Defendants in two child deaths allowed the children to rot in a car on a Norwood farm, without calling authorities or disclosing the deaths when a San Juan County Sheriff’s Office marijuana compliance officer visited the property, according to testimony given this week.
“They pretty much died in the car. It was a horrible death. They cooked in the car,” Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent John Zamora said, on a recording of his interview with suspect Ashford Archer in 2017.
Archer is one of five defendants in the deaths of sisters Makayla Roberts,10, and Hannah Marshall, 8, whose bodies were found Sept. 8, 2017. Archer is charged with two counts of child abuse resulting in death and as an accessory to a crime.
Archer, Madani Ceus, Ika Eden, Nashika Bramble and Frederick “Alec” Blair were all living on the property at the time of the deaths and, per testimony, were engaged in spiritual rituals in advance of 2017’s solar eclipse.
The girls may have been dead for a month or more prior to authorities discovering the matter. Heat, starvation and dehydration are suspected in the cause of death.
Zamora took the stand Wednesday. After he was certified as an expert, prosecutors played portions of his Sept. 8, 2017 interrogation of Archer.
On the recording, Archer said to his knowledge, no one on the farm undertook any foul play “toward those young ladies.” He repeatedly said he did not pay much attention to Hannah and Makayla and thought they were their mother’s responsibility.
On the recording, Archer said the girls’ mother, Bramble, informed him they were dead and he went to check for himself.
“I heard that the girls had expired,” Archer said, later adding he thought the children had some kind of “condition.”
Prosecutors earlier put Makayla and Hannah’s former pediatrician on the stand; she testified that as of 2014, they had been in overall good health.
“It was something that unfortunately happened. My hands are clean … The family is clean,” Archer said, on the recording.
Archer told Zamora that Blair, who then owned the property, told him he’d dreamed law enforcement was coming. Blair asked him to help cover with a tarp the car where the girls’ bodies were, Archer said.
“I didn’t get involved in anything,” Archer said.
Blair’s earlier testimony was that both of them had covered the car.
San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Dan Covault on Thursday testified that when he initially spoke to Archer at the scene in 2017, Archer said he had helped tarp up the car.
Trent Rundquist, Grand Junction Police Department crime lab supervisor, said during his testimony Wednesday that he could not lift any latent prints that were suitable for testing off the duct tape and tow strap used to secure the tarp.
Rundquist also said the inability to do so does not mean no one touched those items.
Archer’s taped interview indicated a different relationship between Blair and Ceus, the religious group’s reported leader, than what Blair had told investigators. Archer characterized this as “mother and son” and said he didn’t know where the allegations Ceus intimidated Blair came from. Additionally, Archer said the group did not really have a leader.
The group initially met Blair, who was then part of the Rastafari movement, at a truck stop in Grand Junction in May 2017. They joined him at his farm when he invited them.
Archer’s statements to Zamora indicate a spiritual connection with Blair, who according to other testimony was variously described as St. Michael and “Ra,” assuming the latter title after group member and former “Ra” Cory Sutherland departed the farm. (Ra is the ancient Egyptian sun god.)
Zamora asked Archer who brought up St. Michael and the talk of spiritual beings.
“All I know is simply this. He (Blair) knew there was more to him,” Archer said.
Archer indicated going to the farm served as a spiritual retreat that allowed him to see his flaws. He earlier said he had sacrificed the finer things in life to help humanity.
“I’m a spiritual walker on a spiritual walk,” Archer said at one point during the interrogation. The farm constituted his biggest test, Archer said, but he did not know what happened to the girls.
“I wish I could tell you more,” he said.
Hannah and Makayla’s bodies were discovered after Blair’s father, Franklin Fletcher, received an “alarming” phone call in Texas from Blair’s mother.
Two of Blair’s friends who visited his farm concerning his starving dog, Lion, had put the woman on the phone with Blair at the time, according to previous testimony.
She then called Fletcher, who drove straight to Telluride and met with Horn before proceeding to the property on Sept. 8, 2017.
Fletcher testified that he saw a gray sedan covered with a tarp and approached it to photograph the license plate. It “got bad” as he approached: “There was a tarp, condensation and blowflies, the flies you see on dead things,” Fletcher said. He did not realize what he was looking at until media reports later were published, he said.
Horn testified to seeing a “layer of flies” in the car’s back window and pointed to a photo showing a wide, dark strip at the bottom of the sedan’s window.
Blair appeared exhausted, malnourished and was wearing a cloth “almost like a burlap bag,” Horn said.
Fletcher said it was Blair who ultimately told him the car contained two bodies. No one else who he encountered on the farm disclosed the deaths, Fletcher testified.
Covault in his Thursday testimony told of going to Blair’s farm in August 2017 to conduct a marijuana compliance check. He spotted new buildings on the property and, in looking for Blair, encountered two children clad in blue — Ceus’ two girls.
They ran from him, but Covault followed, finding Archer seated on a bucket. Archer pointed to the interior of a shack when Covault asked for Blair, the investigator testified.
Blair, who was formerly welcoming and engaged, was that way no longer. He said he was no longer going to grow marijuana and ordered Covault to leave and not return.
No one told the then-deputy that there were dead children on the property, Covault testified.
He contacted the county building department because people were living in structures without utilities; he also contacted social services about Ceus’ children.
Covault next came to the property Sept. 8, 2017 — this time, on Fletcher’s call concerning the dead girls.
Covault asked Blair if the children were in the car. “He said ‘They’re cold. This is a cold issue,’” Covault testified.
As he conducted a sweep of the car, Covault smelled a particular odor. “It was a very familiar smell of death and decomposition,” he said.
He later went through photos from the inside of the car, which included several pictures of mummified remains barely recognizable as human.
Covault interviewed Archer at the scene.
“He said they had been placed in the car as a punishment,” the investigator testified. Archer also told him Blair in August had a vision that law enforcement was coming, so he helped him tarp the car, per testimony.
Archer eventually invoked his Fifth Amendment rights. The on-scene interview was not recorded, because the SMCSO’s patrol-unit equipment for that purpose was too far away.
Covault and other officers obtained search warrants. He said they found symbols drawn in the dirt and on gateposts. On the road in front of the farm, the found a penny “every few steps,” and that pattern continued on the property, where every walking path or road was strewn with coin.
Investigators also located a barrel in which items had been burned, and various pits in which items were buried, including black boxes containing things such as Blair’s pocket watch and some kind of chart, Covault testified.
He also told the jury of finding close to 160 pounds of dried foodstuffs on the property, but only empty wrappers and a few tins of food in the car. There was no water in the car, he said, but lots of fly pupae and a piece of wood lodged into the passenger door at the handle.
The Montrose Daily Press was not able to attend the remainder of Covault’s testimony Thursday afternoon.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press.