A Minnesota cult leader accused of raping girls and young women was found hiding out in Brazil with a woman who had been a member of his congregation since she was in her teens.
Victor Arden Barnard, one of the most wanted fugitives in the country, was arrested this weekend, along with a woman the local media identified as 33-year-old Maria Cristina Cajazeiras Liberato, a Brazilian-born member of his River Road Fellowship.
U.S. and Brazilian law enforcement agencies are working to return Barnard to Minnesota, where he faces 59 counts of sexual assault on young women and girls in the secretive religious community he founded in Pine County.
Barnard was arrested Friday in the beach resort community of Pipa. According to reports, Liberato had spent months or years shuttling Barnard around various properties in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte.
In a statement Monday, the marshals service confirmed that “self-proclaimed pastor and accused sexual predator Victor Arden Barnard was arrested Friday,” just months after he was placed on the agency’s Most Wanted list.
The manhunt, the marshals reported, gained traction after agents were tipped off that Barnard “was either in Brazil or receiving assistance from his followers there.” It was a search that began with the Pine County Sheriff’s Office and stretched to include the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. State Department, the marshals service and Interpol.
Barnard remains in custody, awaiting extradition. Liberato, according to news reports, was released, but faces charges of aiding a fugitive. Brazilian federal police, who believe Barnard may have been in the country since 2012, confiscated religious papers, diaries, computers, flash drives and cell phones from the condo where Barnard had been staying.
Barnard founded the River Road Fellowship community near Finlayson in the 1990s. There, he used his charismatic hold over his followers to sexually exploit girls and young women at his whim, according to court papers.
In 2012, two young women stepped forward to tell Pine County Sheriff's investigators that Barnard raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to be separated from their families and live near him as part of a cloistered group he called his “maidens.” The abuse continued for years.
After a two-year investigation, the Pine County Attorney's Office brought charges against Barnard in the spring of 2014. But Barnard, facing bankruptcy and law enforcement scrutiny, had moved his family and his remaining followers to Washington state years before.
He became the target of an interstate, and then international manhunt. In November, the U.S. Marshal Service place him on its 15 Most Wanted list.