Witness testimony in court Friday did little to directly connect defendant Ashford Archer to the death of two sisters whose remains were found in a vehicle on a Norwood farm, but it painted a picture of how, over a few short months, conditions drastically changed on the property that was occupied by Madani Ceus and others involved in her doomsday cult.
Archer stands accused of fatal child abuse and acting as an accessory in the deaths of 8-year-old Hannah Marshall and 10-year-old Makayla Roberts, who investigators say were left inside a car parked without food or water.
Ceus is said by investigators to have orchestrated the girls’ deaths, calling the sisters “unclean.” Frederick “Alec” Blair, the owner of the property, pleaded guilty as an accessory to the crime in May. He is expected to take the stand Monday in the Archer trial. Another member of the group, Ika Eden, was determined unfit to stand trial by the court.
On Friday, River Young testified he spent roughly five weeks on the Norwood farm in hopes of going into business growing organic crops with Blair, the owner of the property who ended up getting caught up in Ceus’ traveling religious band.
Young said he first began working on the farm with Blair in May 2017. The two would later take a trip to a music festival in California. They pulled off at a truckstop on the drive to the airport, Young said, where he first met the religious group, all of them wearing robes. He and Blair spent about two hours eating lunch with them before they went on their way again, Young testified.
Ceus, according to court documents, dubbed Blair “St. Michael” during that stop, but Young’s testimony didn’t touch on that detail.
When they returned to Norwood about a week later, Young recalled returning to the property and seeing that the same group, which he later learned was Ceus’, had taken up residence there. It was unclear in Young’s testimony how Blair reconnected with Ceus’ group.
Young testified that the lease on his home expired at the end of June 2017 and he considered moving back to Telluride. Blair told Young in a conversation that they were no longer on the same page and that their paths were going separate ways. That helped solidify Young’s decision.
When he drove from Telluride a couple weeks later to visit the farm in mid-July, Young said Blair was wearing robes like the others who had been occupying the farm. Aside from Blair’s change in attire, Young said the farm looked like it was being kept up and that things were as normal as they were when he left.
He said seeing Blair in the religious robes was both “shocking” and “expected” at the same time, given how Blair easily succumbed to trends and the will of those around him. Young said he only spent a couple hours on Blair’s property that day, but he returned Labor Day, Sept. 4, 2017.
That time, everything was different. Young said the plants were dying and that Blair’s dog, Lion, which normally approached vehicles as they pulled in the drive, was nowhere to be seen. He said the farm appeared as if no one was there. When he called for Blair, he said he heard a single bark from Lion’s kennel, which was covered with a tarp. Young testified he also saw a familiar car on the property, but covered with a tarp. The Montrose Daily Press previously reported Blair and Ashford allegedly put a tarp on the vehicle some time after the girls died.
Fighting tears, Young described removing the tarp from the kennel and seeing a malnourished dog covered in its own feces and urine. He said Lion was “skin and bones.” He told prosecutors he took the dog out of the kennel and gave it water but had to take the water bowl away out of fear Lion would drink too much.
While tending to the dog, Blair approached Young, he testified, and told him to leave the property.
Young said he returned to Telluride and gathered three friends. They brought both dog and human food out of concern for Lion and Blair — who also looked pale and undernourished — according to Young’s testimony.
When they got back to the property, Young said he put the dog in his vehicle and attempted to approach Blair, who sprinted at Young and two of his friends.
Young confirmed a statement by the defense that Blair called them impure and said he was “above the human race” and there “to judge.” He ushered them off the property, so Young said he took the dog first to the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office and then to the vet.
Afterward, Young was questioned by a sheriff’s deputy and then later interviewed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigations.
Blair’s testimony Monday could last more than one day, prosecutors said Friday.
Justin Tubbs is the managing editor at the Montrose Daily Press.