Purported religious leader Madani Ceus set in motion the 2017 events that led to the starvation deaths of sisters Makayla Roberts and Hannah Marshall, the sentencing judge said Friday, in imposing two consecutive 32-year prison terms.
A Gunnison jury in February convicted Ceus of two counts of child abuse resulting in death; she was acquitted of murder and plans to appeal the abuse convictions.
The children, whose mother was a member of Ceus’ doomsday religious group, were found dead in a car on a Norwood farm in September 2017. Pathologists later testified the sisters likely succumbed to starvation, dehydration and the heat.
According to testimony, the group came to the farm in May 2017 at the invitation of owner Frederick “Alec” Blair, who also joined and, with the others, prepared for the end of days.
At some point that fateful summer, Ceus decreed the girls should stay in the car, because they were unclean and interfering with others’ spiritual purity. Ceus also decreed they could not be fed from anything she prepared — the end result of which she knew full well, District Judge Keri Yoder said Friday.
“You set the wheels in motion here and you never did anything to stop them,” Yoder said, after Ceus’ impassioned statement that she had not been a leader, or harmed the children.
Ceus also pointed to the girls’ mother, Nashika Bramble, who is serving two life terms for murder. Also charged in the case were Blair; Ceus’ husband Ashford Archer, and Ika Eden. (See related information.)
Friday, Ceus alleged Bramble had admitted she knew that Hannah and Makayla were being sexually molested by another.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan reiterated testimony that Ceus identified herself as Yahweh and wielded power over the others to fatal results.
“The question becomes, why did everyone go along with her? The answer is, she made herself to be God,” he said, invoking a history of charismatic people who act like gods to get others to do “heinous” things.
“She made herself out to be the creator … the mother of all,” Ryan said.
“There is not a good answer as to whether she actually believed she was God, or whether she told people she was God. … Either way, it makes her an extremely dangerous individual,” he said. “No one has a crystal ball as to how the defendant will act in the future, however … it is clear she believes she is above man’s law.”
Public defenders Shandea Sergent and Patrick Crane said Ceus was targeted because of her race. They argued that investigators and prosecutors approached the case with tunnel vision by affixing responsibility to a Black woman, while treating Blair, who is white, differently, despite his criminal history and alleged penchant for lying.
In September 2017, Blair disclosed to his father that the girls were dead in the car, triggering calls to authorities. Those authorities didn’t even cuff Blair at first; allowed him to stay with his father for a time, and then let him call his mother, Sergent said.
By contrast, Ceus was greeted with a storm of armed officers, who ordered her, her own two girls, and the other Black group members onto the ground, the attorney said.
Sergent also said Ceus was treated differently in the San Miguel County Jail than was Blair — who ultimately received a plea deal on an accessory charge, with a 12-year sentence.
Ryan in his argument admitted it was “distasteful” to have to offer the plea, but Blair was critical to the prosecution, cooperated with authorities, and was less culpable than others, he said.
Similar to women who fought for rights in the past, and the current Black Lives Matter push for racial justice, Ceus was deemed disruptive and challenging “for demanding equality with other individuals,” Sergent said.
“I think it’s all of our jobs to try to put ourselves in her shoes and understand what that looks like for her to wander off that property in Norwood, a black Haitian woman, to go tell law enforcement or someone else that there are two dead children on that property,” Crane said, after Sergent noted Blair’s access to vehicles, phones and weapons.
“Every fear she had about what would happen came true the day law enforcement showed up,” Crane said.
Once they had Blair’s statements, prosecutors spent a half-million dollars to “selectively” try the case and figure out ways to validate what Blair said, instead of trying to determine that he was wrong, the defense said. The attorneys alleged the prosecution even ignored allegations Blair was passing contraband in the jail and a call from the lead investigator for him to be investigated for illegal marijuana sales.
San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters later said it was “absolute nonsense” and “complete falsehoods” that Ceus was mistreated.
“Since there was not an excuse for torturing and starving these two children, who are people of color as well, they had to claim I’m a racist. That’s ridiculous,” he said, adding all four people to be convicted in the deaths had justice meted out by the court
“They came here looking to do evil. They all got what they deserved,” he said.
Argument and testimony Friday painted contrasting pictures of Ceus.
The prosecution presented her as a cold manipulator, while the defense and two of Ceus’ siblings spoke of a kind-hearted introvert and devoted mother to her own children.
Ryan told of the girls’ “last supper” — food Blair and Bramble brought them from a Telluride food pantry on July 20, 2017. From that point on, “no one would come into contact with them,” he said.
Ryan took special note of the car that became their tomb, which was filled with trash.
“There is no good answer to the question why that trash was in there. Either it was the remains of their last meal, or it was placed in the car after they died,” Ryan said. “ … They thought they were impure and unclean and trash to be disposed of. Makayla and Hannah were tortured as they died of thirst.
“That’s what Ms. Ceus did, along with the rest of the group on this property. They tortured them.”
Ryan asked for the maximum sentence — 48 years for each count, for each child.
“Despite being dehumanized … they were two separate children, two separate human beings and this dictates that they should be treated as such,” he said, calling the abuse case one of the worst he’s seen.
“It involves the systematic abuse and torture of two beautiful Black girls. The People cannot fathom how the defendant claims she was not responsible for the deaths,” Ryan said.
Nothing the prosecution said squared with the Madani Ceus her half-sister knew.
“She was the peacemaker,” said Tayana Ceus. Madani was introduced to the family in New Jersey at the age of 17, after Madani’s mother died in Haiti; prior to that time, Tayana said she hadn’t known she had an elder sister.
“She would never hurt anybody,” Tayana said. “If she sees something that’s wrong, she would stop it. She’s the one who showed us it’s OK to be emotional.”
Madani’s arrest shocked her. “It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t go with my sister’s character,” she said.
McGregor Sylvain, Ceus’ brother, agreed.
“Much of what’s going out about her just doesn’t fit,” he said, suggesting Ceus had perhaps been ignorant of her rights at the time she was first questioned.
“I do feel sorry for those girls, Hannah and Makayla,” he said. “At the same time, I strongly feel it is not Madani who harmed those girls. Yes, they should be alive. However, at the same time, I don’t think it’s in her character to do any harm to anyone else’s kids, especially since she’s so caring to her own children.”
Sylvain told Yoder he prayed Ceus’ character would be factored into sentencing and “perhaps dissolve the image” prosecutors and the media have portrayed.
Ceus herself indicated she was a subservient and abused wife who was trying to protect her own children from the example she thought Bramble was setting , but she had “no reason to believe” Bramble would kill Hannah and Makayla
Ceus said when authorities burst onto the property, she didn’t know what was happening.
“They said ‘You sacrificed those children.’ … I was Catholic. We don’t know (any) voodoo. In my family, we don’t practice that,” she said. Yet, she added later, she was called a “Haitian witch” and a criminal.
“ … I stood up to my abusive husband. I stood up for my little girls.”
Ceus declared she had not harmed Hannah and Makayla.
“Truth is truth no matter what lies or prejudice,” she said. “Nobody listened because they are biased. … I want the truth to be out.”
Of her own children, now living with relatives, she said, through sobs: “I want my babies to see me again. I want to tell them I love you.”
Yoder spoke of Hannah and Makayla.
“We do know what happened to those babies. … They died because they didn’t have any food … because they didn’t have any water … because they were ignored. They were ignored by all of you,” the judge said.
Earlier in her remarks, she addressed racism: “We are having a reckoning in this country and we should. People of color have not been treated fairly over our country’s history.”
It is not OK to treat people differently for any reason, including for how they live, Yoder added.
“It’s OK if you want to think you’re God. It’s OK if you have followers. What’s not OK is to have children involved in that situation,” said the judge.
Ceus’ own children were not unscathed. “Your babies had to look at dead babies in a car — yes they did,” Yoder said, as Ceus began to protest.
“I regret if you have been treated unfairly by anybody in this process,” Yoder said. “But this isn’t that case. This is, what did you do in the summer of 2017.”
Yoder said “the bones” of what Blair said are supported by what Ceus said herself, as well as what Archer and other witnesses said.
“You believed you were God and you played God with the lives of Makayla and Hannah in 2017. … It is not your right to affect the lives of innocent children.”
She likened Ceus and the others to passengers on a ship who thought only those on board were going to “achieve light body,” so they had to jettison those branded as unclean — the two children.
“You decided they had to leave that rickety boat and get in a more rickety lifeboat,” the judge said. “ … They listened to you. There was nowhere else to go.”
Other people also bore responsibility, including Bramble, Yoder said, but that does not exempt Ceus.
“Not only did you fail to throw the children oars, or food, or water, you affirmatively convinced others not to,” she said. “ … You were captain of the ship. You were ‘God.’”
Ceus also knew the others would do what she said, Yoder added, yet she knowingly placed the girls at risk.
“I don’t know if you have regret or remorse. I really haven’t heard that. I’ve heard self-pity and blame,” Yoder said.
Ceus’ prison term is less about three years of pre-sentence confinement. Prosecutors want to be able to release the children’s bodies for burial, but the defense has asked that all evidence be preserved for the appeal. Each side was told to file formal motions.
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