Nashika Bramble and others were uneasy when their purported religious leader banished Bramble’s two daughters to a car in 2017, but no one challenged her, according to testimony and video played in court Monday and Tuesday.
No one dared: They had come to believe the leader, Madani Ceus, was Yahweh, ruler of the cosmos and the underworld, and that she would send “reapers” for their souls, according to what a codefendant said on the stand, and Bramble’s similar statements on the video.
Even after Ceus allegedly declared the young girls, Makayla Roberts and Hannah Marshall, to be “daughters of Lilith,” and ordered food and water withheld from them, the tape showed Bramble saying she had believed Ceus.
The girls, ages 10 and 8, respectively, died in that car, from what pathologists said was likely a combination of starvation, dehydration and overheating.
Bramble is now on trial for first-degree murder. Ceus is also charged with murder; her trial is tentatively set for next year.
“I should have done something more, but I had the fear. … I literally felt she had taken the essence from my body,” a then-heavily pregnant Bramble said on the recording, which prosecutors played after calling Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent John Zamora to the stand.
Zamora conducted that interview Sept. 9, 2017, one day after authorities discovered the mummified remains of Bramble’s daughters in the car, parked on Norwood marijuana farmer Frederick “Alec” Blair’s property.
They had been dead since some point in August, before San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office Investigator (then a deputy) Dan Covault visited the property on Aug. 19, 2017, to conduct a compliance check of Blair’s marijuana.
The investigator testified previously he had encountered other people on the property, including Ceus, Bramble, Ashford Archer and Ika Eden, all of whom belonged to Ceus’ spiritual group, as did Blair.
Archer was previously convicted of child abuse resulting in death and sentenced to 24 years in prison; Blair pleaded as an accessory for helping to conceal the death car, and Eden was found legally incompetent. Another group member, Cory Sutherland, was identified Monday as the father of the baby Bramble was carrying in 2017. He left the group after a reported breakdown and has not been charged.
On Sept. 8, 2017, Blair’s father and a friend, alarmed by stories they heard about Blair’s condition and behavior, visited. Blair eventually disclosed the deaths and they called authorities.
Under cross-examination Monday, Blair replied “absolutely” when defense attorney Harvey Palefsky asked if Ceus had threatened him with psychological harm.
Blair spoke of “soul harvest” and said he was told “reapers” would attack him if he left. Blair also agreed when asked if Ceus ruled by fear.
“I did not feel I could say no to Ms. Ceus,” said Blair, who also testified to procuring psilocybin mushrooms for Ceus; she appeared to be over-indulging in the psychoactive fungi, he said.
Bramble, according to the recording of her third interrogation on Sept. 11, 2017, spoke of heavy pot use by Sutherland, who reportedly had a breakdown and was removed from the property at Ceus’ orders.
Blair had first encountered the spiritual band in May 2017. Members convinced Blair that he was a figure for whom they were waiting; once the group was living with him in Norwood, he was decreed to be Jesus, the sun god Ra, Buddha — just about any messiah figure, as Palefsky put it.
“You were stripped of your free will, weren’t you?” Palefsky asked Monday. Blair, who had known Ceus for mere months at that time, said yes.
Bramble had been with Ceus for about three years, including in an apartment in North Carolina, where, according to earlier testimony, group members were told to stay in order to avoid a coming apocalypse. Ex-members testified to hunger, and drinking only water so that the children could eat.
Ceus allegedly controlled the food on the Norwood property, too, and refused to feed the food she had prepared to Hannah and Makayla, whom she deemed “impure.”
“ … She forbade us … to give them any more water or anything because she said they were unclean, an abomination,” Bramble said.
“They were contaminated,” she said later during her recorded interrogation.
The car door was not locked and would sometimes be open for air, but the children were not allowed to call out. “She made us push it out of our mind,” Bramble said.
On a portion of the interrogation played Tuesday, Zamora asked what Bramble thought should happen to the adults on the property when the children died.
The audio of her response was not entirely clear, but Bramble indicated Ceus was the driving force behind what happened. The others were acting as they had been conditioned to act, she indicated. “It was mainly because we were told we could not (help),” she said.
Zamora in the Sept. 9 interrogation asked why the girls did not simply get out of the car.
“They listened to her. They looked at her like, ‘She’s Yahweh,’” Bramble said.
From time to time, she and others would check on Hannah and Makayla.
“We saw they weren’t moving. … They were still,” Bramble said. Everyone came to the car and saw one of the girl’s foot hanging out the door.
According to Bramble, Ceus told the group girls “had an easy death, compared to what their fate was with the purge.”
Ceus also allegedly told her followers the cosmos was testing them by their reaction to the deaths.
“It was a shutdown on your consciousness, a shutdown on what you should do … a shutdown on everything,” Bramble told Zamora on the recording.
After the children died, Ceus turned her attention on Bramble, deeming her an abomination, as well.
“She was mad at me for bringing them into the world. … They’d been destroying the earth for eons. … They came to mess up Yahweh’s show,” Bramble said.
Bramble was “separated” and order to spend her time in a parked truck. “I was next,” Bramble said, in a clip of the Sept. 11, 2017 interrogation.
Ceus ranted about Bramble “from sunup to sundown,” Blair said. He also said Bramble and Eden both were threatened with separation if they tried to help Makayla and Hannah.
Zamora, on the recording, told Bramble that Ceus informed him everyone in the group was equal.
“That’s not true. She was the mother of all living, even the messenger of death, because death was new life,” Bramble responded.
Tuesday, Palefsky asked Zamora to read aloud from interrogation transcripts. According to them, Bramble had begun being “separated” from her children in North Carolina, and Eden, not she, had primary caregiver duties over them — she was “the noch,” caregiver of the princesses of the cosmos, Bramble said.
Bramble left the farm out of fear. She said she had “walked and walked” to get away, just a few days before deputies discovered her dead children. She ultimately turned herself in to Grand Junction police.
“I feel like I have mental issues,” Bramble told Zamora, recounting that she felt Ceus pull the spirit of her unborn child from her. “I believed everything that I was told.”
Sitting in the interview room, aware of Ceus’ arrest — “Yahweh is in jail” — Bramble became emotional, per the transcripts Zamora read Tuesday.
Bramble began questioning whether Ceus was going to bring her daughters back to life, of whether it was “some kind of voodoo sacrifice,” per the testimony.
“Now it’s like I’m waking up. … I’m realizing how big the lie was,” Bramble said, again according to the transcript that was read.
The prosecution rested its case. A defense expert in cultic studies is expected to take the stand Wednesday.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.