Murder suspect Nashika Bramble belonged to a religious group with a pattern of isolation, extreme fasting and end-of-world prophecies that did not come to pass, former group members testified Wednesday.
Bramble is accused of first-degree murder in the deaths of her children, Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshall, 8. The children’s bodies were found Sept. 8, 2017, on a Norwood farm, entombed in the car to which purported group leader Madani Ceus allegedly banished them for purification.
Makayla and Hannah had accompanied Bramble from North Carolina to Colorado with Ceus, Ashford Archer, Ika Eden and the others. They came to Norwood at the invitation of the farm’s then-owner, Frederick “Alec” Blair, who met the adults at a Grand Junction truck stop in May 2017.
A spiritual seeker himself, Blair welcomed the group — at times referred to as “the family” in testimony — onto his property and gradually assumed the title of “Ra,” formerly held by one of Eden’s sons, who ultimately left the property and was not charged.
The girls died of suspected starvation, dehydration and overheating at least a month before their bodies were discovered discovered in the car. It was parked within shouting distance of where the rest of the loose-knit band had begun staying in preparation for an apocalyptic event, San Miguel County Sheriff’s Investigator Dan Covault said, through testimony.
Covault said it was possible to communicate from the car to the campsite about 100 yards away by raising his voice; however, due to dense trees and vegetation, the car was not visible from where the others were staying.
Covault also testified at length concerning food: Although group members other than Ceus, her children and Archer were gaunt and extremely hungry when authorities encountered them, at least four people on premises were in the middle of eating beans, and there were dried foodstuffs, such as rice, on the property.
In the car where the children died, however, there was only trash from empty food tins and other debris about 6 inches deep on the floorboards; the dark pockets shown in photos were insects, Covault said. Food did not appear to have been made available to the girls, he said through testimony.
The foodstuffs seized had been stored as evidence for months on end, Covault said when defense attorney Harvey Palefsky asked about insect activity on those dry goods.
Two witness’ testimony indicated a prior pattern of behavior similar to what authorities allege was taking place in Norwood.
Eden’s daughter, Hannah Sutherland, testified that her mother fell under Ceus or Archer’s sway, burning photos and documents in a seemingly fearful manner, before taking her, her brother Cory Sutherland (who predated Blair as “Ra”) and friends Cassandra McCarroll and Maria Ramirez to North Carolina to mediate in preparation for the end of the world — foretold for March 20, 2014.
Although Archer had prophesied they would prepare on a “mountain,” when they arrived, he told them the apartment was the mountain, McCarroll testified.
Both women told of being instructed to shave all their hair and take a ritualistic cleansing bath. They surrendered their worldly clothing for garb Ceus had made them.
The outside world was dangerous — full of demons that would pull them from their spiritual path and render them ineligible for passage to a new dimension as “light beings” when the apocalypse came, the testimony heard indicated.
Contact with the outside world was not allowed. “We drowned our electronic devices in water,” Sutherland said.
In Norwood in 2017, investigators found several electronics that had been burnt, along with other personal effects. Per prior testimony, Blair had become isolated from his friends, prompting their alarm and, eventually, a visit from his father that led to the discovery of Hannah and Makayla’s bodies.
At Archer’s trial, Sutherland reportedly testified she was told death awaited her if she left. Wednesday, she explained the group’s view of death as something less than absolute, at least for the chosen few who heeded Ceus and Archer.
“Death wasn’t something to be sad about or afraid of,” she said. It was more like moving on to the next dimension, provided one was pure enough.
Sutherland and McCarroll also talked about food: There were only dates, almonds and coconuts and when these ran out, there was nothing.
Sutherland testified that she stopped partaking of the meager stores because “there were kids” who needed the food more. She said although she was concerned, she didn’t complain about the lack of food.
When asked whether Ceus or Archer had physically threatened her, Sutherland said “No.”
Her time with the group ended when her father and an older brother arrived at the apartment.
“They were very angry. They yelled and yelled,” Sutherland said. When she peeked around the door, they took hold of her and removed her from the apartment, but could not force Eden or Sutherland’s other brother, Cory, to leave.
Sutherland said when she first arrived at the apartment, Bramble’s girls appeared healthy and Bramble appeared to take care of them. McCarroll said Bramble interacted with her girls normally. In response to a juror’s question, Sutherland said she could not recall whether Bramble gave up her food so her children could eat more.
However, the lack of food affected the children, not just adults and young teenagers like Sutherland then was, both women testified.
“We ran out of food and were not allowed to go out and (buy more). The Creator was supposed to supply it if we had enough faith,” said McCarroll, who in 2014 was Cory Sutherland’s girlfriend.
She said she went without food for 15 days and did not see the children eat.
McCarroll said she was warned that if she left, “I’d be ‘swimming with the fish,’” broadly meaning she would be condemned with the rest of the unclean world.
McCarroll began doubting. “I just had a bad feeling. … Things weren’t adding up. It was time for me to leave,” she said.
She pulled Archer aside and told him she was going to her father’s home to prepare there for the apocalypse and continue in the group’s work. Instead, she went to the apartment manager’s office and called her mother to get the phone number of an acquaintance in North Carolina. She then went back for her friend, Ramirez, and left.
“I walked barefoot to Walmart,” McCarroll said. There, she called her mother’s friend for a ride and got something to eat.
Makayla’s father Chris Roberts testified Wednesday that the last time he saw his daughter, she was in good health, not suffering from any known medical defect and to his knowledge, neither was Hannah.
A pediatrician who treated both girls when they lived in Florida later said much the same about their health, although she last had them as patients in 2014.
Roberts said Bramble informed him she was moving from Florida to Georgia and that he spoke to his daughter one time after that, near her birthday. He told Palefsky he had been involved in his daughter’s life “since her birth,” after the attorney pointed to testimony in Archer’s trial indicating he’d begun visitations in 2012.
Roberts opted to stay in the courtroom once he was released from his subpoena.
Covault, the investigator and prosecution advisory witness, had testified Tuesday about items buried in pits on the property. On Wednesday, he said authorities dug up a gun, a machete and a knife from the pits, in which two boxes containing things like pendants inscribed with symbols also were found.
Palefsky asked why Blair “didn’t exercise his free will” to use the gun against Ceus and her partner Archer to save the children.
Covault said he had not asked Blair that, although it was “absolutely” possible Blair could have accessed the weapons.
Covault said further that nothing in the pits could be specifically linked to Bramble.
The investigator had also visited the property Aug. 19, 2017 to check on Blair’s marijuana grow, only to be sent packing by the formerly friendly farmer. During this visit, he saw Ceus’ two children and contacted Social Services over their living conditions, but that agency declined to investigate.
On cross exam Wednesday, he said his concerns arose from the totality of the circumstances: Although Norwood attracts all sorts, encountering strangers on the property, the conditions of it, and the fact he was investigating Blair “behind his back” led to him making the call.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.