Minister is charged with sexually abusing girls at Minnesota camp.
FINLAYSON, Minn. - Lindsay Tornambe was just 13 years old when she was chosen to be “sacrificed to God,” she remembers.
That announcement in July 2000 came from a minister who led an insular faith community that included her family in central Minnesota. As Tornambe sat in the congregation with her parents, she remembers the minister calling out a list of 10 girls for a position of honor. He would later call them “maidens.”
Soon, her parents dutifully dropped her off at his isolated camp, where what she now calls a nightmare of sexual abuse went on for about nine years.
Pine County authorities announced Tuesday that the minister, 52-year-old Victor A. Barnard, is now facing 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving his chosen maidens.
Barnard ruled “like a rock star” over the camp and sexually exploited girls and young women at his whim while they lived apart from their families, according to court papers, which spell out the alleged abuses against two unnamed teens.
Barnard had not been apprehended Tuesday evening but was believed to be in Washington state, where authorities have begun a manhunt for him. He is the subject of a nationwide warrant.
Pine County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Blackwell said Tuesday that the 59 counts address only the alleged rapes of the two women who have so far spoken to law officers and that he is confident Barnard has more victims.
“We are hoping to find more that are willing to come forward,” Blackwell said. “I don’t know how we couldn’t think that” there are more girls and women abused in Barnard’s “secret little world,” he added.
The criminal complaint lays out the experiences of two of the girls, now women and identified in the document as “B” and “C.” Tornambe, who is now living in the Washington, D.C., area, confirmed in a phone interview Tuesday that she is one of the girls described in the charges, which she hasn’t seen.
She said she was relieved to hear that Barnard is facing charges. “To know that they actually care, that people actually do care about what happened means so much,” she said.
The Maidens Group
Tornambe said she first met Barnard when she was 9. Living in Pennsylvania, her parents had been following his ministry and home schooling their children. The family visited Minnesota a lot, she said, and eventually moved to join the congregation near Finlayson when she was 11.
They lived and worked there and had little contact with the outside world, she said.
It became clear sometime after her name was called at the meeting with the congregation that her move to live with Barnard was intended to be permanent. “My parents dropped me off July 23, 2000,” Tornambe said. “Victor had us celebrate it every year, it was like our anniversary.”
Within about a month of the move, she said, Barnard talked to her about sex. He used terms she didn’t understand, and he grew angry about it, thinking she was lying about not understanding. She said he raped her for the first time then and continued sexually assaulting her over the course of nine years. The frequency varied from about once a month to about five times a month, she said.
“If I wasn’t being spiritual or following his orders, he wouldn’t have sex with us,” she said. “If we were doing well, it was almost like he rewarded us.” She rarely saw her parents, though they lived only about 5 miles away, she said.
The complaint says that females ages 12 to 24 were in the Maidens Group and that Barnard would preach to them about giving themselves to God and never marrying. They were sometimes called “Alamoth,” a biblical word referencing virginity, the document says. Barnard taught the girls that he represented Jesus and that he had left his wife and children to live on camp property, telling the larger congregation that the move was so he could dedicate himself to God.
Tornambe said she tried to leave the group once, when she was 15. Barnard took back a ring, a veil and other gifts he had given her before she went home to her parents, she said, and her mother cried for a week with disappointment. When Barnard called clergy members, the maidens and their parents together for a meeting shortly afterward, he talked about damnation from God. Fearful, Tornambe went back with Barnard.
“I was really scared, and I didn’t know what receiving damnation from God would be like,” she said. “I ended up just staying.”
Robbed of childhood
On a rural dirt road 5 miles southwest of Finlayson, the Salvation Army now runs the Northwoods Camp, a rustic collection of century-old cabins and newer buildings. When this property was owned by the River Road Fellowship, which included about 150 people, it was home to “Shepherd’s Camp,” where Barnard brought his maidens. He lived in the camp’s “lodge” and would call for one girl or another “when he wanted to have sexual intercourse with her,” the charges say.
According to the complaint, “B” told authorities that Barnard explained that Jesus had Mary Magdalene and other women as followers and that King Solomon had many concubines, adding that “God’s word” made having sex with him normal. She told authorities that Barnard warned her not to tell anyone about the sex, that he would hit her when angered and that other girls were called “to see Barnard in the same manner,” according to court documents.
A few years later, Tornambe said, she left permanently. She had traveled to Brazil with another one of the maidens who was originally from that country, and she decided there that she wanted out of the religion. When she came back to the United States, the group had moved to Washington state, she said. She went to live with her parents, who had by then moved to Pennsylvania. They still had pictures of Barnard in their house, she said, and continued to send money to him.
She stopped going to church, she said, and started to adapt to the outside world that was foreign from the insular one where she had grown up.
“I didn’t know anything. We made all our own clothes. I didn’t know anything about the Internet or cellphones,” she said. She took jobs working at a health club and waitressing, eventually becoming a nanny.
After ringing in 2012 at a New Year’s party with cousins who happily talked about their futures, she decided she’d been robbed of too much of her childhood. That week, she called authorities to tell her story.
The criminal complaint details the story of another girl, called “C,” that is similar to Tornambe’s.
C said her abuse began in 2000, when she was 12. She lived with nine other girls and also rarely saw her family. C said Barnard also told her that the sex was ordained by God.
In February 2001, Barnard, C and her parents met. He told her family that he might have sex with her, even though that had already been occurring.
That month, C was part of a ceremony that Barnard called the “Salt Covenant,” a pledge by the girls to remain unmarried and loyal to Barnard until death.
C also said a calendar was kept in the kitchen that chronicled when the other girls would have sex with Barnard, though all the while the girls would never speak to one another about what was happening.
C separated from the group several times in June 2008 until leaving for good and moving to Wisconsin in September 2009. She became depressed and attempted suicide in 2011. Her brother, also formerly part of the fellowship, confronted her. She then told him about the abuse.
Community on its own
The story of both girls, told in the charges, has rocked the normally quiet community near Minnesota’s eastern border.
From his carefully kept house, Jay Gault would sometimes see women and girls across the dirt road, in the camp property’s woods, tapping trees for maple syrup.
But when he would go get his mail, they would scatter, said Gault, 61. “They’d go back in the woods. They wouldn’t look at you.”
In an area where drivers wave when passing one another, neighbors noticed that the people at the camp “kept to themselves,” as several put it.
Dick Bowser, who recently retired from East Central Energy, said the church wouldn’t let power company or fire department employees on the property — “and when they did let you in, they watched you very closely.”
“It was strange,” Bowser said.
The men sometimes left to do carpentry or construction work, but “you didn’t see the women very much,” he said. Bowser, 60, lives down the road, but even from that distance, he’d hear them, faintly, chanting and singing.
Then, a few years ago, the camp cleared out. Gault noticed that businesses affiliated with the congregation — a construction company among them — suddenly closed, as well. Then word came about the alleged sexual abuse. “It’s been the buzz around here,” Gault said, shaking his head.
“I didn’t expect it to be anything good that was going on down there,” Bowser said. “But I certainly didn’t expect what it’s looking like it’s turning out to be.”
Worried for her sisters
Now 27, Tornambe said life is still an adjustment.
The criminal complaints say that Pine County sheriff’s investigator Matt Ludwig told “B’s” parents about the abuse in June 2012 and that her mother “did not want to hear it.”
Her father agreed to speak with Ludwig, explaining that he allowed his daughter to live away from them because she seemed happy.
He described the “atmosphere in the congregation and said it is a very powerful force to face the idea of losing everything — family, home, friends, business and being cast out of the church — if you do not go along with what Barnard wants you to do,” according to the charges.
B’s father recalled Barnard coming to him and rationalizing his having sex with the girls. The father “felt pressured to not say anything,” the complaint continued. “[The father] said he did not know what he was thinking at the time but just remembers feeling so much pressure to not become an outcast and lose everything he had.”
Tornambe has had bouts of depression where she considered suicide, she said. She physically hurt herself, she said, feeling that actual pain was better than trying to confront her emotional pain.
“For so many years it seemed like I’d never have the chance to … even know who I was … we didn’t really have a chance to think for ourselves,” she said. “We were told what time to get up, what time to go to bed, what we were eating, when we were going to sew.”
Tornambe decided to speak out publicly, she said, to try to stop Barnard. Her mother and two sisters are still involved with him, she said. She hopes telling her story will help other victims, too, she said.
“I definitely don’t want Victor hurting anyone else.”
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