Ashford Archer

Ashford Archer's booking photo. (Courtesy photo)

A 53-year-old Haitian man will spend up to 24 years in prison for his role in the deaths of two young girls near Norwood in 2017.

District Judge Kerri Yoder imposed the sentence on defendant Ashford Nathanial Archer in a small, crowded Telluride courtroom on Tuesday afternoon, June 4.

Archer will remain in custody at the San Miguel County Jail for a few more weeks, until the Department of Corrections finds a place for him in the Colorado prison system, said San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters on Tuesday afternoon.

Archer was found guilty in March of two counts of fatal child abuse, and one count of being an accessory to a crime, in the deaths of sisters Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshal, 8. Their mummified remains were found in a car on a Norwood farm in September 2017.

Archer and his wife Madani Ceus, also of Haiti, were the alleged spiritual leaders of a small doomsday cult that settled on land 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 deceased girls were the daughters of cult member Nashika Bramble. According to witness testimony and interviews conducted during the investigation into the girls’ deaths, Ceus deemed the young sisters to be unclean and banished them to a trash-filled car on the perimeter of the property without food or water, while the group continued to spiritually prepare for the Aug. 21 eclipse.

The sun slid behind the moon on schedule, but the apocalypse they were expecting never happened, and the two young girls eventually perished inside the car. At Archer’s trial in March, Blair provided key testimony that Archer helped Blair to cover up the car with a tarp after the girls died.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan argued on Tuesday that Archer deserved the maximum penalty for the crimes for which he had been convicted — consecutive sentences for each count of fatal child abuse, adding up to almost 100 years of prison time.

“His spiritual journey was more important to him than the lives of these children,” Ryan said. “Let’s imagine what Hannah and Makayla were enduring — a slow death by starvation and , dehydration over 10 days. Basically, they were tortured to death, in a car filled with trash.”

Archer’s defense team filed a sentencing memo that contained new information about Archer’s background, and made the case for a vastly more lenient 12-year prison sentence. “Any adult on that property would have been convicted,” said defense attorney Matthew Schultz. “Based on evidence in trial we don’t think there was a strong relationship between Archer and the children that came with Bramble.”

Schultz emphasized the complexity of the relationships among the adults on the Norwood farm at the time leading up to the girls’ deaths, and wondered whether Archer’s culpability was being conflated with that of his wife, Madani Ceus.

“We have to look at the comparative culpability of Mr. Archer compared to others involved,” Schultz said, going on to argue that Blair, who has been given a plea agreement with a maximum 12-year prison sentence, was at least as culpable as his client. Prior to Blair’s plea deal, the two men faced identical charges.

Having opted not to testify at his trial in March, Tuesday was the first time that Archer spoke publicly in his own defense.

Handcuffed and ankle-shackled, and wearing orange and gray-striped prison garb with a thick leather belt around his slight waist, Archer stood before Yoder and spoke at length about why he felt that he deserved a lenient sentence.

“You don’t know a lot about me,” he said, in a quiet yet resonant voice tinged with a Caribbean accent. “I have total respect and reverence for all life. That’s why I don’t believe in hunting or eating animal flesh. It is a very sad thing, that two children died.”

Archer described his lifelong mission “to help humanity,” his acts of altruism and his role as a spiritual leader in his community.

He said he had been treated disrespectfully by the press and others throughout the trial proceedings. The case was “a little bit race motivated,” he said, pointing to the fact that Blair had received a plea deal and he had not. “The newspapers would spread a lot of propaganda about me and who I am,” he said. “I have a right to be upset.”

Archer denied that he was looking for spiritual followers when Bramble and her girls joined him on the journey that eventually led to Norwood. “If I was looking for a group, I would have had thousands upon thousands of people following me. But I did not,” he said, “because that was not my calling.”

Archer also stated that he had little interaction with the two girls once the group settled on Blair’s Norwood farm, but suggested that he had tried to intercede with Bramble on the girls’ behalf. “She told me to back off and I left her alone,” he said. “My spirit told me to back off. She was an adult and I am not her father, so I back off.”

“I am sorry these children died and sorry for the loss their parents have received,” Archer concluded. But in the end, he did not express remorse for his own role in how they died.

Judge Yoder sat stock still at her desk, staring steadily at Archer for the entire time that he addressed her, then shared some of her own thoughts with the defendant she was about to sentence.

While Archer may not have played a direct role in the two girls’ deaths, Yoder said she considered him to be an aggravator. “There were two victims, and one was isolated for a lengthy period of time and testimony revealed that you knew about the isolation. The children seemed at minimum ignored and at maximum tortured or starved until they died,” Yoder said. “We don’t know the cause of death. But what I know for sure is that the girls were obviously deceased and you helped tarp the car and didn’t alert authorities.”

Yoder also acknowledged that she was “very struck” by the fact that Blair’s plea deal offered a cap of 12 years. “Archer did the same thing as Blair, and I have a hard time how Blair gets only 12 years,” she said. “He cooperated and deserves something for that. But it sounds like Archer wasn’t given that opportunity. I want to break it down and focus on Archer’s culpability,” she concluded. “I do not believe Archer is one of the individuals mainly culpable for the event.”

In the end, Yoder settled on a middle ground, imposing two 24-year prison terms to be served concurrently rather than consecutively, with credit for time served. 

San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters accepted the sentence as fair, and said he felt that justice had been served.

“The prosecution made a good case for 48 years, but I would never criticize the judge for whatever sentence they determine should be imposed,” he said after the hearing. “Judge Yoder took into consideration everything she heard through three weeks of trial and the pre-sentence report. She came up with what she thought was a just sentence, and that is the way it goes.”

However, Masters added, he was not impressed with Archer’s own attempts to mitigate his sentence. “I certainly would have liked to see the defendant take some responsibly and admit responsibility,” he said. “There was a real lack of remorse in his statement.”

Four additional defendants in the Norwood murders still await sentencing.

Masters said that Ceus, who faces two counts of first-degree murder in the two girls’ deaths, is back in the San Miguel County Jail, having returned from a competency hearing at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo “a couple days ago.”  Her trial was supposed to take place in Montrose in May, but has been postponed and has not yet been rescheduled.

On Thursday, 7th Judicial District Public Information Officer Sherry McKenzie said the court has not yet received any notice whether Ceus has been returned to competency. 

Bramble faces identical charges to Ceus, and her trial is scheduled to take place in July in Montrose. Blair accepted a plea bargain for a maximum sentence of 12 years, and has not been formally sentenced yet. A fifth suspect, Ika Eden of Jamaica, was found incompetent to stand trial in the deaths of the two girls and is being treated in Pueblo.

Currently Archer, Ceus and Blair are all being held in the San Miguel County Jail and Bramble is housed in the Gunnison County Jail.