Apocalyptic religion, drawn from other beliefs and symbols, surrounds death of two children

Carl Raschke Religious studies professor at the University of Denver

The doomsday cult allegedly responsible for the deaths of two young girls on a rural Colorado farm last year appears to be a "hardcore New Age" group whose tenets resemble several well-known religious organizations, according to a University of Denver professor who reviewed hundreds of pages of testimony.

Ten-year-old Makayla Roberts and 8-year-old Hannah Marshall were found dead in a sealed car on a Norwood farm in September while several adults nearby chanted, meditated and awaited the end of the world.

Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor, said the group's beliefs bring to mind tenets of several prominent New Age religious groups, including Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant, San Diego-based suicide cult Heaven's Gate, and various groups that believe in the Great White Brotherhood.

"It reminds me of what I would call hardcore New Age groups that draw on various theosophical beliefs and symbols," said Raschke, who reviewed testimony from preliminary hearings provided by The Daily Sentinel.

"Theosophy" refers to a broad religious movement with a variety of mystical beliefs centering on meditation and psychic powers, according to Raschke.

Authorities wondered early on whether some form of voodoo was being practiced on the farm — a query that was prompted at least in part by alleged group leader Madani Ceus' Haitian background.

"The scene was just really weird," San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said at a hearing earlier this month.

One of Masters' deputies has since testified that, after consulting an academic expert, investigators now don't believe that's the case.

Investigators believe Makaylah and Hannah were sequestered in the car at the order of Ceus, a self-styled religious leader who claimed to be "Yahweh" and the creator of the cosmos.

Ceus — who among others is facing murder charges — taught her followers that the world was about to end and that they needed to purify themselves in order to escape destruction, according to testimony in court. She allegedly banished Makayla and Hannah to the car after declaring them "impure" and having been "harlots" in past lives.

Investigators found an eclectic mix of religious objects, symbols and practices when they began searching the property and interviewing the defendants and their acquaintances.

Witnesses have testified in court that Ceus used a pendulum to make decisions, and that she and her followers relied heavily on interpreted dreams. Ceus and her husband, Ashford Archer, allegedly taught that followers who were sufficiently pure could achieve the "light body" and leave Earth's dimension to escape the apocalypse, described in terms of natural disasters and a war in Korea.

Various pieces of Egyptian mythology were in play — ex-follower Cory Sutherland and defendant Frederick "Alec" Blair both went by "Ra" at various times, a reference to the Egyptian sun god, and when arrested, Blair was dressed in white robes and wearing an ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol that resembles a cross with a loop.

Raschke said groups like Ceus' often borrow freely from various religious traditions.

"You pick it up, you adapt it to your own needs," he said.

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