By Jenna Ross, Jennifer Brooks and Pam Louwagie
Even after two young women stepped forward to say their minister had molested them as children and the sheriff’s office built its case, it took two years for the Pine County Attorney’s Office to bring charges.
The search is underway for Victor A. Barnard, the charismatic leader of the River Road Fellowship who convinced parents in his isolated flock to send their young daughters to live together near him as his “maidens.” Barnard, 52, faces 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with two of the girls, who told law enforcement that they were just 12 and 13 years old when the abuse began.
“We are frustrated in the length that it has taken,” said Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole, who sent investigators as far as Washington State to investigate Barnard, before turning the case over to Pine County Attorney John K. Carlson in 2012. And then he waited.
When the county attorney’s office brought charges, two years later, there was little substantial change beyond the evidence investigators submitted in late 2012, Cole said.
“The police investigate, we gather information and we forward it to the prosecutor. What the prosecutor does with that information is up to the prosecutor,” Cole said.
Carlson did not respond to media calls on Tuesday, when the charges were filed. On Wednesday, his staff said he had not come into the office.
The long wait left both investigators and the young women themselves, “very frustrated,” said Pine County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Blackwell.
“We had two victims who wanted something done,” he said.
Investigators worked to reconstruct the events that began in the summer of 2000, when Barnard allegedly convinced parents in the isolated community he’d gathered near Finlayson to send 10 young girls to live with him in a position of honor as his “maidens.”
One of those girls was Lindsay Tornambe, who said she was just 13 when she moved in with Barnard and the other girls. Within a month, she told investigators, Barnard had sexually assaulted her, and the abuse continued for the next nine years.
The insular nature of the River Road Fellowship made the investigation a slow, difficult process. The first complaints against Barnard actually came in 2008, when some of the men in the congregation contacted the county attorney’s office to say that Barnard was committing adultery with some of the married, adult women in the congregation.
Carlson declined to press charges at the time, in spite of the fact that adultery is actually a crime in Minnesota when it involves a religious leader and if it involves coercion of members of a congregation.
The sheriff's office was unable to share a copy of the letter the county attorney's office wrote when it declined to press charges in 2008, at the county attorney's request. But a copy obtained by Fox 9 News earlier in the year concluded that, “the sad truth is, these individuals admit that they were essentially ‘brainwashed by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do.”
Prosecutors also noted that there were reports of possible sexual abuse of juveniles going on in the River Road congregation, but concluded they were “merely suspicion.”
A week after the Fox story aired, the county attorney's office announced it was reviewing the case.
“I am just happy to see charges finally brought forward,” Cole said. “I believe my sheriff’s office has done everything we can possibly do to support these victims. We have been doing that since 2011 and will continue to support those victims as this case moves forward.”
Anyone with information about Barnard’s whereabouts, or any new information about his activities during his years at the River Road Fellowship, is asked to call the Pine County Sheriff's Office at 320-629-8380.