Victor Barnard's attorney tells PEOPLE there were 'concrete' errors in the government's case
Victor Barnard, the Minnesota pastor charged with more than 59 sex assault counts against two young girls in his church, appeared in court TK.
The 54-year-old was reported to be on the run since a Pine County attorney charged him with 59 counts of first and third-degree criminal sexual misconduct in April 2014 – stemming from complaints two female members of his congregation made in 2012. The international manhunt for the U.S. marshals’ most-wanted list-fugitive ended in April 2015, when Barnard was arrested in Brazil.
However Marsh Halberg, Barnard’s attorney, says the religious man was never fleeing from authorities, and had in fact had left the country in 2009 – two years before his accusers ever surfaced their complaints to police.
“He left before any of this started,” Halberg told PEOPLE. “He used his name openly. He traveled legally with his passport. He was living openly and not hiding. It’s not like you couldn’t find this guy.”
Halberg says Barnard moved to Brazil because “it was his religious calling” and spent his time there studying Portuguese and writing books. “He was focused on his writings,” Halberg explains. (Halberg’s had a number of religions books and essays, published by Kithara Publishing out of Spokane, Washington).
“His congregation was shifting, and people were moving [away] to Washington State,” he adds. “That’s where he needed to be.”
Barnard spent more than a year in the South American cell, but he was extradited to Pine County on Saturday to face trial. He did not post bail – set by District Judge James Reuter at $1.5 million, a Pine County Court Administration representative confirms to PEOPLE.
Minnesota’s Star Tribune reports that the $1.5 million bail would require Barnard surrender his passport and remain in the state with electronic monitoring until his trial. And unconditional bail of $3 million was also available, they added.
Halberg says he understands why the bail was set so high, but felt Judge Reuter hadn’t heard the true facts of the case.
“If you believe the state’s version of the allegations, you could say that this guy fled and he’s a horrendous guy who’s committed dozens and dozens of acts of criminal and sexual conduct. So he’s dangerous and he’ll flee again or even harm others. If you want to accept that on it’s face, I understand that,” he explains.
But just like they have allegations we have allegations,” Halberg adds. “There were errors in the government’s affidavit. We’re not speculating on stuff – we’re talking about very concrete stuff here.”
A representative for the county attorney’s office told PEOPLE, “There will be no further comment from our office until the case is concluded.”
The River Road Fellowship church was founded by Barnard after moving to rural Minnesota in the early 1990s. The tight-knit community – located in Finlayson, Minnesota – operated from 2000 until 2011 or 2012. It once numbered around 150 men, women and children.
“He found his faith when he was in college,” Halberg explains. “He was a really good hockey player and chose to give up that and focus on his faith. It came to him early in life.”
Halberg maintains the group was not a cult. “It’s a mainstream religion,” he says. “It was a group of like-minded of people – people of faith coming together to live their life, just like a nuns or monks would do.”
“It’s not bizarre. It wasn’t mind-control of tyrannical. People were free to come and go,” he adds.
According to court documents obtained by PEOPLE, in June 2001, Barnard persuaded his followers to send 10 of their firstborn daughters between the ages of 12 and 24 to live together at a camp facility owned by the organization. Calling the girls his “maidens,” he was treated like a “rock star,” which included frequent sex with the girls.
“There was a calendar in the kitchen that scheduled time for each female with Barnard,” the complaint said. “The females acted very intimately with Barnard when they were in groups, lying down with him and putting their hands on his chest or hair.”
One of the accusers, who later identified herself at 28-year-old Lindsay Tornambe to CNN, alleges she was abused by Barnard from the time she was 13 until the time she turned 22. When she was first invited to the camp, she and her father thought it was a summer camp.
“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,” she told the news network. “At that time, I didn’t really understand the fullness of what it meant.”
Tornambe left the River Road Fellowship in 2010 to be with her parents. In the Fall of 2011, Tornambe was contacted by a former maiden who shared a similar story, claiming she had been molested from the time she was 12 until she was 20. She said the number of sexual acts varied each month.
“When a girl got to be older – 18, 19, 20 – she would be at a stage where she could say no to him,” Pine County Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell told PEOPLE. “There would always be a younger girl, maybe 11 or 12, who would replace her.”
At his hearing on Monday, Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson had asked Judge Reuter for a higher bail – $3 million with conditions, $7 million without, the Tribune reports. Frederickson had heard reports that Barnard’s remaining followers were liquidating their assets to help him avoid more prison time, they said.
“They will do anything for him,” the Tribune reports Frederickson said of the remaining members of his fellowship. “They will give him property, they will give him money. They will even give him their children.”
Halberg says the accusations are “upsetting to [Barnard] on all levels.”
“He’s still a very religious men, and the whole dynamic of the situation and the ripple it’s had on the church… He’s a kind hearted man. It’s devastating to him.”
Barnard’s also allegedly had a decline in health. “He’s been ill,” Halberg explains. “You compare pictures of him now with pictures of him a couple of years ago? It’s tough. [Jail] really took a toll on him.”
His next hearing is set for July 5 at 1:30 p.m. CT.