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Continued: April 27: Caught in a cult's dark embrace

Everything pointed toward submission to Barnard, she said. .

People who questioned Barnard were harshly and publicly reprimanded and sometimes physically punished by group leaders. Former member Andy Schweiss said he was hit when he was 12 with a 2-by-4 for something he doesn’t even remember anymore. Misbehaving children were verbally lashed, Currie said. Barnard spit in someone’s face, Johnson recalled.

There was always fear of getting punished for doing something wrong or saying the wrong thing. “Fear was the main thing that kept this in check,” Vail said.

Adults who weren’t compliant risked being shunned, losing jobs, friends and the community that they had come to depend upon. Some lost their families.

A broken promise

In 2008, the group’s tight bond began to unravel.

A woman who had left the River Road Fellowship wrote Barnard a note, threatening to expose the fact that he was having several extramarital affairs with adult women in his congregation. Others who learned of the allegations began to pressure Barnard, too.

Barnard called the congregation together and made a stunning announcement.

“He told people, ‘I’ve had affairs,’ ” the former inner-circle leader said. “If you want to know if it involves your spouse, you can talk to me. It was earth-shattering — just a betrayal.”

The Pine County Sheriff’s Office first heard complaints about Barnard in 2008, when congregants reported that Barnard was sleeping with married women. But County Attorney John Carlson declined to press charges. In a letter explaining why, prosecutors said that “the sad truth is, these individuals admit they were essentially ‘brainwashed’ by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do,” according to a copy given to Fox 9 News earlier this year.

The letter also noted that there were reports of sexual abuse of juveniles in the congregation but concluded they were “merely suspicion.”

After learning of the alleged adultery, some River Road leaders suspected that the abuse might have extended to the youngest maidens. They also worried about a second group of girls and young women, formed later, called the Auriga’s Band.

But even after Barnard admitted to sleeping with married women, many of congregants remained loyal to him, Larsen said. “That was almost a double betrayal,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”

It’s unclear what remains of River Road Fellowship.

As the group splintered, Barnard and dozens of others moved to Washington, where they quickly set up businesses in Spokane and outside of Cheney, a community southwest of the city. Former members say that even after the charges, many followers are standing beside Barnard.

“The people who know him are not being cooperative,” said Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole. The women in the Auriga group, too, won’t talk, he said.

Barnard and his wife established a nutrition company, and his wife registered Waymarks, a publishing company they’d also had in Minnesota. Several of the maidens opened a cleaning company in Cheney, while members of Auriga’s Band founded one in Bellingham.

Other leaders of the group, including Craig Elmblad and Randy Roark, also settled in eastern Washington.

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