Nashika Bramble sat, slightly swaying and appearing to wipe her eyes Tuesday, as a coroner detailed recovering the bodies of her two daughters from a fly-filled car in 2017.
Images of Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshall, 8, as they were found deceased Sept. 8 of that year, filled a screen at the front of the courtroom where Bramble is on trial for first-degree murder.
Prosecutors allege Bramble bears responsibility, along with her purported spiritual leader Madani Ceus, for the girls being placed and kept in the car without sufficient food or water until they died, abandoned by adults who were awaiting an apocalyptic event on a Norwood farm. Three others were charged in the case, too, but not with murder.
The children were part of an informal religious group the farm’s then-owner, Frederick “Alec” Blair had joined and invited onto his property. Group members included Bramble, Ceus, Ashford Archer and Ika Eden, as well as adults who have not been charged, and two other children, Ceus’ daughters.
At some point during late spring or early summer 2017, Hannah and Makayla were allegedly placed in the car to purify them from evils in past lives.
Tuesday, witnesses told of a strange scene, including puzzling “iconography” along trails lined with pennies, stacks of change at intersections, symbols drawn into the dirt and rocks stacked onto fence posts.
The first witness, Blair’s high school friend Adam Horn, testified that he visited the property with Blair’s father, Franklin Fletcher Sept. 8, 2017, because they were alarmed at the changes friends had been reporting in Blair since he invited Ceus’ band to live with him.
Horn said the formerly well-ordered farm had become a garbage strewn “dump” — and contained a gray sedan, tarped and taped over. A “layer of dead flies” was visible in the back window as he passed by with Fletcher, taking pictures they hoped would help identify those now living on Blair’s property. Horn said he caught a faint odor of decay.
“I’m thinking I want to find Alec and figure out what’s going on,” Horn said.
In a shack, Horn and Fletcher encountered Archer, who told them Blair had gone to the front of the property and the men retraced their steps.
Near the gate, they found a gaunt Blair, wearing strange robes. “When he looked at me, I could see nothing but hate,” Horn said.
Alarmed, Fletcher and Horn called Blair’s mother. He spoke to her, then to Fletcher.
Blair eventually broke down, Horn testified. “He was asking if the world had ended. He didn’t know who to trust.”
Blair at one point said his property was the Garden of Eden and he was a prophet, Horn also testified.
Under cross-examination, Horn said he was told Ceus controlled all food and water for everyone on the property — even Blair’s beloved dog, Lion, which she allegedly ordered to be starved.
“He had always been searching his whole life for something more spiritual,” Horn said of his friend. But the Blair of old would not have allowed anyone to harm his dog, or behaved the way he was that day, Horn also said.
As Fletcher began to ask about what the tarp on the car was hiding, Blair started to show worry that he could be in trouble over the dog, Horn said. (Other friends had rescued Lion at some point prior, according to testimony in Archer’s March trial.) Blair also appeared remorseful as he told them about the girls, Horn said.
Fletcher called 911 upon learning of the deaths, prompting a massive response by San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office investigators and the coroner’s office there.
Makayla and Hannah had been reduced to bones held together by tight skin when he recovered their “almost completely mummified” bodies, San Miguel County Coroner Emil Sante testified. The death scene was “as deplorable as you can imagine,” he said.
Makayla was removed first. When jurors were shown the picture of her body in the car, Bramble began wiping at her eyes. Sante continued his testimony and then came the picture of Hannah, her pink clothing still visible.
Defense attorney Harvey Palefsky repeatedly objected to having certain photos admitted, calling them cumulative and prejudicial.
Later, out of the jury’s presence, Deputy District Attorney Rob Whiting asked the judge to at some point inform jurors of court-provided counseling services, because of the images shown.
Per Sante’s testimony, the girls’ bodies first went to Dr. Michael Benziger for a forensic examination. As part of “extensive” followup, Sante also had them transported to the New Mexico Office of Medical Investigation for further examination.
An exact cause of death was not determined, but Benziger testified in other proceedings that starvation, dehydration and heat appear to have played roles.
Tuesday, construction company owner Calum McNeil, who worked on Blair’s property and had briefly lived with him elsewhere, testified he had only known of three children being on the property, not four.
He was able to identify some of the adults by looking at a large photo array, although he had trouble with some of the names and, reading aloud from a list before being instructed not to do so, said he had never referred to Blair as “Jesus or Michael or Ra.”
Group members went by various names with ancient religious meanings. Ceus reportedly called herself “Ama” (Mother), or “Yahweh” (God). According to case documents, Blair was decreed to be Michael the Archangel and the object of the group’s quest before assuming the title “Ra,” which was at first held by a man who left the group and was not charged. Ra is an Egyptian sun god.
Makayla and Hannah were called “Pink 1” and “Pink 2,” according to testimony at Archer’s trial.
Tuesday, San Miguel Sheriff’s Investigator Dan Covault testified he had often visited Blair’s property to conduct marijuana compliance checks and had a standing invitation to visit from an open and friendly Blair.
But on his Aug. 19, 2017 compliance check, the welcome mat was decidedly yanked from underfoot, per Covault’s testimony.
The investigator said when he entered the property, he saw two children playing in a field, but when he approached them, they ran. He followed these girls — later identified as Ceus’ children — to a shack on the property, where he found Archer seated near the door, with Ceus and the other women inside. Blair walked out of the shack to him — solemn-faced and “not friendly.”
The officer testified that Blair told him to leave because he was interrupting a religious ceremony and informed him he no longer grew marijuana at the farm. Covault said he considered the open invitation to be withdrawn when Blair said “you don’t need to come back.”
Without further reason to be on the property, Covault left — but the conditions he observed the children to be living in prompted him to call Social Services.
Close to Sept. 8, 2017, he received a letter stating the concern did not meet Social Services’ parameters and the agency would not conduct an investigation, Covault testified.
The next time he was at the property it was because the bodies had been found.
“At this point, I’m not sure what to think. I thought something had gone terribly wrong,” Covault said, explaining he thought Fletcher’s visit might have triggered a fresh event.
Instead, he and other authorities learned two children were dead in the car and had been for some time. Blair, he testified, said “this is a cold issue” before being prodded into a disclosure.
Ceus, Archer, Eden and the two surviving children were all present, but Bramble was nowhere to be found, and Archer reported she left two days earlier, Covault said. The SMCSO and Colorado Bureau of Investigation issued an alert to regional law enforcement agencies in an attempt to locate her.
Bramble turned herself in at the Grand Junction Police Department Sept. 9, 2017.
Covault testified further that neither food nor water was found in the car where the girls died, just containers. He said the car was registered to Eden. In another vehicle, investigators found a roll of duct tape, which was sent for testing to determine whether it could be matched to the tape used to secure the tarp over the car.
Palefsky sought to have this rejected as an exhibit, because it could not be linked to anyone on the scene, but it was admitted.
Covault then testified about items found in pits on the property, including items in their original packaging. It appeared to him as though these had been purchased for the purpose of destroying them. Other pits were layered with stones, then dirt, then a weapon and a barrel contained burned electronics and books, Covault testified.
His testimony was set to resume today.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.
Note: Bramble’s jury was seated Monday, contrary to the information available to the Montrose Daily Press as of Monday’s deadline for the Tuesday edition.
Four people other than Nashika Bramble were charged in the deaths of Makayla Roberts and Hannah Marshall.
• Madani Ceus is charged with first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Her trial has been slated for early next year.
• Frederick “Alec” Blair last year pleaded guilty to a felony accessory count and agreed to testify against the others. Sentencing is pending.
• Ashford Archer was convicted in March of child abuse resulting in death and helping to conceal a crime, but intends to appeal. He was last month sentenced to 24 years in prison.
• Ika Eden was charged with child abuse resulting in death. She has since been deemed legally incompetent to proceed.