Residents unaware cult members were living in Norwood
The Daily Sentinel, Colorado/January 29, 2018
By Gabrielle Porter
This place, to borrow a phrase from longtime resident Dean Boehler, is as far as it can be from anything without being closer to something else. It's 6½ hours from Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Flagstaff, 2½ hours from Grand Junction and Durango.
Old-timers still remember when they knew everyone they saw at the local Clark's Market or who frequented the town post office.
The discovery of the bodies of two little girls on a marijuana farm just outside town limits in September was a stark reminder that — while the deaths are considered an anomaly in every sense — everyone doesn't know everyone anymore.
"We think that we're isolated and we think we know everyone," said Carrie Andrew, director of the Norwood Library. "So you think, 'I would've noticed, I should've noticed.' … If you don't know they exist, you can't know they need help."
Despite the tragic deaths of Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshall, 8, however, Norwood residents speaking in recent weeks said they believe their town is a community poised on the verge of potentially major and mostly positive changes.
'You can hide pretty easily around here'
Visitors coming through Ridgway wind through a low road with bluffs on either side, and pass the cutoff to Telluride before ascending the steep incline of Wright's Mesa. Norwood sits atop the mesa, an island in the sky with ranches nestled in its plains-type vistas, impossibly bright night skies stretched overhead.
On a recent Thursday morning, the town was nearly deserted following the morning commute exodus. John Dotson, who pastors Norwood Christian Church, heads the town's chamber of commerce, and is making a run at the mayorship this year, slid into a booth at the Happy Belly Deli, where fewer than half a dozen patrons sipped mugs of coffee.
As conversation turned toward the recent tragedy — a horrific crime in his idyllic retirement home's backyard — Dotson shook his head. Like many in the town, Dotson said he didn't realize that Madani Ceus and her band of itinerant followers had arrived in town until the little girls' bodies were discovered in early September.
"There were no huge red lights going off anywhere," Dotson said. "You can hide pretty easily around here, and that's what they did."
The isolation appears to have been by design. Ceus — who along with four other adults, including Makayla and Hannah's mother, is facing charges in their deaths — was allegedly the leader of a doomsday cult that had huddled on a farm to await the end of time. Ceus allegedly ordered her followers to remain sequestered from the outside world in order to keep themselves pure enough to escape the apocalypse. San Miguel Sheriff Bill Masters testified earlier this month that Frederick "Alec" Blair, the owner of the Norwood farm and a fellow defendant, was taught by Ceus that being around outsiders would infect him with "grey energy."
After the discovery that two little girls had died after being banished to a car without food or water, community members were shocked and at a loss. They quickly put together a memorial service for Makayla and Hannah in the town park, hindered a little by the fact that nobody had known the sisters.
"People just felt like there needed to be something done in memoriam for the girls," Andrew said. "And, you know, just to allow the community to kind of grieve a little bit. We didn't have a huge turnout, but I think a lot of people were comforted just that we did it."
From ranching roots
Holding a memorial service for two strangers doesn't seem out of the ordinary to Dotson and Andrew, who take it in stride that community is still a central part of life in Norwood.
Historically, Wright's Mesa residents were cattle and sheep ranchers and miners.
While locals bristle at being called Telluride's bedroom community, Betty Greager, another longtime resident who heads the Wright's Mesa Historical Society and whose late husband wrote several books on the region, said Telluride's burgeoning economy as a ski resort town with an airport was a lifeline when mining took a hit several decades ago.
"When that all closed down and … people didn't have jobs, Telluride did supply construction workers, housekeepers, you know, all kinds of jobs, which really kind of was a lifesaver," Greager said.
Today, a fair number of Norwood residents make the 33-mile commute to Telluride every day, by car or Galloping Goose bus. Others still work on ranches and farms in the area.
A growing number have taken advantage of San Miguel County's land-use code regulations to grow both recreational and medical marijuana on Wright's Mesa, which has caused somewhat of a rift. The Telluride Daily Planet in January reported that San Miguel County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Covault estimated 180 people are growing marijuana on Wright's Mesa, many of whom he said "over-cultivate," or produce more than their legal limit.
Not all Norwood area residents approve. Stacy Boehler said she and husband, Dean, fought against regulations that allow grows on Wright's Mesa, and is frustrated that there seem to be so many people skirting regulations by growing more than they're allowed.
"We went to those meetings with the county commissioners and said, 'Please don't make us this grand experiment,'" she said.
Andrew said while the community is divided, there is widespread support for the marijuana growers who have followed regulations to the letter, like Alpine Wellness, a Telluride dispensary with a Norwood presence.
In any case, the result of recent years of change has been a more diverse population than the Norwood of the past.
"We have that hippie group, which is great," Dotson said. "We have the old-time cowboys and we have people who are professionals. We have … the working people that just want to live a good life."
Norwood struggles with many issues and enjoys many of the perks typical to small, rural communities. It needs new sidewalks, better drainage in town, a more robust infrastructure, a way to slow down drivers racing through its main drag — a pet peeve of Dotson's and the centerpiece of his campaign.
The annual San Miguel Basin Fair, Rodeo & Carnival is a highlight every year, as is the long-running Pioneer Day festival.
Growth and change
Growth is potentially on the horizon. The Telluride Daily Planet reported in October a federal grant will fund a fiber-optic line from Norwood north to Nucla, bringing high-speed broadband internet to the area.
Andrew, who also serves as vice president for the chamber of commerce, hopes Norwood and the west end of Montrose County can eventually start to draw biking enthusiasts from people tired of fighting crowds in Moab, pointing to the recent Lone Cone Fat Bike Challenge.
"We've always been based on either the Telluride tourism or natural resource extraction," she said. "We're trying to find markets to expand and diversify our economy."
Greager said while she doesn't like all the changes she's seen to her home over the years, she's hopeful for her community's future.
"I have always said for years and years that I am so glad I live in Norwood," she said. "It is such a good place to live."
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