A Minnesota cult leader who had been the subject of a yearlong global manhunt was arrested Saturday in a beach town in Brazil.
Victor Arden Barnard, 53, was wanted on 59 counts of sexual assault on girls and young women in the isolated religious community he founded in Pine County. The U.S. Marshals Service coordinated with Brazilian military and law enforcement officials, who arrested Barnard early Saturday. Pictures of a handcuffed Barnard appeared in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
The arrest took place in a condominium by Pipa Beach, considered one of Brazil's most beautiful coastal locations. Barnard was reportedly staying with a 33-year-old Brazilian woman who previously lived in the U.S. Federal police confiscated religious papers, diaries, computers, flash drives and cellphones from the condo.
Two young women have told Minnesota investigators that Barnard raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to be separated from their families and live near him as part of a cloistered group he called his "maidens" in the River Road Fellowship near Finlayson.
One of the women who stepped forward to report Barnard was Lindsay Tornambe, who was 13 when Barnard informed her parents that he had chosen her to join the maidens. She told Pine County sheriff's investigators that Barnard raped her soon afterward, and that the abuse continued for the next nine years.
"I am ready to have him locked up," Tornambe told the Star Tribune. "As soon as I got the news, I started crying. It feels so surreal. I knew the day would come, but it finally came and it's almost numbing."
Barnard used the charismatic hold he kept over his followers to sexually exploit girls and young women at his whim, according to court papers that spell out the crimes alleged by the two young women who stepped forward to report being abused.
Barnard, facing bankruptcy and law enforcement scrutiny, had moved his family and his remaining followers to Washington state years before Pine County brought the charges in 2014. He has been the target of a national and international manhunt ever since.
Tornambe wasn't surprised to hear that Barnard, whose preachings were full of apocalyptic warnings, made his way to Brazil. Barnard had talked for years about relocating to a place like South America, where he had other followers. Pipa Beach, where he was arrested, is in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte.
"I'm not surprised he was there. … He had talked about, if things had gotten bad in the U.S., finding another place to hide out," she said. The Brazilian newspaper reported that Barnard's extradition papers to the U.S. have already been signed by the Brazilian courts. The Marshals Service confirmed that Barnard is pending formal extradition to stand trial for the charges in Pine County.
"I cannot wait to see that man behind bars," said Cindi Currie, who visited the River Road Fellowship at the invitation of Lindsay Tornambe's mother. She was so alarmed by what she saw, she tried to persuade the family to leave. "He has ruined more lives. That man is the devil incarnate."
Years after her visit, Currie learned that her friend's daughter had been chosen to join the maidens. Now, Currie said, "the day of reckoning has come."
"Not only will Victor Barnard go to jail, but every adult who knew what was going on up there can start to pay, and maybe these girls can start to heal," she added.
Barnard's capture brought both relief and heartbreak to Ruth Johnson, who spent more than a decade in the River Road Fellowship. She and her husband left the group after the allegations against Barnard surfaced. They left behind relatives who "refuse to see what he's done."
"These young women, we thought their lives were going to be dedicated to the word of God,'' Johnson said. "That was the intent for them to be together, and it went horribly, horribly wrong."
Johnson said she first realized something strange was going on between Barnard and the young women after witnessing a strangely intimate moment. One girl helped Barnard into his coat, and he leaned in and asked her if his breath smelled OK, Johnson said. "The way they interacted with each other was the attitude of lovers, not a father with a daughter — like what you would expect with a minister," she said.
Micah Vail's family joined the group when he was 8 years old and stayed until 2009. With Barnard's arrest, he hopes to put his time at the camp in the past.
"I feel like justice was served and I'm happy to see that he won't be able to harm anyone else," he said. "For that, I'm grateful."