FINLAYSON, MINN. - 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.
Now that charges have been filed, a national search is underway for Victor A. Barnard, the charismatic leader of the River Road Fellowship who persuaded parents in his isolated flock to send their young daughters to live by 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 sexual 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 — where they believe Barnard relocated much of the congregation — before turning the case over to Pine County Attorney John K. Carlson in late 2012.
And then Cole waited.
When the county attorney’s office brought charges two years later, there was little substantial change beyond the evidence investigators submitted in 2012, Cole said.
“The police investigate, we gather information and we forward it to the prosecutor,” he said. “What the prosecutor does with that information is up to the prosecutor.”
Carlson did not respond to calls on Tuesday, when the charges were filed. On Wednesday, his staff said he was out of the office.
If it were up to David Larsen, his former minister would have faced charges years ago.
Larsen, of Sturgeon Lake, reported to the Sheriff’s Office in February 2010 that Barnard was sleeping with several married women in the congregation, something he had confronted Barnard about months before. A woman who took care of Larsen’s two children after his wife’s death accompanied him, telling an investigator that Barnard had approached her, too. A few months later, Larson got a call that the Pine County attorney’s office wasn’t going to press charges.
Case stalled further
But then in January 2012, the two women came forward and reported being abused as children, detailing for investigators what it meant to be one of Barnard’s “maidens,” according to the charges.
One of the women, Lindsay Tornambe, described Barnard allegedly raping her a month after becoming a maiden when she was 13. The assaults occurred between one and five times a month for nine years, she said.
Still, things stalled, said Larsen, who was once a leader in the congregation but has long since cut ties. In several meetings, “even though we had multiple people coming forward … Carlson kept saying, ‘we cannot win this case, we don’t have a chance,’” Larsen said.
“I tried to, along with multiple other people, put pressure on him — to pressure him in the right way,” said Larsen, who stayed involved in the process. But time passed. At one point in 2012, he said, the county attorney’s office announced that they’d keep the case open, but they would no longer pursue it.
“To this day, I don’t understand it,” Larsen said.
The long wait left investigators and the young women themselves “very frustrated,” said Steven Blackwell, the Pine County chief sheriff’s deputy. “We had two victims who wanted something done.”
Investigators worked to reconstruct the events that began in summer 2000, when Barnard allegedly persuaded parents in the isolated community he’d gathered near Finlayson to send 10 young girls to live together at a campground near his home, in a position of honor as his “maidens.”
The insular nature of the River Road Fellowship made the investigation difficult, Blackwell said. 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, despite the fact that adultery is a crime in Minnesota when it involves a religious leader and coercion of members of a congregation.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to share a copy of the county attorneys’ 2008 letter of denial, at Carlson’s request.
But a copy given to 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 in late February, 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.”
Suspicion not enough
Authorities are especially careful when investigating crimes involving racial, ethnic, political or religious groups, legal observers say, though there is no rule against focusing attention on such organizations.
Authorities need probable cause to use any significant investigative techniques and get a warrant to enter someone’s premises, Hamline University law Prof. Ed Butterfoss said.
Officials can also go into a place if they have reason to believe that someone is in immediate danger, Butterfoss said, but those situations usually involve scenarios such as someone attacking someone else and police coming in to stop it.
“It’s tough when you have vague statements of concern about what some people would say is a religious organization,” Butterfoss said. Suspicion alone isn’t enough.
Larsen knew that Barnard had slept with six married women and suspected there might be a dozen more, he said Wednesday.
But when he learned that Barnard was allegedly having sex with underage girls, Larsen “went from being upset to being livid.”
“It’s bad enough to be involved with adult women who are not his wife,” Larsen said, “but to be a pedophile, that is so disgusting to me.
“It’s a betrayal of what he was supposed to be representing.”
Larsen, who once lived next door to Barnard in Rush City, Minn., helped oversee the creation of the congregation’s camp near Finlayson.
“When we first came here, when we first started, it was all about the right things,” he said.
He’d like to see Barnard brought to justice not only for the victims — but for the followers.
Despite the allegations, many congregants continue to worship with Barnard. A conviction could free them of Barnard’s deceptions, he said.
“They’re good people,” Larsen said, “but they’re so deluded.”