April 27: Caught in a cult's dark embrace

Victor Barnard played the shepherd, wearing linen clothes and sometimes wielding a shepherd’s crook.

The minister kept his flock close, urging members of the River Road Fellowship to move to four clusters of properties in this rural area and discouraging the girls from traveling to town. As he grew more controlling, he warned his followers against those who might turn against him — calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing.

“That always gets to me now,” former congregant Micah Vail said. “He used that analogy over and over. … It turned out he was the one who was playing everybody.”

Barnard, 52, is now the center of a nationwide manhunt after Pine County prosecutors charged him with using his status within the sect to coerce girls into having sex with him. Two women told investigators that Barnard raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to live near him as part of an honored and cloistered group of “maidens.” He faces 59 counts of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

In interviews since the charges, several former congregants said they are saddened — but not shocked — by the allegations after reflecting on how Barnard increasingly cut the fellowship off from society. The ministry changed, too, as Barnard introduced new rules under the guise of religion. It ended as a place where adultery and sex abuse could have secretly flourished, they said.

Such an isolated religious sect is the “perfect environment for abusers to victimize kids,” said Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who researches alternative religions.

Oftentimes, leaders do not answer to any outside authority, “so there’s no accountability,” Kent said. They create structures to have exclusive access to children. Then they use religion to “cloak their misbehavior.”

A simpler life

At first, there was no camp. No leader, even. Small groups of former followers of the Way International, an Ohio-based sect that splintered in the mid-1980s, would gather in homes to study the Bible and, when spring came, sing around a campfire.

After meeting through the Way and moving to Rush City, Minn., in 1991, Barnard and David Larsen pledged to one another that this fellowship would not fall to the same fate as the Way, which was plagued by allegations of adultery.

“We openly talked about it, addressed it, that it was wrong — that we would never go that route,” Larsen said, his eyes wide. “We even made a commitment, a personal commitment to each other that we would never allow that kind of thing.”

A few of the Twin Cities-based fellowships united behind Barnard, and more followed, until eventually the handsome preacher shifted from fellowship member to spiritual leader.

“They loved the good things he was doing — and there were good things,” said a former member of the inner circle who asked not to be named. “He would endeavor to love people and help them if they had problems.”

Ruth Johnson joined the fellowship in the early 1990s, impressed by its loving sense of community and Barnard’s charismatic leadership.

“When he started out as the minister,” Johnson said, “he was a very good teacher.”

After renting out parks and campsites for religious retreats, the River Road Fellowship in 1996 purchased an 85-acre camp here for $575,000, christening it Shepherd’s Camp.

Initially, leaders intended the wooded lakeside camp to be a home for short-term spiritual retreats. But Barnard began encouraging his followers to move close to the century-old cabins and newer buildings along a dirt road 5 miles southwest of town. Gradually, families sold their homes and packed their belongings to live a simpler life in east-central Minnesota.

Residents planted gardens, then canned vegetables. They raised cows, sheep and chickens. They sewed clothes.

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  • Micah Vail talked about what life inside the River Road Fellowship was like. ] JIM GEHRZ ‚Ä¢ jgehrz@startribune.com / St. Paul, MN / April 24, 2014 / 12:00 PM

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