Frederick Blair is shifting the blame for what happened to two young girls at his Norwood farm in 2017, defense attorneys suggested during the start of cross-examination Tuesday.
Scott Reisch, an attorney for Ashford Archer — charged with fatal child abuse and as an accessory in the deaths of sisters Makayla Roberts and Hannah Marshall — questioned Blair’s motives in testifying for the state.
Blair could receive as many as 12 years in prison for his guilty plea to an accessory charge. However, he received immunity for the testimony he will provide in Archer’s trial, as well as in the trials of co-defendants Madani Ceus and Nashika Bramble, who are charged with murder and fatal abuse.
A final defendant, Ika Eden, is being held at the state hospital until she is deemed restored to legal competency; she had been accused of fatal abuse.
“You were the one who harmed those girls, weren’t you?” Reisch asked Blair at the start of cross-examination.
“No,” Blair replied.
Reisch also hammered Blair over his repeated refusal to testify at a Dec. 28, 2017 hearing, at which Blair invoked the 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Reisch suggested Blair was refusing to answer questions about whether he had given false statements to San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office investigators.
Reisch also said Blair had refused to answer questions at the time as to whether he had harmed the girls, whose bodies were found Sept. 8, 2017, entombed in a car Blair said he and Archer had placed a tarp over.
At the time he covered the vehicle, Blair knew the bodies were inside, according to his previous testimony.
The girls were part of a traveling religious group headed by Ceus, which moved onto Blair’s property at his invitation that May.
Makayla, 10, was put into a car on the property because she was deemed impure and wasn’t working hard enough on her past lives, Blair testified. He had not initially known Hannah, 8, was on his property until Archer showed him the child in the car, about a month before she died; prosecutors said Monday Marshall had been “imprisoned” there.
The girls’ exact cause of death was not determined, but pathologists found they endured starvation, dehydration and likely overheating.
The “ultimate question” is what happened to the children, yet Blair refused to tell San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters when the lawman asked it, Reisch said Tuesday.
Blair earlier on Tuesday wrapped up his second day of testimony, during which he told of what happened as he became a full-fledged group member, and of sunup to sundown councils focused on “purge and purity” as the summer eclipse neared.
Blair testified Ceus began controlling what they ate, limiting what they could have from among their foodstuffs. “They were impure and unfit for consumption,” he said, later stating he and others were worn down physically and mentally, with all but Ceus losing significant amounts of weight.
Under Ceus’ orders, Blair and the others did not leave the property, and spent all of their time at councils, Blair testified. He saw Ceus’ young children, but did not see Makayla and Hannah at meals, he said. He saw the girls once, near the time of the full moon, crouching down in some bushes. After that, he did not see them alive again, Blair said.
“I saw them deceased very soon, within a day or a few days prior to (San Miguel County) Deputy Dan Covault showing up to do his annual marijuana inspection,” said Blair, who had once grown marijuana on his farm.
Bramble told him her children were dead in the car and he confirmed this himself, Blair said.
“Ms. Bramble was calling the names of the girls to see if they would respond,” he said.
“Did they respond?” Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan asked.
“No,” Blair replied.
He said he and Archer then secured a tarp over the car, on Ceus’ instructions.
When Covault arrived for the inspection, Blair told him he was no longer growing marijuana. He did not inform Covault of the deaths.
The Aug. 21, 2017 eclipse was predicted to last three days and “cover the world in darkness,” Blair said.
In preparation, the group either burned or buried excess belongings in pits.
One of the pits was intended as a grave for his dog, Lion, he said, detailing how Ceus ordered the animal to be “separated” and have food and water withheld.
The intent was that Lion “eventually die … that he was an abomination,” Blair said.
He obeyed, first tying the dog, then caging him with a tarp over the cage, so Lion would not respond to stimuli.
But Blair’s former farm partner River Young arrived on the property and saw Lion. Although a “distressed” Young left when told to do so, he later came back with two other friends. When they attempted to embrace him, Blair would not allow it. “I did not want to be contaminated through physical contact,” he said.
The three other men left, but took Lion with them and, on Sept. 4, 2017, a deputy arrived with paperwork for Blair to surrender the dog.
Again, Blair did not disclose the deaths, nor did he again, when another deputy came to the gate to inquire about his welfare.
Blair characterized his mental state as “confused, scared, erratic. … I just felt like I wasn’t aware of what was going on around me, what I’d gotten myself into.”
On Sept. 8, 2017, Blair heard his name being shouted. He found his father, Frank Fletcher, and childhood friend Adam Horn, had come to call. Initially upset at the intrusion, Blair said he also felt relief. He spoke to them, as well as to his mother, by phone.
Blair said he decided to leave the property, but changed his mind and told his father he could not. He then disclosed the child deaths.
Fletcher called the police.
Blair hadn’t told any of the deputies, he said, because “I didn’t want to fail Ms. Ceus.”
Reisch in cross-examination attempted to ask questions about what he called Blair’s drugs and narcotics trafficking, as well as a $60,000 debt he owed to his marijuana grow partner, but was shut down when the judge sustained objections.
Reisch also heavily questioned Blair’s motives. On Monday, Blair testified that he gave his statement because he wanted to help the legal process and the Norwood community, but Reisch suggested he wanted to avoid a possible 48-year prison term for child abuse resulting in death, so he took the plea deal.
He also asked Blair about phone calls during which he reportedly told his mother and friend that he wouldn’t take more than a misdemeanor conviction; Blair said he did not recall that. He did “many times” tell his mother he had done nothing wrong, though, Blair said.
He considered himself “a victim” in the matter, not “the victim,” he told Reisch.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press.