Since being charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her daughters Hannah Marshall and Makayla Roberts in 2017, Nashika Bramble’s demeanor in court has been unpredictable.
A year and a half ago, at a preliminary hearing in Telluride, she sobbed openly during an intense cross-examination of San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters. On another occasion, she verbally attacked the judge.
But on the first day of her murder trial in Montrose on Tuesday, when photos of the emaciated, mummified remains of her daughters came on the screen at the front of the courtroom for all to see, Bramble simply pressed her forehead against her folded hands and didn’t make a sound.
As the long days in the courtroom wore on, with witness after witness taking the stand, Bramble remained quietly between her lawyers, rocking slightly side-to-side in her chair, head tipped to one side, holding one shoulder slightly higher than the other. Sometimes her arms are crossed. Sometimes she appears to write things on a little green pad.
Her neatly parted hair has grown out considerably since the widely published intake picture that was taken of her in September 2017, when she was admitted into the San Miguel County Jail, and is now done up in braids. Her previously gaunt face and body have regained their fullness.
Against the backdrop of a now-familiar and disturbing storyline that was publicly aired for the first time through the trial of Bramble’s codefendant Ashford Archer in Telluride last spring, prosecutors and defense attorneys built their respective cases across the week.
In opening arguments Tuesday, the prosecution argued that the case was about Bramble’s free will — “to allow her daughters to be secluded in a gray Toyota, and to ultimately let those daughters die.”
Bramble’s attorneys countered that Bramble was “powerless and afraid” of Madani Ceus, the so-called “high priestess” of the religious group Bramble was part of, and that there was not sufficient evidence to show conclusively what happened on the farm leading up to the girls’ death.
Through four days of ensuing testimony from over 20 witnesses, it was, perhaps, the images of emptiness that stood out the most in the first week of Bramble’s trial.
An empty grave that had been dug beside a cage where a beloved pet dog named Lion was left to die. Empty plots of earth where carefully tended marijuana plants had been ripped out and destroyed. An empty shack, where four people had gathered to meditate and purify themselves as they awaited the apocalypse. Two hungry little girls with empty stomachs banished to a nearby car and deprived of food and water.
On Wednesday, San Miguel County Sheriff's Office Investigator Dan Covault took the witness stand and recounted in exhausting detail his investigation at Alec Blair’s farm right after the girls’ bodies were discovered and the many items he later retrieved from the gray 1999 Toyota Sedan that had become their tomb. Everything was evidence.
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.
Images of the food trash flashed across the large flat screen monitor at the front of the chilly, windowless, almost-empty Courtroom 2B at the Montrose County Justice Center, as 12 jurors and two alternates sat silently, taking it all in.
Covault continued with his careful inventory, using 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 ziplock 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 in court last week, Bramble wore a black suit jacket. But on Thursday, 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 Norwood in the summer of 2017.
On Friday afternoon, the first week of Bramble’s trial closed out with three hours of painstaking testimony from codefendant Blair, who spoke of the last months, weeks, days and hours of Hannah and Makayla’s lives, right up until the time that he learned from Bramble that they had died.
“She came up to me and said, ‘The Pinks are dead,’” Blair recalled.
“Are those the words she used?” asked Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan, who was conducting the witness examination.
“It was over two years ago. But that’s how I remember it,” Blair said.
“What was her demeanor when she said that?”
“Bland,” Blair replied.
“Was she crying?”
“Did she have emotion in her voice?”
“Did she appear angry?”
"Did she appear upset?”
Silence. Bramble rocked back and forth. Court adjourned for the week. The jurors and the accused departed through separate doors.
Blair’s testimony continues under cross-examination this week. He will be followed by approximately 15 other witnesses, including San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters. After closing statements, it will be up to the jurors to determine Bramble’s fate.
According to witness accounts and interviews conducted during the investigation into the girls’ deaths, Nashika Bramble was part of a small nomadic religious group that settled on a farm belonging to Norwood resident Alec Blair in the summer of 2017. There, the group awaited the total solar eclipse of 2017, and an ensuing apocalypse that they believed would transport them to another spiritual realm.
The group’s spiritual leader, a Haitian woman named Madani Ceus, allegedly deemed the young sisters to be unclean and banished them to a 1999 Toyota Sedan parked in a wooded area on the property, while the group continued to spiritually prepare for the Aug. 21 eclipse.
Other group members were forbidden to have contact with the children, and food and water were withheld. Eventually the girls died. Blair and Ceus’s husband Ashford Archer worked together to seal the car with duct tape and ratchet straps, and covered it with a tarp.
Bramble fled to Grand Junction, but turned herself in shortly after law enforcement authorities discovered the decomposed and mummified remains of her daughters on Sept. 8, 2017. She has since been held custody in San Miguel County Jail and the Gunnison County Jail.
Monday, July 8 — Jury selection, voir dire
Tuesday, July 9
- Adam Horn, Telluride — Longtime friend of Bramble’s codefendant Alec Blair who along with Blair’s father discovered the tarped car that contained the girls’ bodies and alerted authorities.
- Calum McNeil, Telluride — Did some construction projects and road work on the property during the summer of 2017 and got to know Bramble and the other codefendants in the case.
- Wanda Pierce, 7th Judicial District, Telluride office — Legal Services/Victim Services, had an interaction with Bramble before the girls died.
- Dan Covault, Norwood — San Miguel County Sheriff's Office Investigator, conducted investigation at the Norwood farm where Hannah and Makayla died.
Wednesday, July 10
- Dan Covault (continued from Tuesday)
- Alex Rugh, Denver Forensic Science Lab — expert witness on duct tape analysis
- Chris Roberts, Orlando, Florida — Makayla’s father
- Dr. Najmus Ansari, Orlando, Florida — Expert witness in pediatric medicine; Makayla and Hannah’s former pediatrician when they lived in Florida
- Hannah-Joy Sutherland, West Palm Beach, Florida — Daughter of Ika Eden; younger sister of Cory Sutherland
- Cassandra McCarroll, Mount Doral, Florida — ex-girlfriend of Cory Sutherland
Thursday, July 11
- Laura Tanner, Princeton, Illinois — Pastor who befriended “The Family” as they traveled through her town in 2015
- Lisa Bloom, Princeton, Illinois — Another pastor who befriended “The Family” as they traveled through her town in 2015
- Barbara Gross, Telluride — Director of Telluride Food Bank
- Amanda Mullenbach, Hotchkiss — Met “The Family” while they were staying at her friend’s house in Grand Junction in the spring of 2017.
- River Young, Telluride/Durango — Alec Blair’s former roommate and business partner in an organic farming venture in Norwood; rescued Alec’s starving dog, Lion, on Sept. 4, 2017, and alerted authorities about the alarming situation on the property.
- Paula Martinez — San Miguel County Sheriff’s Deputy, responded to River Young’s call about Lion and conducted a wellness check on the Norwood property.
- Cynthia Kramer, Colorado Bureau of Investigation — Expert witness testifying on her DNA analysis of the remains of Makayla and Hannah and other matters.
- Amanda Marshal, Moffat — Friend of Alec Blair; visited the Norwood property several times over the summer of 2017 and allowed Madani Ceus to conduct a past-life regression on her.
Friday, July 12
- Matthew Cain, M.D., Albuquerque — Forensic pathologist and medical investigator for the State of New Mexico, testified about his analysis of the girls’ remains
- Dr. Heather Edgar, Albuquerque — State Forensic Anthropologist for the State of New Mexico, expert in analyzing skeletons and mummified human remains, testified about evidence she found in the girls’ bones that they had endured “stress” that could be linked to malnutrition.
- Franklin Fletcher — Alec Blair’s father
- Frederick Alexander “Alec” Blair, Telluride — Codefendant in the Norwood homicides who invited “The Family” to stay on his farm near Norwood in the summer of 2017; accepted a plea deal in exchange for a capped sentence of 12 years.