April 20: Friends recall rise and fall of Victor Barnard

Friends recall how a kid from Minneapolis fell in with the Way and lost his.

Long before he formed the River Road Fellowship, minister-turned-fugitive Victor Barnard was just a kid playing hockey along Minneapolis’ River Road.

Today, Barnard is the target of a multistate manhunt, as investigators look into charges that he was a cult leader who kept a flock of girls and young women, whom he called “The Maidens,” as concubines. But for the people who knew and loved him, those headlines are hard to reconcile with the bright, charming boy and talented athlete they remember.

“I always thought I’d be seeing him on TV,” said his father, Stanley Barnard. “I thought it would be the Olympics, not like this.”

Two young women have stepped forward to accuse Barnard, who led the isolated River Road Fellowship in Finlayson, of sexually abusing them for years, beginning when they were just 12 and 13. Authorities in Washington State are searching, but have yet to locate Barnard.

It’s a far different future than the one expected for young Vic Barnard, whose prospects once seemed bright and limitless — until he fell in with the Way, and lost his way.

A gifted student and athlete, he earned a scholarship to the elite Breck prep school, then still at its old home on River Road in Minneapolis. By the time he graduated in 1979, he was class president, captain of the hockey team and a varsity player on the baseball and football teams. Friends remember him as the kind of kid who could turn heads just by walking into a room.

“He had a lot of charisma — a big personality,” classmate Mark Gillman recalled. “He knew a lot of people and everybody knew him.”

Tough home life

Barnard got a scholarship to Hobart College in upstate New York, where he made the varsity hockey squad his freshman year.

But Barnard’s life wasn’t quite as happy as his big smile in the high school yearbook made it seem. His parents divorced when he was six and he and his three sisters were raised by a mother who struggled with deepening mental illness.

“My ex-wife, his mother, was bipolar. Of course, back then, we didn’t even know what that was,” his father said.

Victor’s mother, Nancy, started calling him repeatedly while he was away at college, saying “all these nutsy things,” Stanley Barnard said. Victor “was crying in his room,” a day after one of the disturbing phone calls from his mother, Stanley Barnard recalled. Someone walked by and said, “‘You look like you need Jesus in your life.’” That stranger was named Reggie, a recruiter from the Way International, a religious sect based out of Ohio.

That’s when “the problem started,” his father said.

A different path

The next thing his friends and family knew, Victor had quit the hockey team, dropped out of Hobart and headed to Kansas to attend the Way College in Emporia. His graduation photo shows him smiling proudly, holding a leather-bound Bible. Soon, he began sounding out his friends about the Way. If they weren’t interested, he cut ties.

He came out to visit his friend Gillman, who was going to school in Wisconsin and shared a ride with Barnard back to Minneapolis that weekend. “He brought up the Way. I didn’t really bite on that. … I never talked to him again.”

In the parlance of the Way, it was known as “mark and avoid,” a technique of shunning those with different beliefs and views. Some of his friends got a harder sell, including his former high school girlfriend, who asked not to be identified.

“He came home from school that year just so pumped up about [the Way], and wanted me to join him and go to these classes with him: the ‘Power for Abundant Living’ classes,” she recalled. Barnard had a regional manager in the sect follow her and call her at all hours, trying to deprive her of sleep, she claims.

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    Officials believe Victor Barnard, who is charged with sexually abusing two girls, hasn’t crossed the U.S. border.

  • 'Maidens' sex abuse case took 2 years before charges were filed

    Wednesday April 16, 2014

    Investigators are searching for the former pastor of the River Road Fellowship, Victor A. Barnard, who faces dozens of counts of abusing underage girls in his Finlayson, Minn., congregation.

  • April 16: Charges: Minister raped 'Maidens' in Minn. camp for years

    Wednesday August 13, 2014

    Victor A. Barnard, 52, who ruled over a camp of “Maidens” in Pine County, has been charged with 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Barnard has yet to...

  • Victor A. Barnard, who is believed to be in Washington state, was charged in Pine County last week with 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

  • Charismatic kid: Victor Barnard’s junior year portrait in the Breck School yearbook.

  • Barnard graduated from the Way College in Emporia, Kan.

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