Half a lifetime ago, Cristina Liberato was a college kid in the Twin Cities with dreams of medical school and the freedom of campus life after a conservative religious upbringing in Brazil.

Then she met Victor Barnard.

It was an encounter that would lead her to an isolated religious sect in rural Pine County and a life of devotion to Barnard, the charismatic spiritual leader of the River Road ­Fellowship.

They were arrested together last weekend at her home in a Brazilian resort town. Barnard awaits extradition back to Pine County to face 59 counts of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly raping young girls he called “maidens” in his congregation. Maria Cristina Cajazeiras Liberato is accused of helping one of the most wanted fugitives in America evade an international manhunt.

Like so many others, Liberato, now 34, was drawn in by Barnard’s charisma, said Lindsay Tornambe, who told authorities that she was 13 when Barnard welcomed her into the “maidens” and then began raping her. The abuse, she said, continued for years. “He found people who were searching for something in life and really worked them over,” ­Tornambe said.

From his Brazilian jail cell, Barnard is protesting his innocence. His attorney, Lucas de Brito, said his faithful followers — including Liberato — will speak in his defense.

“He said he committed no crime, and that his followers … will testify on his behalf,” de Brito said.

At least 20 of his followers had traveled to Brazil to visit him before he became one of the most wanted fugitives in America. When Brazilian authorities retraced the pilgrims’ trail, it led them to a condominium in the resort town of Pipa. Barnard was living there with Liberato, who had been providing him with money and shelter for the past three years.

Released after her arrest, Liberato returned to the jail, bearing food and a self-help book for Barnard. She told police that the two of them had no romantic involvement, and were just “friends.”

Attorney de Brito, who is also representing Liberato, told the Tribuna do Norte newspaper that his client couldn’t understand why Barnard had been arrested and that he was no cult leader.

“He only spoke of Jesus,” de Brito told the paper. Barnard “helped [Liberato] a lot at some point in her life.”

Liberato was 17 years old, a sheltered girl from a wealthy family, when she began general studies at Century College in White Bear Lake. Then she began attending fellowship meetings led by Barnard.

After her fall sophomore semester, she left college and headed north to join the River Road Fellowship, which had purchased an 85-acre camp outside of Finlayson in 1996, christening it Shepherd’s Camp.

Liberato’s unwavering support of Barnard comes as no surprise to former fellowship members who remember her before and after she became one of Barnard’s first maidens.

“Before she moved up to the camp, she was a roommate of my wife and I,” said former Fellowship member Jeff Sjolander, who remembers Liberato fondly. “She was a really pleasant young lady, real outgoing.”

Liberato’s father died not long after she came to the United States, and Barnard was a source of consolation. Once the Fellowship moved to Finlayson, she began developing “a pretty close relationship with Victor,” that deepened over several years, said David Larsen, a former River Road trustee who is now relieved that Barnard was caught.

The Brazil connection

Years later, when rumors surfaced about the maidens’ relationship with Barnard, Sjolander said a group of four married women — including Barnard’s wife, Stephanie — rose up in defense.

“Four married women were standing up at the time and daring anyone to accuse him of impropriety,” Sjolander said. “They said, ‘We are with the girls all the time. It couldn’t even happen. If you think it, you’re evil.’ ”

Liberato’s visa expired and she returned to Brazil in 2009. Barnard spoke often of relocating the entire community there, as well.

In 2009, Tornambe traveled to Brazil and spent six months by Liberato’s side, as Liberato talked with people about the Bible. Liberato — one of the original 10 maidens — was raised “extremely Catholic,” Tornambe said. When they visited Liberato’s mother, Tornambe noted the images of Catholic saints “all over the house.” Liberato talked to Barnard, then in the U.S., every day. Once or twice, he and the maidens sent Liberato money. Liberato worked on translating one of his books into Portuguese.

“She kept really close contact with Victor and the maidens,” Tornambe said by phone Friday. Liberato was “actively searching” for places Victor could stay.

In January 2012, Tornambe and another former maiden approached the Pine County Sheriff’s Office to report Barnard’s sexual abuse, which they said began when they were 12 and 13 and continued until they were adults.

Just two months later, Liberato was reportedly helping Barnard relocate. Brazilian authorities believe he entered the country in March 2012 and has been supported by Liberato ever since, shuttling between her family’s properties.

Liberato, who works in real estate, kept to herself, police said. And Barnard has led a reclusive life there recently. He’s been seen publicly only twice in the last six months — at a medical clinic and a gas station.

If he chooses to fight extradition, it could be one to three years before he is returned to Pine County to face charges.

His attorney said he will agree to extradition if Pine County prosecutors pledge not to impose a sentence longer than 30 years in prison — the maximum Barnard would face in Brazil. Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson declined to comment on possible sentences.

If Barnard chooses not to fight the extradition order, he could be back in Minnesota in a month. Former fellowship members are hoping for a swift return.

“I think I’m still processing it all,” Tornambe said. “I just really hope it doesn’t take years now for him to get back to the states.”

 

Anderson Barbosa is a journalist with the Brazilian news site G1, part of the media conglomerate Grupo Globo.