DEADLY DOGMA

The story of how two girls perished inside a car in southwest Colorado begins with a doomsday cult whose origins and beliefs remain largely unknown to the public.


There was a diary.

Authorities found it inside the Toyota Camry where 10-year-old Makayla Roberts and her 8-year-old sister Hannah Marshall spent their last weeks, days and hours.

It was there among the empty food cans that had sustained them before their supply was cut off, a bundle of pink clothes they might have used as blankets and the little girls' own bodies.

Its contents have yet to become public, although a San Miguel County sheriff's deputy testified in court that one of the girls had written in it enough to show that she had been in the car for "a period of time."

The Toyota itself was hidden from view by the time the girls' deaths were discovered last September — parked in the interior of a 20-acre scrub-covered farm outside Norwood, a mesa-top community 130 miles southwest of Grand Junction.

By the time law enforcement reached it on Sept. 8, it was far too late to help. Makayla, remembered by family friends as the more "compliant" child, and Hannah, the "daredevil," had been dead for days or weeks, their bodies too decomposed to even determine whether it was starvation, dehydration or hyperthermia that ultimately killed them.

The girls, whose mother was a member of a doomsday cult, spent the last two years of their lives being driven around the country allegedly at the direction of the group's charismatic leader, 37-year-old Madani Ceus.

Ceus, a native of Haiti who was identified by one follower as a "powerful witch," was arrested the same day deputies were called out to the terrible scene. So, too, were Ashford Archer, 51; 36-year-old Nashika Bramble, the girls' mother; 23-year-old Alec Blair, who owned the Norwood area property; and 54-year-old Ika Eden, described as a devout follower whom Ceus treated like a servant.

Investigators believe that a bizarre set of beliefs were at the heart of the itinerant group that called themselves a family but whose members are now accused of standing by while Makayla and Hannah died inside the car.

'TO THE EXTREME'

Little has been made public about Ceus' and Archer's backgrounds, where they came by their strange mix of beliefs or how they met each other. It appears, however, that they started amassing followers to their apocalyptic teachings in 2015 on the East Coast.

Hannah-Joy Sutherland, the now 19-year-old daughter of Ika Eden, said she was living in the Orlando, Florida, area when her mother fell in with Ceus and Archer.

"My mother, she was always a spiritual person," Hannah-Joy said, speaking by phone from West Palm Beach, Florida, where she lives and attends college. "She always did the godly thing."

Things changed after Eden started communicating with Archer. Instead of attending church every week, the family started having church at home, taking direction over the phone with Archer, who she knew as "Nathania."

"Things kind of went, like, to the extreme," Hannah-Joy said. "It's like she did nothing but worship."

At first, changes to Hannah-Joy's own life weren't more than "minorly annoying" — being made to wear head coverings and long dresses.

But one day — investigators believe sometime in the spring of 2015 — Hannah-Joy got off the school bus to find her life turned upside down. Eden had received a message from Archer.

"He basically told us that the world was going to end and we needed to pack up and just go," Hannah-Joy said.

Eden destroyed the family's phones, burned their government identification cards.

"She burned all of the baby photos," Hannah-Joy said. "It was a traumatizing experience for me. … Like an evacuation."

Hannah-Joy, her brother, Cory, her mother and her grandmother left their home with nothing but the clothes on their backs, heading to an apartment Archer shared with Ceus five miles outside downtown Charlotte, North Carolina.

They weren't the only ones.

Cory Sutherland's then girlfriend, Cassandra McCarroll, and one of her friends came too. McCarroll, now 23, had been communicating with Archer via phone for several months after being introduced by Eden. McCarroll — who declined an interview but sent The Daily Sentinel a series of YouTube video journals describing her experience — said she was vulnerable to Archer's message because of her Jehovah's Witness upbringing and her depression as a teenager.

The trip to North Carolina was originally branded a mountain retreat, according to McCarroll. By the time Archer summoned his followers, however, things had "escalated to a crazy level," McCarroll said in her video. "Basically, 'The world's going to end. On March 20, something is going to happen. … Either you're going to be swimming with the fish or you can be with us in a special place Yahweh has created for us.'"

McCarroll got rid of her belongings, quit her job and headed north, ignoring warnings from friends and family members.

"It's just like nobody could reason with me," she said.

Eden also recruited Nashika Bramble, who at the time was living and working in Georgia in 2015, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent John Zamora.

Bramble, too, spoke by phone to Archer regularly about spirituality for several months before being summoned to North Carolina, her young daughters Makayla and Hannah in tow.

LEADER: YOU CAN LEAVE, BUT YOU CAN'T COME BACK

When prospective acolytes arrived at the apartment, they were required to cleanse themselves by bathing with oils, shaving from head to toe and eating almonds, coconuts and dates and drinking water. Hannah-Joy today still doesn't think that the group was "cult-y" when she was with them.

"We just chilled," she recalled. "We sang songs, we meditated, we ate."

The group hunkered down and waited for the world to end.

"Nathania told us that we were going to disappear, that we were going to go off to a heavenly dimension," Hannah-Joy said. "Basically heaven."

Hannah-Joy and McCarroll maintain that group members were free to leave — they just weren't allowed to come back if they did.

Looking back, McCarroll said she doesn't know how she didn't "wake up" and start questioning the situation sooner.

"I felt like I was just hypnotized or something," she said."

Before arriving in North Carolina, Hannah-Joy had been skeptical of Archer's teachings, upset at the hold he seemed to have over her mother and comparing his beliefs to what she had read in the Bible. When she first arrived at the apartment, she said she kept thinking about the future. If the world didn't end, she wondered, how would they live without their belongings or identifications?

As the days passed in singing, praying and meditating, though, Hannah-Joy's perceptions started to shift.

"Every time I closed my eyes or something, something amazing happened," she said. "It felt kind of cool. … Until the food ran out."

Unable to leave the apartment without forfeiting their right to return, the followers — including the children — began to fast, consuming nothing but water. It was supposed to all be over soon anyway.

But when March 20 came and went, McCarroll said Archer and Ceus became angry and accused others in the group of being unclean.

Eventually, McCarroll decided to leave, along with her friend. As they departed, Archer told them that Yahweh had "abandoned them," according to McCarroll. OK, they said.

In hopes of getting others out of the apartment, McCarroll got in touch with Cory's and Hannah-Joy's older brother after she left, asked him to go check on his family.

The older brother came to the apartment, banging on the door until somebody inside opened it. He was shocked at the sight of his sister, who hadn't eaten in more than 20 days.

"None of us wanted to step foot outside," Hannah-Joy said. "He looks at me and sees how skinny I am and freaks out." Hannah-Joy's brother tried unsuccessfully to convince the whole family to leave. Eden, her mother and Sutherland stood fast.

"He grabbed me, and he took me away from my mom and he drove off," Hannah-Joy said.

It was the first time the teen had been without her brother Cory, her mother, her grandmother. It was the first time in weeks that she'd been out of the apartment where she thought her life would end.

"I was traumatized," she said. "Loud noises started to scare me. … I was at the point where I felt like the world was going to end, and I didn't have my mother beside me."

COLORADO

Following the departure of Hannah-Joy, McCarroll and her friend, Archer and Ceus and their followers were evicted from the apartment.

With huddling indoors no longer an option, the group's plans changed. The remaining members packed up into two vehicles and embarked on a wide-ranging two-year road trip, caravanning throughout the U.S. Bramble would later tell CBI's Zamora that the group hit 38 states by the time they landed in Colorado.

"A lot of their travels would center around Utah, Wyoming and Colorado," Zamora said. "Ashford (Archer) said he really likes Colorado."

The group shared their beliefs with people they encountered along the way. To finance their trip, they begged for money in grocery stores and gas stations.

The core members remained largely intact, although they left one member behind in Arkansas: Ika Eden's mother, a deaf woman who started doubting Archer, according to her granddaughter.

"My grandmother said that she started not trusting them," Hannah-Joy said. "She tried to run away. They locked her in the car."

Zamora testified in November that he learned through interviews that Eden's mother decided to leave and got out of the car.

"She felt she got hit in the back of the head," Zamora said, adding that Eden looked on during the encounter. "It was Ashford Archer."

The woman was hospitalized and left in Little Rock, Arkansas.

When the group first set out, Archer, who claimed a direct line of communication with "Yahweh," or God, was firmly in charge. As the trip wore on the hierarchy changed. Ceus — whose initial role seemed to be helping people get in touch with their past lives through a sort of hypnosis — shared a dream where her husband was run over by a car, according to Zamora. She told the other followers that she was now "Yahweh" and would be leading the caravan.

The band crossed paths with a Grand Junction woman and apparently spent several days at a downtown-area home referred to by attorneys only as "the Phantom House."

Blair's defense attorney, Kristen Hindman, said in court that after they departed, the woman who had taken them in claimed she had been sexually assaulted by someone in the group. Hindman said two little girls in the group were also reportedly prevented from eating and drinking in Grand Junction.

WAITING FOR 'SAINT MICHAEL'

In late May, some two years after the road trip began, a then 22-year-old Alec Blair left his Norwood home for a trip to Denver. A friend was heading to the California Roots Music and Arts Festival and needed a ride to Denver International Airport. The two men pulled off the highway for a pit stop at the Eagle's Nest gas station near Palisade.

Blair, an eclectic dresser who was wearing a turban, and his dread-locked friend attracted the attention of a robed young man at the station, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters testified.

Cory Sutherland struck up a conversation with the pair, and asked if Blair would meet his family.

"The group lined up behind Ms. Ceus in a line, and (Cory) introduced (Blair)," Sheriff Masters said Jan. 17 while recounting an interview he'd had with Blair.

Ceus was cooking and invited the two strangers to join them in a meal. When Cory offered to perform a spiritual cleansing, Blair was game.

"At one time Mr. Cory stood in front of (Blair) and made a gesture as if pushing him," Masters said. "He said the energy he felt was so strong he stumbled backwards and almost fell."

Cory turned to Ceus and Archer and, according to Blair, exclaimed, "This is the one we've been waiting for."

Cory told Blair the family had been waiting for several days ever since somebody had a dream foretelling that they would meet "Saint Michael" at the Eagle's Nest, Masters said.

Blair told them if they were still at the rest stop when he returned from Denver, he would take them to his farm.

They were still there, and followed him more than 130 miles south and west, to the farm where he grew marijuana and vegetables, just outside the city limits of Norwood. While the group had four little girls traveling with them, Blair would later say he was only aware of three: 10-year-old Makayla, and Ceus' two daughters. Hannah had already disappeared from view.

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