Betrayed followers say sect leader Barnard’s abuse surfaced gradually
MINNEAPOLIS – The minister kept his flock close, urging members of the River Road Fellowship to move to four clusters of properties in this rural area and discouraging the girls from traveling to town. As he grew more controlling, he warned his followers against those who might turn against him – calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing.
“That always gets to me now,” former congregant Micah Vail said. “He used that analogy over and over. … It turned out he was the one who was playing everybody.”
Victor Barnard, 52, is now the center of a nationwide manhunt after Pine County, Minn., prosecutors charged him with using his status within the sect to coerce girls into having sex with him. Two women told investigators that Barnard raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to live near him as part of an honored and cloistered group of “maidens.” He faces 59 counts of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
In interviews since the charges, several former congregants said they are saddened – but not shocked – by the allegations after reflecting on how Barnard increasingly cut the fellowship off from society. The ministry changed, too, as Barnard introduced new rules under the guise of religion. It ended up as a place where adultery and sex abuse could have secretly flourished, they said.
Such an isolated religious sect is the “perfect environment for abusers to victimize kids,” said Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who researches alternative religions.
Oftentimes, leaders do not answer to any outside authority, “so there’s no accountability,” Kent said. They create structures to have exclusive access to children. Then they use religion to “cloak their misbehavior.”
A simpler life
At first, there was no camp. No leader, even. Small groups of former followers of the Way International, an Ohio-based sect that splintered in the mid-1980s, would gather in homes to study the Bible and, when spring came, sing around a campfire.
After meeting through the Way and moving to Rush City, Minn., in 1991, Barnard and David Larsen pledged to one another that this fellowship would not fall to the same fate as the Way, which was plagued by allegations of adultery.
“We openly talked about it, addressed it, that it was wrong – that we would never go that route,” Larsen said, his eyes wide. “We even made a commitment, a personal commitment to each other, that we would never allow that kind of thing.”
A few of the Twin Cities-based fellowships united behind Barnard, and more followed, until eventually the handsome preacher shifted from fellowship member to spiritual leader.
Ruth Johnson joined the fellowship in the early 1990s, impressed by its loving sense of community and Barnard’s charismatic leadership.
After renting out parks and campsites for religious retreats, the River Road Fellowship in 1996 purchased an 85-acre camp here for $575,000, christening it Shepherd’s Camp.
Initially, leaders intended the wooded, lakeside camp to be a home for short-term spiritual retreats. But Barnard began encouraging his followers to move close to the century-old cabins and newer buildings along a dirt road 5 miles southwest of town.
Residents planted gardens, then canned vegetables. They raised cows, sheep and chickens. They sewed clothes.
“Everybody there loved the lifestyle,” said Larsen, a trustee of Shepherd’s Camp.
As the fellowship grew to 150 people, the height of its membership, families spread to simple clustered homes.
The changes happened so gradually that former leaders barely noticed that Barnard was now calling all the shots.
“It’s like anything else – everything comes a little piece at a time,” said a former member of Barnard’s inner circle. “You’re not going to get some blatant ‘I’m king now.’ ”
Congregants listened to recordings of Barnard preaching and read books authored by him.
Gradually, Barnard put his own twist on biblical sayings to convince his followers to do his bidding, he said.
Creates girls camp
When Barnard, in July 2000, created a group of 10 girls and young women, ages 12 to 24, who would be sent to live near him on the Shepherd’s Camp, without their families, parents considered it an honor.
Lindsay Tornambe was 13 when her parents dropped her off for what she thought would be summer camp. Instead it became a new life.
Maidens lived in their own quarters and were home-schooled. They arranged music for church and hosted the events at Shepherd’s Camp. “All the young girls looked up to us,” Tornambe said.
Within about a month, Tornambe said, Barnard called her to his lodge and asked her about masturbation, she said. She didn’t know what that meant, and when she seemed confused, he grew angry, hitting her. Later that night he raped her, she said.
It happened again and again, Tornambe said, up to five times a month: If she wasn’t acting spiritual it would be less frequent, she said; if she was deep into the faith, he would “reward” her with it. Tornambe said she remembers being instructed to use a female contraceptive early on with Barnard. That ended, she said, after Barnard went in for surgery. He explained that he could no longer produce children, she remembers.
He met with Tornambe’s parents at one point and told them he may or may not have sex with her, she recalls, even though he had already repeatedly raped her. “He told me it was his way of being able to show me God’s love,” she said.
Tornambe is one of two former maidens whose reports form the basis of the charges against Barnard. The other woman told investigators a similar story, saying that she was 12 when Barnard first raped her.
The day after Barnard first touched her sexually, the charges say, he sent her a card: “To my beloved … I thank God for you as I remember your tears and love and believing. I have you in my heart, and I’m so glad to be waiting and watching and longing together for our beloved lord Jesus Christ. Kept by His love together with you, Victor.”
Tornambe started to talk with a friend about how “weird” the meetings were, she said. Another maiden stopped them, telling them they would get in trouble.
Meanwhile the fellowship continued functioning without any knowledge of what was happening, Tornambe said.
It might be hard to understand why parents would willingly turn their children over to such a leader, said Kent, the professor. But in his research, it’s a common theme. “People who make these choices believe that their leaders are spiritually unique and godlike,” Kent said.
In a way, fellowship members regarded the “maidens” as nuns, Larsen said. “They made a commitment to stay single and serve God the rest of their lives,” he said. “In that sense, it didn’t seem super odd.”
Affairs with married women
In 2008, the group’s tight bond began to unravel.
A woman who had left the River Road Fellowship wrote Barnard a note, threatening to expose the fact that he was having several extramarital affairs with adult women in his congregation. Others who learned of the allegations began to pressure Barnard, too.
Barnard called the congregation together and made a stunning announcement.
“He told people, ‘I’ve had affairs,’ ” the former inner-circle member said. “ ‘If you want to know if it involves your spouse, you can talk to me.’ It was earth-shattering – just a betrayal.”
The Pine County Sheriff’s Office first heard complaints about Barnard in 2008, when congregants reported that Barnard was sleeping with married women. But County Attorney John Carlson declined to press charges.
After learning of the alleged adultery, some River Road leaders suspected that the abuse might have extended to the youngest maidens.
But even after Barnard admitted to sleeping with married women, many congregants remained loyal to him, Larsen said. “That was almost a double betrayal,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”
It’s unclear what remains of River Road Fellowship.
Moves to Spokane, Cheney
As the group splintered, Barnard and dozens of others moved to Washington, where they quickly set up businesses in Spokane and outside of Cheney.
“The people who know him are not being cooperative,” Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole said. Barnard and his wife established a nutrition company, and his wife registered Waymarks, a publishing company they’d also had in Minnesota. Several of the maidens opened a cleaning company in Cheney.
Other leaders of the group, including Craig Elmblad and Randy Roark, also settled in Eastern Washington.
A former landlord of Roark’s when he and his wife rented a doublewide trailer in Cheney said 10 or 15 people would often come to their home for Sunday evening services.
“They were reclusive and seldom ever associated with other people,” he said. The trailer was on a private road, on 20 acres of pine trees and farmland about 18 miles south of Spokane.
Their daughters didn’t live with them – living about a mile away with other women.
A reporter recently knocked on the door of the secluded home where several former maidens list a cleaning business. The home has a three-car garage, but two vehicles, including a late-model minivan, sat in the driveway. It’s at the end of a private drive with “no trespassing” signs posted.
Two women in their late 20s answered the door, filming their visitor on a cellphone. They declined to comment and asked the reporter to leave.
Law enforcement officials in Washington continue to search for Barnard, and tips have poured in from across the state. As of Friday, investigators said there was no sign of him.
Larsen grew distant from Barnard, occasionally questioning some of his odd actions. Now, he wishes he had fought harder.
“I had huge regret about that – still do,” he said.
Talking with other men who were part of the congregation, Larsen said he told them that “every single one of us should be ashamed of ourselves that we let him do this.”
When the two young women came forward in 2012, Larsen talked with them and was deeply saddened by what he heard.
“He destroyed their lives … he stole their purity, everything,” Larsen said, later adding: “To me it doesn’t get any worse than to use the name of God to do stuff like that.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Tom Sowa contributed to this story.