Investigators are searching around the U.S. for the minister who faces dozens of counts of sexually abusing two girls.
FINLAYSON, MINN. - Even after two young women stepped forward to say their minister had molested them as children and the Sheriff’s Office built its case, it took two years for the Pine County attorney’s office to bring charges.
Now that charges have been filed, a national search is underway for Victor A. Barnard, the charismatic leader of the River Road Fellowship who persuaded parents in his isolated flock to send their young daughters to live by him as his “maidens.” Barnard, 52, faces 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with two of the girls, who told law enforcement that they were just 12 and 13 years old when the sexual abuse began.
“We are frustrated in the length that it has taken,” said Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole, who sent investigators as far as Washington state — where they believe Barnard relocated much of the congregation — before turning the case over to Pine County Attorney John K. Carlson in late 2012.
And then Cole waited.
When the county attorney’s office brought charges two years later, there was little substantial change beyond the evidence investigators submitted in 2012, Cole said.
“The police investigate, we gather information and we forward it to the prosecutor,” he said. “What the prosecutor does with that information is up to the prosecutor.”
Carlson did not respond to calls on Tuesday, when the charges were filed. On Wednesday, his staff said he was out of the office.
If it were up to David Larsen, his former minister would have faced charges years ago.
Larsen, of Sturgeon Lake, reported to the Sheriff’s Office in February 2010 that Barnard was sleeping with several married women in the congregation, something he had confronted Barnard about months before. A woman who took care of Larsen’s two children after his wife’s death accompanied him, telling an investigator that Barnard had approached her, too. A few months later, Larson got a call that the Pine County attorney’s office wasn’t going to press charges.
Case stalled further
But then in January 2012, the two women came forward and reported being abused as children, detailing for investigators what it meant to be one of Barnard’s “maidens,” according to the charges.
One of the women, Lindsay Tornambe, described Barnard allegedly raping her a month after becoming a maiden when she was 13. The assaults occurred between one and five times a month for nine years, she said.
Still, things stalled, said Larsen, who was once a leader in the congregation but has long since cut ties. In several meetings, “even though we had multiple people coming forward … Carlson kept saying, ‘we cannot win this case, we don’t have a chance,’” Larsen said.
“I tried to, along with multiple other people, put pressure on him — to pressure him in the right way,” said Larsen, who stayed involved in the process. But time passed. At one point in 2012, he said, the county attorney’s office announced that they’d keep the case open, but they would no longer pursue it.
“To this day, I don’t understand it,” Larsen said.
The long wait left investigators and the young women themselves “very frustrated,” said Steven Blackwell, the Pine County chief sheriff’s deputy. “We had two victims who wanted something done.”
Investigators worked to reconstruct the events that began in summer 2000, when Barnard allegedly persuaded parents in the isolated community he’d gathered near Finlayson to send 10 young girls to live together at a campground near his home, in a position of honor as his “maidens.”