MINNEAPOLIS – Authorities were searching Tuesday for a self-professed minister accused of sexually abusing at least two girls in a “Maidens Group” at his religious fellowship in rural Minnesota.
Victor Arden Barnard, 52, was last known to be in Spokane, where his River Road Fellowship resettled soon after an investigation began in Minnesota, according to Pine County, Minn., Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell said Tuesday.
Barnard faces 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct related to two young women who said they were abused for nearly a decade in seclusion.
Washington state’s fugitive task force and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also are searching for him. People associated with the group in Washington have been uncooperative, Blackwell said.
According to the criminal complaint, the two women were among about 10 girls and young women who lived apart from their families in a camp Barnard set up near Finlayson, about 90 miles north of Minneapolis. One woman alleged Barnard sexually abused her from the ages of 13 to 22, while the other said it occurred when she was 12 to 20. He is accused of telling one victim should would remain a virgin because he was a “man of God.”
Barnard kept the Maidens isolated and used “religious coercion and intimidation” to maintain his control, Blackwell said Tuesday, adding: “It’s certainly cult-like behavior.”
Investigators believe Barnard abused other girls but have been unable to get others to come forward, Blackwell said. Most of the criminal counts against him carry maximum sentences of 30 years in prison.
The River Road Fellowship settled in a “very secluded” area of Pine County about 16 or 17 years ago and had fewer than 50 members, Blackwell said.
“They were pretty self-sufficient. They processed their own meat, they grew their own crops. As much as they could, they kept themselves separated from regular society,” he said.
In 2000, Barnard set up what he called the “Shepherd’s Camp” on land where girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 24 lived as part of his “Maidens Group,” the criminal complaint alleges. Barnard would give sermons about giving themselves to God and remaining unmarried, spending time with them individually and in groups, teaching that he represented “Christ in the flesh.”
One of the alleged victims contacted the sheriff’s office in January 2012. She said her family joined the fellowship when she was 11, and Barnard began having sex with her when she was 13, telling her it was normal “because it was in God’s word,” the complaint said. She left in 2010, and was contacted the following year by a woman who left the group in 2009. They eventually began discussing their experiences.
The second woman told investigators that Barnard told her sex with him was not wrong because he was a “man of God and she would remain a virgin because of it,” according to the complaint. She said none of the girls at the camp talked about having sex with Barnard, but that “all the females act very intimately with Barnard when they were in groups, lying down with him and putting their hands on his chest or hair,” the complaint said.
Members apparently learned of the investigation soon after it began in late 2011, Barnard said.
“They left the state, they sold the property and took the whole congregation out to the Spokane, Washington, area. As soon as we found out, we contacted the authorities in Washington,” he said.