Fugitive Cult Leader Accused of 59 Counts of Child Molestation
"He could be anywhere," a police spokesperson says of Victor Barnard. "We just don't know where he is"
Victor Barnard had always been known as a charismatic leader with an easy smile and pleasant demeanor. Moving to rural Minnesota in the early 1990s, the affable pastor started The River Road Fellowship, a tight-knit church on several acres of remote land. Within a few years, he had a small but dedicated following.
But the River Road Fellowship was no ordinary church, and Barnard was no ordinary minister. Authorities say that he had a dark side, ruling with intimidation and fear.
After a former church member contacted the Pine County Sheriff’s Office in 2012 to report rampant sexual abuse, authorities opened a two-year investigation. On April 11, the county attorney charged Barnard with 59 felony counts of criminal sexual misconduct with two young girls while they were members of his church.
But Barnard is nowhere to be found, and authorities in several states have begun a nationwide manhunt to find the 52-year-old leader.
Although he was last seen in Spokane, Wash., “he could be anywhere,” Pine County Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell tells PEOPLE. “He has been to many different places: Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio. He has associates all over the world; there’s a possibility that he could be in Brazil.”
Blackwell adds: “There are a lot of places he could be. We just don’t know where he is.”
According to court documents obtained by PEOPLE, Barnard persuaded his followers to send 10 girls and young women 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.
According to the complaint, “there was a calendar in the kitchen that scheduled time for each female with Barnard 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.”
The investigation began when one of the victims told investigators about being assaulted by Barnard from the time she was 13 until she turned 22. The complaint alleges that she “was invited to the camp by Barnard. She and her father thought that this was a summer camp, and she decided to go. Nine other females also moved to the camp at the same time. These girls ranged in age from 12 24.”
Although the complaint didn’t name that victim, she later came forward to speak to CNN. “I don’t want him hurting anyone else and ruining other peoples’ lives like mine was,” says Lindsay Tornambe, now 27.
Tornambe may have cause for concern. According to Chief Deputy Blackwell, Barnard’s actions followed an all-too-familiar pattern.
“When a girl got to be older – 18, 19, 20 – she would be at a stage where she could say no to him,” says Blackwell. “There would always be a younger girl, maybe 11 or 12, who would replace her.”
‘He Was Magnetic’
The shocking allegations have left Pine County residents wondering who, exactly, was Victor Barnard. A former standout student hockey player, he had lots of friends at Hobart College in upstate New York.
“He was definitely a very nice guy,” college classmate Jeff Talbot tells PEOPLE. “When he talked, people would listen. He made you want to hear what he had to say. He was magnetic.”
But according to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, he joined a cult after a particularly brutal argument with his mother.
After moving to Minnesota and starting the church, Barnard began to wield his authority. Multiple former members spoke to police and, according to court documents, “confirmed Barnard’s power over the group through his status as their minister.”
Vanished Without a Trace
According to police, Barnard and his followers fled Minnesota when the investigation began in 2012. “We have a lot of credible evidence that the entire group left together,” says Blackwell. “They pulled up stakes and went to Washington as a group. We don’t know where they went from there.” In November of 2012, investigators traveled to Spokane to find him.
One afternoon, while monitoring the group, “the officers saw three different vehicles that moved luggage between them in different parking lots,” says the probable cause affidavit. “The officers followed the last vehicle to a gas station. [The Officer] approached the parked car and noted that the rear passenger window rolled up as he neared. He knocked on the driver’s window and tried to communicate with the female driver, but she would not respond. There were three females in the car.”
Wherever he is, Barnard will be extradited to Minnesota upon apprehension. If convicted, he faces multiple 30-year prison terms.
Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Victor Barnard, please call the Pine County Sheriff’s Office tip line at (320) 629-8342.