Gretchen Blair stood in a stuffy Telluride courtroom Oct. 31, quietly recounting a few stories from her son’s childhood.
“I am Alec’s mom,” she began.
Petite, well-spoken and well-dressed in a silk blouse, black slacks and pink pumps, her appearance underscored her son’s middle class upbringing and close family ties. Now, on Halloween morning, Alec Blair was about to be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison as an accessory in the deaths of two little girls, whose bodies were found on his Norwood property in 2017.
Doomsday cults, starving children and the countless other disturbing details of the case all seemed impossible to factor into the picture of the gentle, kind and loving young man that Gretchen Blair evoked as she addressed the court.
Once, she said, when Alec was 10 years old, he fell asleep on the couch with his baby sister asleep inside his shirt. When he woke up, he told his mom, “That’s the best thing I ever had.”
A few years later, Alec played the tooth fairy and gave his sleeping little brother what he thought was $10 out of his own money, but turned out to be $100. It may have been an accident, but Alec didn’t say a word. (His parents later quietly reimbursed him.)
Then, when Alec was 18, “Literally the day he turned 18,” his mom said, “he moved to Telluride. Never been on a plane, never seen snow. He moved in with a friend and he loved it.”
After a couple of years, Alec moved back to Gainesville to start school. Then he flew back to Telluride for spring break and decided to stay. He came home for several vacations after that, always accompanied by his pet dog, Lion.
“Somehow I felt safer knowing that Alec was making the long road trip with his beloved dog,” his mom said.
Home for the holidays in 2016, Alec offered designated driver services to his friends on New Year’s Eve — no questions asked. Then, just a few months later, in the spring of 2017, the story went off the rails.
“Alec met a family whom he thought was wonderful and he invited them to come and stay on his property,” his mom recounted. “They weren’t wonderful. And they weren’t his family.”
She glanced over at her 25-year-old son, wearing a prison uniform, handcuffs and ankle shackles. “We are his family,” she said. “We miss him. We are very happy he is safe. And we love him very much.”
Alec’s father Franklin Fletcher, tearful and shaky, took up the story from there. “It’s so hard when such an event as this involves your child,” he began.
Fletcher recounted the horror of walking onto his son’s Norwood farm on Sept. 5, 2017, and discovering the tarped car that contained the bodies of 8-year-old Hannah Marshall and 10-year-old Makayla Roberts, members of the small traveling religious group that Blair had invited to settle on his Norwood property in the spring of 2017.
Blair had gotten sucked into the group’s doomsday religious beliefs and cult-like social structure, and stood by as their spiritual leader Madani Ceus banished the sisters to a trash-filled car with no food and water. After the girls died, Blair helped Ceus’s husband, Ashford Archer, conceal their bodies, covering the car with a tarp.
Pathologists who examined their remains testified that the girls likely died of dehydration, starvation, hyperthermia or heat exposure.
“To walk the property as I did, to uncover the truth on the property as I did, was one of the scariest things I have ever done,” Fletcher said. “I saw fear in my son’s eyes. I saw fear that I faced, living inside of him. … He was scared. I can only imagine the mental battle he incurred.”
‘A CULT LEADER AND A CON WOMAN’
Fletcher ordered his son to turn himself in. Blair was initially charged with two counts of fatal child abuse and faced up to 96 years in prison, but accepted a plea deal for a lesser charge as an accessory to a crime in exchange for witness immunity and a capped sentence of 12 years.
During his time as an inmate at the San Miguel County Jail, he has testified as a key witness at the trials of codefendants Archer and Nashika Bramble, the victims’ mother.
At Bramble’s trial in Montrose last summer, Blair described the bizarre and perverse extent to which Ceus was able to control those around her in what he called a “reign of terror”.
Under Ceus’s influence, Blair said, he came to believe he was the incarnation of Jesus, Buddha, Adam and the Egyptian sun god Ra. He procured hallucinogenic mushrooms for Ceus in Telluride, and took part in a religious ritual called a sealing ceremony atop Bridal Veil Falls to protect his soul from being harvested in the coming apocalypse Ceus predicted would happen during the total solar eclipse in August 2017.
He cut off his dreadlocks, wore white robes, tore up the marijuana and vegetable crops he had been carefully cultivating on his farm, destroyed his cellphone, told his friends to stay away, and stood by as two little girls died of heat, dehydration and starvation. After that, on Ceus’s orders, he locked up his beloved Lion who would have starved as well, if Blair’s friend River Young hadn’t mounted a rescue operation.
When defense attorney Kristen Hindman began working on Blair’s case shortly after he was taken into custody, she said it was difficult for her to understand how a “seemingly normal, smart, articulate, friendly young man from a middle class family, and a happy background, could subscribe to the beliefs of Madani Ceus.”
But Hindman, who studied forensic psychology before she became a lawyer, told the court that she soon recognized in her client all the hallmarks of someone who was a victim of brainwashing and coercive psychology in a cult-like or New Religious Movement (NRM) setting.
Blair had undergone a phenomenon called re-socialization, Hindman told the court. The experience of unlearning former behavior patterns and beliefs and accepting new ones had turned her client into “a shell of the smart, friendly, loving son, brother and friend he had been before he had the extreme misfortune to make Miss Ceus’ acquaintance.”
In determining an appropriate sentence, Hindman argued that it was crucial for the court to place Blair’s actions within the context of NRMs and the “psychological abuse that Alec dealt with on the property.”
Ceus had used coercive psychological techniques on dozens of people before encountering Blair, Hindman said, citing “demonstrable evidence dating back years and from across the country.”
“She is a cult leader and a con woman who duped impressionable people into believing that she was some sort of god or supreme being who held the spiritual keys to their futures,” Hindman said. “She crossed the country from North Carolina to South Dakota to Wyoming to Colorado and god knows where else, fleecing people and using manipulation all over the place.”
Hannah and Makayla’s deaths “were tragic and avoidable and something that Alec does not excuse himself of,” Hindman stressed. “He is deeply ashamed of what happened to those girls. He will never get over it. He can’t make things right again or undo what’s done. But since he left his property he has been trying to do what’s right.”
Hindman argued that Blair’s assistance to the DA and law enforcement had been invaluable in getting justice for the two deceased girls, and asked District Judge Keri Yoder to sentence Blair “to credit for time served of 784 days.”
‘ASHAMED AND HUMBLED’
Blair had spent countless hours over the past two years telling lawyers, investigators and jurors about the horrors that unfolded on his Norwood property in the summer of 2017. With his long-awaited sentencing hearing now finally upon him, the only thing left to say was “I’m sorry.”
“Two children lost their lives,” he told the court. “There is no excuse or justification for this. Being incarcerated for two years has forced me to be honest with myself in a way I never have before.”
Citing his own “instability, arrogance, instant gratification and overall irresponsible behavior,” Blair said. “To this day I still find myself in shock I was involved in all of this. I apologize to these courts, to my community, and foremost I apologize to Hannah and Makayla.”
Blair noted that during his time as an inmate at the San Miguel County Jail, he had received extensive counseling from both the Center for Mental Health and the pastor of the Telluride Christian Fellowship. After 22 months in solitary confinement, he said, he earned his way into the general population of the jail and became an inmate worker in the kitchen and laundry service areas.
“I’ve been doing my best to hold a positive disposition and a strong work ethic as consistently as I can,” he told Yoder.
More than anything, Blair concluded, “I am ashamed and humbled in ways I did not know possible, in ways that will be with me for the rest of my life. No apology is adequate, but I am sorry. That’s the only thing that I can say.”
Yoder, unmoved by Hindman’s request for leniency, ultimately sentenced Blair to the maximum 12 years allowed under his plea deal, with credit for time served. She admonished him to make the most of his time in prison, and remanded him into custody. His parents watched silently as the security guards lead their son away to begin his sentence.
“I’m disappointed that the judge really didn’t consider the information provided about the profound effect that his time with this cult-family had on Mr. Blair,” said Hindman via email later that day. “But Mr. Blair has fully accepted responsibility for his actions, and is ready to move on to the next chapter in his life.”
For Blair, that next chapter will include testifying in court at least one more time, at Ceus’ murder trial in Gunnison in January.