One of the former “maidens” of the River Road Fellowship is suing the elders of the cultlike church for failing to protect her from sexual abuse that began when she was 13 years old.
The Fellowship’s founder and charismatic leader, Victor Barnard, pleaded guilty to raping two young girls in his congregation and is serving a 30-year prison term. Now one of those women, Lindsay Tornambe, has filed a civil suit in Pine County against Barnard, his wife and more than a dozen Fellowship elders, alleging that they stood by and did nothing as Barnard isolated young women from their families and molested them for years.
“I don’t know if they’ll ever realize that what they did was wrong,” she said in an interview this week. “But I want a jury to find them guilty and I want them to deal with the consequences of their actions.”
Tornambe’s lawsuit singles out by name more than a dozen Fellowship members who, she says, were in leadership positions that would have let them observe Barnard’s treatment of the 10 girls and young women he called “maidens.” One church elder, Tornambe said, provided the maidens with a sex instruction manual.
“I definitely believe others knew what was going on,” said Tornambe, who is now 30 and the mother of a little girl. “One of them even sat in on the meeting where Victor told my parents he wanted to have sex with me. I was only 14.”
She and her attorney, Patrick Noaker, filed suit in Pine County on Tuesday. The Fellowship members named in the lawsuit have no public response, said Deborah Causey Eckland, an attorney for a number of the defendants.
Barnard and his followers moved from the Twin Cities to rural Pine County in the 1990s to establish their own “utopia” — a self-sufficient community where members raised their own food, sewed their own clothes and funded the operation with a string of local businesses.
Tornambe’s family joined them when she was 9, enthralled by the preacher who walked among them dressed in shepherd’s robes.
Barnard coaxed families in the River Road Fellowship to send their daughters to him, promising that the “maidens” would live lives of prayer and purity. Years later, the youngest maidens, Tornambe and Jess Schlinsky — who was just 12 when Barnard took her from her family — turned to Pine County authorities for help.
It had taken Tornambe years to realize that something awful had happened to her. It came to a head at New Year’s party in January 2012, as she listened to her cousin reminisce about high school and college days.
“I realized I didn’t have any of those memories. I had a meltdown,” she said.
Encouraged by her cousin and aunt, she contacted law enforcement. For years, Barnard had told her that he was sharing “God’s love.” It wasn’t love, her aunt explained. It was rape.
Barnard left Pine County in 2009 amid rumors of sexual impropriety and financial bankruptcy. By the time Pine County brought charges — 59 counts in all — against him in 2014, he had vanished, setting off an international manhunt.
Barnard landed on the U.S. Marshals Service’s most-wanted list. Brazilian authorities eventually discovered him in a beachside resort town, where he was in hiding with one of his former maidens — a young woman from a wealthy Brazilian family. He spent more than a year in a South American prison before he agreed to be extradited to Pine County last June.
In October, he entered an unexpected guilty plea on two counts of felony sexual assault and accepted two consecutive 15-year sentences. In a brief statement at his sentencing, Barnard, 55, said he was “deeply sorrowful” for what he’d done.
At its peak, the Fellowship had as many as 150 members, and some still remain faithful, even attending Barnard’s court appearances in a silent show of support. Tornambe said she was unsure whether the congregation has any assets left.