Spiritual beliefs led Frederick “Alec” Blair to the same religious group as child-deaths defendant Ashford Archer — and, ultimately to him helping his “teacher” cover with a tarp the car where sisters Makayla Roberts and Hannah Marshall died on his Norwood property in 2017, he testified Monday.
Blair said he saw the foot of the elder girl, 10-year-old Roberts — also called LaToya and “Pink 1” — sticking out of a window and used a shovel to push it back inside before he and Archer tied a tarp over the car with tow straps, duct tape and other items.
“There were two deceased children in the vehicle,” Blair said Monday, during Archer’s trial for two counts of fatal child abuse and accessory to a crime. Blair was also once charged with those offenses, but pleaded to the accessory charge and agreed to testify for the prosecution.
Three others also are charged in the case, including group leader Madani Ceus; the girls’ mother, Nashika Bramble and Ika Eden, who has been deemed legally incompetent.
The children were part of a religious group that traveled the country for about two years before Ceus and an uncharged person considered her “right-hand” man encountered Blair at a Grand Junction truck stop and he invited them onto his Norwood property.
When the girls were found Sept. 8, 2017, their bodies were partially mummified. Pathologists could not pinpoint a cause of death, but said the children were subjected to periods of starvation, according to Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan on Monday.
Neither Blair nor multiple other people on his property during the summer of 2017 was initially aware of Marshall, until he heard reference to “Pink 2,” Blair testified.
Initially, he did nothing about it, but in July of 2017, he said he asked Ceus and Archer if there was a second Pink. After conferring with Ceus, Archer reportedly took Blair to a gray sedan and opened the door.
“He showed me there were two children in the vehicle, one of which I had never seen before,” Blair said. The child, Marshall, 8, wore pink. “I didn’t know how to react. I was stunned and slightly confused. I confronted Ms. Ceus.”
Marshall was playing with some paper as her sister sat next to her, Blair testified.
“They looked a little skinny, but they didn’t seem to be unhealthy to me,” he said.
At the time, Eden and Bramble were sleeping nights in the car; after Blair was shown the girls, they began sleeping in his truck, he said.
At the beginning of his testimony, Blair explained he had been part of the Rastafari movement and had extensively studied ancient religious texts and documents. He purchased about 20 acres in Norwood on which to grow hemp, vegetables and medical marijuana, in partnership with his friend, River Young.
In May, 2017, Blair was taking Young to Denver to catch a flight when they stopped at a Grand Junction truck stop for something to eat. There, a man later identified as Eden’s son, Cory Sutherland, approached Blair, apparently because of the head covering Blair wore as part of his religion.
What followed was an extensive conversation and meal with Sutherland’s family — Ceus, Archer, their two minor daughters, Eden, Bramble, and others.
Sutherland called Ceus over and said that Blair was “the guy we’ve been waiting for. … He’s a (St.) Michael,” Blair testified, paraphrasing based on his memory.
Blair ultimately invited the group to return with him to Norwood when he got back from Denver.
In lengthy testimony, Blair discussed the group’s spirituality and his gradual inclusion into the belief system that put Ceus at the top: She was Ama (Mother) and gradually took from Archer the title of Aba (Father), as well as Yahweh (God).
Beneath her was Sutherland, who left the farm before the girls died, after confronting Ceus about her leadership, per Blair’s testimony. Archer followed in the pecking order; Bramble and Eden were more “subservient,” Blair said.
According Blair, Ceus portrayed herself “as essentially the mother of the universe, the creator in flesh.”
The group constructed an 8-foot-by-8-foot shack as an “altar” area for Ceus and a place to hold councils where dreams and visions were interpreted.
Blair characterized Archer as a spiritual mentor, who decreed his Rastafari beliefs “bullshit.”
“It was not true knowledge. True knowledge came from within,” Blair said.
Archer also told him that when it came to the laws of man versus the laws of God, “The things that man cherishes re not the things God cherishes. What man thinks is good is bad in the eyes of God.”
Blair eventually went from wearing regular work clothes and his Rastafari head covering to wearing a mono-colored robe and head dressing like the rest of the group. Archer, he said, told him that those who wear the clothes of the world will be cut down.
Blair looked up to Archer. “I felt that he was an elder, a teacher to me. The relationship was teacher to student,” he said.
Eventually, Blair began spending more time with the group and the farm’s gardens began to wither. When Young returned, the condition of the farm upset him, so he confronted the group, displeasing Ceus, Blair said.
The group members began pitching in with some of the farm work, but Ceus decreed Young would no longer be fed with anything she cooked.
“It was decided River should no longer be present on the farm,” Blair said, although he wasn’t sure who gave that order. He told his friend at the end of June to leave.
Young’s was not the only departure: Sutherland, whom Blair characterized as “erratic, talking to trees,” and eventually unable to fill a glass with water, also left.
Blair said the man confronted Ceus over her leadership role, which made the woman “unhappy and frustrated.”
Blair also testified as to Roberts’ place in the spiritual activities.
He said the girl placed into the car because she was not working sufficiently on addressing her past lives. The girl was denied elements of fellowship: In one instance, she was forbidden to drink the waters of Bridal Veil Falls after a ceremony there.
In July of 2017, Blair stopped seeing Roberts around, and noticed she was spending her time near the gray car in which her body was later found.
Subsequent statements from the prosecution indicated Roberts “was not sealed, was going into the purge and there was nothing anyone could do about it, because it was Ceus’ will.”
Blair was said to have dreamed the girl was sitting next to an alligator, which reportedly led to a discussion by the council.
Defense attorney Scott Reisch peppered Ryan’s line of questioning with objection after objection, based on hearsay and lack of foundation.
Late afternoon, with the predominantly female jury out of the room, Ryan made his case for allowing upcoming testimony from deputies and others.
He sought an exception to hearsay evidence under rules that allow hearsay when it involves the statements of co-conspirators in furtherance of a conspiracy.
“We’re talking about child abuse and accessory (conduct) that includes the imprisonment of Hannah in the car,” Ryan said.
He intends to present witnesses who will testify that Archer preached about end-times and purity, and that at the time of the full moon in August 2017, the bulk of the group moved to the perimeter the altar-shack and engaged in full-time religious activity.
“The girls were ignored for several weeks,” Ryan said.
He also wants to put on the stand a San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office deputy who will testify about the amount of food and utensils he found near the altar-shack, as well as to information about his Aug. 9, 2017 contact with Blair.
All witnesses will provide corroborating evidence that the group ignored the children, thereby conspiring to commit child abuse, the DDA said.
Other testimony goes to the allegation Blair or Archer had a vision the police were coming, and so, they secured a tarp over the car.
Blair’s father and another man can offer testimony about finding the car on or about Sept. 8, 2017, filled with flies, and the stench of decomposition.
Additionally, two pathologists can offer evidence supporting the accessory charge, as they found the girls had suffered “several distinct periods of starvation” prior to dying.
District Judge Keri Yoder questioned Ryan closely, asking for evidence of a conspiracy not to feed the girls and evidence of Archer’s involvement as specific phases.
Ryan said Archer knew Marshall was imprisoned in the car, and that he was present when Ceus allegedly said the girls should not be fed.
Yoder ultimately allowed several of the disputed statements to be admitted under exceptions to hearsay rules.
But Reisch, earlier, said there was no conspiracy as required to support such exceptions.
“There’s never been any conspiracy to conceal a child on a property,” he said. Nor was there a conspiracy to deny children food as part of a conspiracy.
“It’s simply not there,” Reisch said.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.