The insular nature of the River Road Fellowship made the investigation difficult, Blackwell said. The first complaints against Barnard actually came in 2008, when some of the men in the congregation contacted the county attorney’s office to say that Barnard was committing adultery with some of the married adult women in the congregation.
Carlson declined to press charges at the time, despite the fact that adultery is a crime in Minnesota when it involves a religious leader and coercion of members of a congregation.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to share a copy of the county attorneys’ 2008 letter of denial, at Carlson’s request.
But a copy given to Fox 9 News earlier in the year concluded that, “the sad truth is, these individuals admit that they were essentially ‘brainwashed by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do.”
Prosecutors also noted that there were reports of possible sexual abuse of juveniles going on in the River Road congregation but concluded they were “merely suspicion.”
A week after the Fox story aired in late February, the county attorney’s office announced it was reviewing the case.
“I am just happy to see charges finally brought forward,” Cole said. “I believe my Sheriff’s Office has done everything we can possibly do to support these victims. We have been doing that since 2011 and will continue to support those victims as this case moves forward.”
Suspicion not enough
Authorities are especially careful when investigating crimes involving racial, ethnic, political or religious groups, legal observers say, though there is no rule against focusing attention on such organizations.
Authorities need probable cause to use any significant investigative techniques and get a warrant to enter someone’s premises, Hamline University law Prof. Ed Butterfoss said.
Officials can also go into a place if they have reason to believe that someone is in immediate danger, Butterfoss said, but those situations usually involve scenarios such as someone attacking someone else and police coming in to stop it.
“It’s tough when you have vague statements of concern about what some people would say is a religious organization,” Butterfoss said. Suspicion alone isn’t enough.
Larsen knew that Barnard had slept with six married women and suspected there might be a dozen more, he said Wednesday.
But when he learned that Barnard was allegedly having sex with underage girls, Larsen “went from being upset to being livid.”
“It’s bad enough to be involved with adult women who are not his wife,” Larsen said, “but to be a pedophile, that is so disgusting to me.
“It’s a betrayal of what he was supposed to be representing.”
Larsen, who once lived next door to Barnard in Rush City, Minn., helped oversee the creation of the congregation’s camp near Finlayson.
“When we first came here, when we first started, it was all about the right things,” he said.