On a normal, happy Saturday in 2013, Chris Roberts took his young daughter, Makayla, and her little sister Hannah Marshall out to lunch at McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida.
Makayla, by then 6 or 7 years old, lived in Orlando with her mom, Nashika Bramble, but Roberts got to see her every weekend. Hannah (Makayla’s half-sister by a different father) almost always tagged along.
The trio ordered their food, grabbed their tray and slid into a booth, with the two little girls scooting in on one side, and Roberts squeezing in on the other. The girls were in a silly mood as Roberts pulled out his phone to snap their picture.
They hammed it up for the camera, goofy and gleeful. Hannah tilted her head coquettishly to the side, and Makayla had a French fry sticking out the side of her mouth, her dark eyes sparkling. On the table before them lay a fast-food feast of sodas, chicken nuggets and dipping sauce.
In a courtroom in Gunnison seven years later, the photo capturing that happy scene now hovered on Deputy District Attorney Robert Whiting’s laptop, as he published it to a large-screen TV for the jury to see.
Madani Ceus, the alleged spiritual leader of the small religious group Bramble joined shortly after Roberts took that photo, sat in the courtroom nearby, charged with two counts of first degree murder in the deaths of Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshall, 8, in 2017.
Ceus’ trial got underway in Gunnison on Wednesday morning and could last up to five weeks.
By Wednesday afternoon, Whiting had published a very different set of photos for the jury’s consideration. These photos, taken by San Miguel County Coroner Emil Sante on Sept. 8, 2017, showed Hannah and Makayla’s unrecognizable remains, sprawled across the back seat of a gray sedan where they allegedly died on a farm in Norwood after Ceus allegedly deemed them to be unclean and banished them the car without food or water.
Ceus, dressed in loose white clothing, spent the first two days of her trial mostly slumped back in her chair, gazing straight ahead. Occasionally, she’d blink, or fold her arms across her chest, or rest her cheek in her hand, or close her eyes as if in meditation, as her attorneys vigorously mounted a defense on her behalf.
An all-white, 12-member jury (with two alternates) consisting of nine women and five men ranging in age from 20s to 60s or 70s listened intently to the proceedings, notebooks in hand.
At Bramble’s trial last summer, at which she was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, prosecutors argued that the case was about free will — namely Bramble’s free will to allow her daughters to die. At Ceus’ trial, the tables have turned, with the defense arguing that the case is about Bramble’s free will, and the prosecution arguing that Ceus — with her seemingly God-like powers — pre-empted the freewill of Bramble and the others and is ultimately responsible for the girls’ deaths.
Whiting told the jurors that Ceus, as the de facto leader of this collective, “came to be responsible for the well-being of Hannah and Makayla” as they traveled around the country, visiting 38 states, sleeping in their cars, spreading their word about their spiritual conception of the universe and relying on others to provide them with money for food and gas.”
He asked the jury to consider two questions as they view the upcoming evidence and witness testimony: Was Madani Ceus in a position of trust? And, did she act knowingly with regards to the girls’ deaths?
“Two girls are dead,” he said. “They will not walk through the doors of this court room.” And in considering the evidence of the case, Whiting told the jury, “You will become very well educated in the science of dying.”
As Whiting made his statements, Ceus leaned back in her chair, wiggling it gently back and forth.
While it is not yet known whether Ceus will testify at her own trial, Whiting told the jury that they will at some point watch a video of an intake interview, shortly after she was taken into custody, in which she was asked what she thought would happen to two girls left in a car for a prolonged period of time, with no food or water.
Ceus’ alleged answer to that question: “That is not rocket science.”
“This case is not rocket science,” Whiting concluded. “We will request you to return a conviction of two counts of murder, one for Makayla Roberts, and one for Hannah Marshall.”
Ceus’ public defender Shandea Sergent countered that the case is about two mothers — Nashika Bramble and Madani Ceus.
“Bramble had the free will to travel, the free will to follow her heart and her head, to listen to her own inner voice,” Sergent said. “Nashika Bramble caused the death of her two children. She had the free will to leave them decomposing in a car on Frederick Alec Blair's property. She had the free will to walk into Norwood, get to Telluride and end up in Grand Junction. Miss Bramble’s free will to abandon her girls — the way she referred to them after they died was ‘those two bitches,’ — was her choice and her choice alone.
“Ceus’ failure to help or force Bramble to take care of her own children is not a crime,” Sergent argued. “Once Ceus told Bramble she (Ceus) wouldn’t be taking care of her (Bramble’s) children any longer, she abandoned any presumption of a position of trust there previously was. It is not a duty of an adult to force another adult to take care of her own children. … The law does not require one mother to hold another mother accountable.”
Sergent asked the jury to find her client “not just ‘not guilty,’ but innocent, for practicing her own beliefs. It is not a crime to fail to hold another mother accountable for their actions.”
Coming on the heels of last year’s trials of Ceus’ codefendants Ashford Archer and Bramble, the first two days of Ceus’ trial in Gunnison brought some by-now-familiar and some new witnesses to the stand.
These included Blair’s friends Adam Horn and River Young, and series of expert witnesses, including San Miguel County Coroner Emil Sante, who responded to the scene and recovered and bagged the bodies of Hannah and Makayla on Sept. 8, 2017; retired San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office investigator Norman Squier, who recovered hair and a tooth from the car in which the girls had been found after the car was resealed with evidence tape, and delivered the remains to the morgue at Montrose Memorial Hospital; patholologist Michael Benziger who performed initial autopsies on the girls before sending their remains to experts at NMS Labs in New Mexico; forensic pathologists Matthew McMullin and Sherri Kacinko with NMS Labs; Dr. Najmus Ansari, the pediatrician of Hannah and Makayla when they lived in Florida; Dr. Mary Vader, a Montrose pediatrician who performed a procedure called a “buckle swab” on Ceus’ daughters after Ceus was taken into custody.
Makayla’s father, Chris Roberts, made a brief appearance during the second day of testimony. It was his third go-around; the third time he’s been subpoenaed as a witness in the case of his daughter’s death.
Roberts testified that he called Makayla on her birthday in 2015. It was the last time he ever spoke with her.
“(Bramble) said she was going out of town, and I never heard from her again,” Roberts told the jury. “She didn’t leave a contact number, and when I called, I didn’t get an answer.”
The next time he received word of his daughter was in September 2017, after Makayla’s remains had been found in the gray sedan sealed with a tarp and duct tape that became her tomb.
Ceus’ attorneys so far have mounted a vigorous defense with frequent objections and bench conferences, and lengthy, sometimes contentious cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses in an attempt to undermine their credibility.
Friday’s trial proceedings were cancelled when one of the jurors came down with the flu. The trial is currently scheduled to resume on Tuesday, with continuing testimony from Young, as well as San Juan County Sheriff’s Office investigator Dan Covault.