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.

  • related content

  • Video: Former river road ministry member speaks out

    Friday May 2, 2014

    Former river road fellowship member David Larsen recalls a commitment with Barnard to not fall into abuse as other...

  • Friends recall rise and fall of Victor Barnard

    Saturday April 19, 2014

    From charismatic kid to wanted fugitive, friends recall how a kid from Minneapolis fell in with The Way and lost his way.

  • Graphic: Victor Barnard's sphere

    Saturday April 26, 2014

    River Road Fellowship consisted of four separate areas around Finlayson, and families on the properties...

  • Timeline: How cult unfolded

    Saturday April 26, 2014

    1961: Victor Arden Barnard born in Hennepin County.1979: Barnard graduates from Breck School in Minneapolis and earns a scholarship to...

  • Victor Barnard is being sought after he was accused of sexual assault.

  • A book, “Considerations of Jesus the Apostle and High Priest,” written by Victor Barnard and belonging to Micah Vail’s younger brother, Isaiah, was inscribed by Barnard.

  • 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

  • David Larsen, 52, a former leader of the River Road Fellowship, said that members regarded the “maidens” almost as nuns. “They made a commitment to stay single and serve God the rest of their lives.”

  • Lindsay Tornambe, 27, is one of two former maidens whose reports form the basis for the charges against Barnard.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Grade the All-Star Game experience

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close