy of a ship at sea, of which Ceus was captain. “Only the people in that boat would rise up, achieve ‘light body’ and go to heaven, and you had to get rid of the people who were evil, who are naughty, who are unclean.”
Ultimately, Yoder said, Hanna and Makayla were banished from the rickety ship to an even more rickety lifeboat.
“You were the captain of the ship. You were God. You made that decision. And you failed to throw them oars,” Yoder said. “And they listened to you because that's what they did. There was nowhere else to go. So they got in dutifully, in their pink outfits. They were given no oars to get to shore. They were given no food to eat. They were given no water to drink. … You made that decision. You were the captain of the ship. You were God. I just think it's tragic.”
Yoder condemned Ceus for her self-pity, blame and apparent lack of remorse.
“It's just hard to understand,” Yoder said. “It’s hard to understand how this happened.”
Ceus’ defense team has vowed to appeal the case and asked the court to preserve all evidence throughout the appeals process. Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan protested that the remains of the girls should be returned to their family members as soon as possible. Those remains are currently contained at the morgue at Montrose Memorial Hospital.
‘THE OTHER SIDE OF JUSTICE’
San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters has spent much of the past three years consumed with the case of the Norwood murders. Now, with four of the five alleged culprits in Hannah and Makayla’s deaths behind bars and the fifth in a mental institution, he feels that justice has been served.
“This cult found their way to our county and committed horrific abuse to these little girls, who died as a result of the inhumanity of Ms. Ceus and her associates,” Masters said in a statement after the sentencing hearing. “Ms. Ceus had a competent defense team, and we had competent investigators, prosecutors, and ultimately, she met our judge for her sentencing.”
Ryan agreed that he was “extremely pleased” with the judge’s sentence and rebuffed the defense’s allegations that the case had been tainted by racism. “History is filled with people who use religion, spirituality and deification as a way to control others to commit heinous acts, and I think this was that case,” he said.
“I agree that the history of our country is filled with injustices for Black people, for brown people, for people of color. I also agree this country has a long way to go in that area. However, justice goes both ways,” he said. “Justice isn’t just about making sure that we zealously and strongly respect the rights of people of all races, but also applies to victims of crimes. That’s the other side of justice.”
Fellow deputy DA Robert Zentner strongly concurred that justice had been served, even as he tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment.
“We respect the verdict of the jury,” Zentner said. “It wasn’t an easy case for them. We respect the court sentence. And that sentence reflects the culpability of Miss Ceus. That sentence reflects that the lives of these two little girls — Hannah Marshall and Makayla Roberts — that sentence reflects that their lives matter.”
INTO THE THICKET
Somewhere inside the tangled thicket of everyone’s version of what happened lay the truth. Two girls were dead, their remains examined and reexamined until nothing was left but hair and bones. The only people who knew what happened were those who were on that land, back in the summer of 2017.
Three years later, on the evening after Ceus was sentenced, a rickety fence still surrounded the property where the girls had died in a gray Toyota.
If they had run on slender legs across the field, instead of staying put in the car as they were allegedly told, they could have reached the closest neighbor in a matter of minutes. They could have been in town 10 minutes later.
Along the way, they would have passed the Uncompahgre Medical Center, filled with trained professionals who could have helped them. Just down the road was a food pantry stuffed with tons of food, which feeds up to 300 low-income families from across the West End each month. Behind the food pantry was a parsonage where they could have knocked on the door and asked for help.
Norwood’s safety net was still intact, but it was not made to catch these girls whose world had contracted into a nightmare on a rectangular piece of parched and woody scrubland less than a mile from the edge of town.
The wild wind blew freely across Wrights Mesa. The Town of Norwood basked in the buttered evening sunlight. Somewhere, on a fenced lot under a specially purchased surveillance camera, sat the grey Toyota where Hannah and Makayla allegedly died. Somewhere in the basement of Montrose Memorial Hospital 50 or so miles away, their bones were still preserved as evidence.
Inside the thicket, the gloaming bore no evidence of what had happened, but someone had tucked a long-stemmed pink silk flower into the barbed wire that wrapped around a fencepost.
The flower glowed pink in the setting sun.