For nearly three weeks, a Gunnison jury weighed the evidence against purported religious leader Madani Ceus, who was accused of murdering young sisters Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshall, 8, in 2017.
The children’s badly decomposed bodies were found on a Norwood farm that September.
Late Thursday, the jury returned a verdict: Not guilty of first-degree murder, but guilty of both charged counts of child abuse resulting in death, a class-2 felony.
“The jury’s spoken and found the defendant guilty of child abuse causing death, which is certainly true,” San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said Thursday.
“I would have hoped for a little bit more, but I accept the jury’s verdict. The rest of it (sentencing) is going to be up to the judge.”
Ceus’ public defender vowed to appeal the conviction.
“There was a lot of prejudicial bias against Ms. Ceus that we were precluded from presenting to the jury, including the use of racial epithets,” Patrick Crane said in written communication after the verdict.
“We also believe that there were substantial legal errors in this process that allowed for the jury to be misled and come to a verdict that is not supported by law.
“We are thankful that the jurors acquitted on the most serious charge.”
Ceus was reportedly in charge of a traveling religious band that made its way to Colorado in May, 2017. At a Grand Junction truck stop, she encountered Frederick “Alec” Blair of Norwood, who later testified he was so enamored of the group’s philosophy that he invited its members to stay on his farm.
At the time of the invitation, he knew of Makayla and Ceus’ two children, but nothing of Hannah, whom he later discovered on his property.
Hannah was isolated from the group and ordered to stay in her mother’s car at the order of Ceus, who had deemed her impure, Blair and others testified previously. Makayla also was eventually ordered to the car for impurity and Ceus decreed neither girl could be fed from her “increase,” Blair has said.
Blair believed Ceus had the power to “reap” his soul and obeyed her out of fear, he also said.
But when he discovered the girls dead in the car — likely of starvation, dehydration and overheating, although a precise cause of death never was determined — Blair covered the vehicle with a tarp, with the assistance of group member Ashford Archer.
The bodies were only discovered when Blair’s father and a friend visited the property months later. The men came because they were alarmed by reports of a personality shift in Blair that was so extreme he began starving his beloved dog when ordered to do so.
Blair pleaded guilty to an accessory charge and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Archer, who is appealing his conviction, was found guilty as an accessory and of child abuse resulting in death. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Group member Ika Eden has been deemed incompetent to stand trial; she was charged with child abuse resulting in death.
The children’s mother was convicted of the most severe charge: Nashika Bramble is now serving a life sentence after a jury found her guilty of first-degree murder — one count each for Makayla and Hannah.
Although the offenses occurred in Norwood, San Miguel County, Bramble and Archer were both tried in Montrose. Ceus’ trial was moved to Gunnison.
Masters on Thursday said he was surprised Ceus was not also convicted of murder. “She was still found guilty of a class-2 felony, and on a very serious charge, child abuse resulting in death,” Masters said.
He thanked the investigatory and prosecution teams for their work.
“The prosecution team, the deputy sheriffs and the entire sheriff’s office really performed well and our partners at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation really did an outstanding job,” Masters said. “I can’t thank our prosecution team enough for their efforts in these cases.”
Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan thanked his team, including victim advocates Donetta Dunlap and Aimee English.
Ryan began the trial with help from two other prosecutors, however, Robert Whiting was injured and could not complete the trial. Robert Zentner assisted through the end.
Ryan also thanked the SMCSO, Masters and Investigator Sgt. Dan Covault.
Ryan said he would reserve comment on the verdict until after Ceus’ sentencing, which has been slated for March 20.