The day after Barnard first touched her sexually, the charges say, he sent her a card: “To my beloved … I thank God for you as I remember your tears and love and believing. I have you in my heart, and I’m so glad to be waiting and watching and longing together for our beloved lord Jesus Christ. Kept by His love together with you, Victor.”
Tornambe started to talk with a friend about how “weird” the meetings were, she said. Another maiden stopped them, telling them they would get in trouble.
All the maidens “knew what was going on,” Tornambe said. “But it was something we never talked about.”
Meanwhile, the fellowship continued functioning without any knowledge of what was happening, Tornambe said.
It might be hard to understand why parents would willingly turn their child over to such a leader, said Kent, the professor. But in his research, it’s a common theme. “People who make these choices believe that their leaders are spiritually unique and godlike,” Kent said. “Any contact with them is supposed to enhance a follower’s spiritual development.”
In a way, fellowship members regarded the “maidens” as nuns, Larsen said. “They made a commitment to stay single and serve God the rest of their lives,” he said. “In that sense, it didn’t seem super odd.”
Growing up inside
Sometimes, when he was alone in the pickup he drove for work, Micah Vail turned on the radio. Those few illicit minutes were pretty much all he heard of the outside world, said Vail, now 23, in his St. Paul home. If you had asked him who the U.S. president was then, he wouldn’t have known.
The boys of River Road Fellowship awoke at 5 a.m. each day for “animal care” and went to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. In between, they made cabinets, baled hay and read the Bible.
Some of the work benefited Barnard. The Vail brothers spent months outfitting and landscaping a large house he lived in that they call “the mansion,” complete with cedar trim, granite countertops, porches and patios.
Barnard drove a Cadillac Escalade and a motorcycle. He took trips to Brazil, congregants said, and had a tour bus, finished in chrome and leather, that he used to bring maidens to Gooseberry Falls and boys to Colorado to study mountain goats.
The young men had a leadership group, too, called the Gamblers, but they were given freedom the girls were not, Vail said.
As the rules got stricter, girls didn’t go out. They wore long skirts, high-collared shirts and their hair tied back. Boys and girls were kept separate and when they did talk, the girls kept their eyes focused on the floor.
They were taught to be rude to outsiders, said Vail, who spent more than a decade in the fellowship. “Anyone who didn’t believe what we believed was an evil person.”
A fellowship member and friend of Cindi Currie was wooing her to move her family there from Pennsylvania. Before deciding, Currie paid a visit.
Members were polite and welcoming. But during her five-day visit she felt suffocated.
“They could do nothing without asking permission,” Currie recalled. When her friend tried to rest with a pounding headache and another woman telephoned about chores, Currie saw her friend jump up to work.
During fellowship services, she noticed, children sat still and didn’t talk. They looked fearful.