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Update: Barnard arrested in Brazil
This story was originally reported August 24, 2014.
As a pastor, Victor Barnard inspired his congregants with his charisma and apparent devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“I had never met anybody that I thought loved the word of God as much as Victor Barnard did,” said Ruth Johnson, a former member of Barnard’s River Road Fellowship.
Victor Barnard, 52
“He was a pastor; he basically took personal care in people, invested into them, and tried to bring the best out of you,” said David Larsen, a former leader of the River Road Fellowship, which consisted of about 10 to 15 members.
Larsen said he helped Barnard set up a so-called “shepherd’s camp” in the mid-1990s in Pine County, Minnesota, to help bring more people into the church. Several of his congregants, including Johnson, moved to the rural area about 100 miles north of Minneapolis to be a part of the camp.
“We sold our homes and the funds went into renovation and things that needed to be rehabbed,” Johnson said. Some congregants who had experience in construction and electrical work helped set up the camp, she said.
Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole said the congregation “kept to themselves.”
Barnard also traveled across the country trying to recruit new members into his fellowship, including Linsday Tornambe’s parents in Harleysville, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.
“Victor Barnard came and visited my parents when I was 9. … He gave my parents some of his books and teachings that he had done,” Tornambe said. “My parents started making trips out to Minnesota and they were sending money to Victor.”
Eventually, Tornambe said her parents packed up the family and moved to Minnesota to join the congregation.
In June of 2000, the charismatic religious leader allegedly convinced some members of his congregation to hand over their firstborn daughters to live with him in the secluded campsite.
“Victor Barnard did a teaching. He said that all the first-born children were supposed to be sacrificed to God,” Tornambe said. “And he listed off 10 girls’ names.”
Linsday Tornambe’s name was called and her parents allowed their 13-year-old daughter to join the group of girls at the camp, called “The Maidens,” under Barnard’s supervision. She and other congregants said the girls got up early, sewed, cooked, and cleaned for Barnard. “Everything that a wife would do, they did for him,” said Johnson.
“He taught that in the Bible, the church was the bride of Christ and because he was Christ in the flesh, the church was supposed to be married to him,” Tornambe said. “At that time I didn’t really understand the fullness of what it meant.”
About a month after her parents had dropped her off at the camp, Tornambe said Barnard started having sex with her and warned her not to tell anyone.
“Victor told me that if I told anyone, I would receive damnation from God,” she said. Then she later learned he was allegedly having sexual relations with other girls as well as some of the married women at the camp.
Police first became aware of Barnard in late 2009 and 2010 when some men from the congregation alleged that he was sexually abusing their wives, according to Sheriff Cole.
“There was a rumor that there was a group of young girls that were these maidens and that something may be going on,” Cole said. “But no one was coming forward saying ‘I saw it, I know exactly what happened.’ And we certainly had no victims at that time coming forward saying; ‘I’m making an allegation that he sexually abused me.’ “
Around that time, Barnard addressed his congregation, which was starting to fall apart.
“Victor had told us that there were people speaking evil of him in the church and it was time for him to leave Minnesota,” Tornambe said. “So basically he was going into hiding. He took a bunch of the believers with him and they eventually ended up in Spokane, Washington. Some of the believers moved to Wisconsin.”
After that, Tornambe decided to tell her aunt and uncle in Minnesota about Barnard.
“They asked me if I knew what Victor had done was a crime. That he had raped me. It kind of hit me all of a sudden how much of my life had been stolen from me,” Tornambe said.
In 2012, she told police investigators that Barnard had sexually assaulted her one to three times a month from age 13 until she left in 2010 at age 22. A short time later, another female from the congregation came forward with similar allegations.
In April 2014, prosecutors charged Barnard with 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct with the two young girls while they were members of his church, and a nationwide manhunt ensued.
Washington State Patrol reported a credible tip that Barnard was in Raymond – a coastal town about two hours outside Seattle – on August 13, 2014. They believed Barnard may have been in the area for at least a week. Previously, he’d been spotted in the Spokane, Washington, area. In late February 2015, Brazilian police arrested Barnard in the northeastern part of the country after a five-month investigation. He faces an extradition process that could take years.
Tornambe, now in her late 20s and expecting her first child, still has nightmares about her experience in Minnesota. She severed her relationship with her mother and sisters because they still support Barnard even after she told them what he had done to her.
“I still have two sisters and my mom out in Washington State still believing this man who raped me when I was 13,” Tornambe said. “My heart is to help them and for them to get out. I mean at this point I feel like they’re brainwashed.”