Authorities in western Washington were ramping up their hunt Wednesday for a fugitive Minnesota cult leader wanted on sexual assault charges, after a credible witness reported seeing him twice in about a week.
Victor A. Barnard is charged in central Minnesota with assaulting girls he called “maidens” in his River Road Fellowship. He was spotted leaving a McDonald’s with a young woman around noon Wednesday in Raymond, Wash., a small fishing and logging town just inland from the Pacific Coast, authorities said.
Washington police and sheriff’s departments were patrolling and canvassing the area where Barnard was seen headed north toward Aberdeen, Wash.
The witness recognized Barnard from publicized photographs after he became the subject of a nationwide manhunt in April, when prosecutors in Pine County, Minn., charged him with 59 counts of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Two women told Minnesota investigators that Barnard raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to live near him as part of an honored and cloistered group in the River Road Fellowship, an isolated religious community near Finlayson.
Authorities said last spring that Barnard may have traveled to Washington from Minnesota. At that time, police said his last known whereabouts were Spokane.
On Wednesday, the Washington State Patrol said they had a credible tip that Barnard had been in the Aberdeen and Raymond areas for about a week.
The witness “said they saw the person about a week ago and something was unsettling to them,” said Lt. Shane Nelson, a spokesman for the patrol’s criminal investigation division.
When the witness again saw the man and a young woman about noon Wednesday, leaving McDonald’s in a dark blue Audi two-door with tinted windows and a spoiler, the tipster made note of the car and researched the fugitive on the Internet, Nelson said.
Police in the area were on the lookout for the car Wednesday night, Nelson said.
The news came as a surprise to a woman who said she is one of Barnard’s victims. Reached at her home on the East Coast, Lindsay Tornambe said she hadn’t heard about the possible sighting of Barnard, and felt a mix of anxiety and relief at the news.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. I hope they get him, that he doesn’t slip away,” Tornambe said. “It almost feels, like, a little surreal.”
Barnard ruled “like a rock star” over the isolated congregation and sexually exploited girls and young women at his whim while they lived apart from their families, according to court papers, which spell out the alleged abuses against two unnamed teens.
Tornambe said she was 13 when, in 2000, Barnard chose a group of 10 girls and young women, ages 12 to 24, to live near him without their families, she said. Parents considered it an honor. Barnard later called them “maidens.”
Within about a month, Tornambe said, Barnard had raped her, and it continued for years.
A second woman told authorities a similar story, according to charges, saying she was 12 when Barnard first raped her, telling her that sex with him was not wrong because he was a man of God.
The River Road Fellowship began to splinter in 2008 after allegations that Barnard was having extramarital affairs with adult women in the congregation. 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 said that even after the charges, many followers were standing beside Barnard.
Authorities said Wednesday that they aren’t sure why Barnard would be in the small Washington town.
“We have no idea what his ties are to that particular area and why he’s been there for approximately a week,” Nelson added.
Nelson said the car might not be hard to spot in Raymond, a town of fewer than 3,000 people.
“I think what’s interesting to note is that because it’s such a small town … somebody driving a dark blue Audi two-door sports coupe-type car is going to stand out in a town like that and bring some attention,” Nelson said.