PINE CITY, MINN. – Accused cult leader Victor Barnard made his first appearance in a Pine County court on Monday after more than a year in a South American prison cell.
When the hearing was over, he was escorted by deputies to a Minnesota jail cell, where he’ll await trial on 59 counts of first- and third-degree sexual assault.
The former preacher stands accused of raping girls and young women in the isolated religious community he founded near Finlayson, more than an hour’s drive north of the Twin Cities.
When two young women stepped forward to accuse him of sexually abusing them for years, starting at ages 12 and 13, it sparked an international manhunt that briefly landed Barnard on the U.S. marshals’ most-wanted list.
Brazil extradited him last week to face trial, and U.S. marshals returned him to Pine County on Saturday.
During Barnard’s brief court appearance on Monday, District Judge James Reuter set bail at $1.5 million if Barnard agreed to surrender his passport, remain in Minnesota until his trial and submit to electronic monitoring.
Reuter set an unconditional bail of $3 million.
Barnard, 54, who left Pine County in 2009 amid swirling rumors of sexual impropriety and bankruptcy, did not post bail, his attorney said.
The man who walked into Pine County District Court looked haggard, pale and thin, a contrast to photos of the tan, robust man Brazilian authorities arrested in a coastal resort town in early 2015. At the time, authorities said they had located Barnard by following the followers who trekked south to Brazil to visit him while he was in hiding.
Given that history, Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson asked Monday for substantial bail — $3 million with conditions, $7 million without. Prosecutors, he said, had heard reports of Barnard’s remaining followers liquidating their assets, eager to “shield” him from more prison time.
“They will do anything for him,” Frederickson said of the remaining members of Barnard’s River Road Fellowship, which once numbered around 150 men, women and children. “They will give him property, they will give him money.” They will even, he added, give him “their children.”
Barnard’s attorney, David Risk, countered that Barnard was eager to respond to the charges and that he already is suffering ill health after more than a year in Brazilian prisons. He was hospitalized in November amid reports that he had attempted suicide in jail.
“Physically, it took quite a toll on him,” Risk said of the imprisonment. “His health has diminished significantly as a result.”
‘No money at all’
Barnard’s finances have diminished as well, Risk said. Barnard once lived in a sprawling house built for him by members of his congregation. Nearby were quarters for a group of young women he called “maidens,” who lived apart from their families.
Now, Risk said, “Mr. Barnard has no money at all.”
Barnard spoke only briefly in court, responding to the judge’s questions.
In addition to reporters, the bail hearing was watched by a small group of onlookers who left silently, without responding to questions about whether they were Barnard’s followers.
Risk objected to the county’s description of the River Road Fellowship as a cult.
“My client is a minister,” he said.
Now for prosecution
Two former maidens approached Pine County authorities in 2012, saying they had suffered years of sexual abuse from Barnard. The county brought charges in 2014, setting off an international manhunt.
He was arrested a year later in the resort town of Pipa, Brazil, where he reportedly had been sheltering with one of his former maidens — a follower from a wealthy Brazilian family.
Barnard’s next court appearance was set for July 5.
“The return of Barnard marks the end of the extradition process and starts the prosecution phase of the complaint,” Pine County Sheriff Jeff Nelson said before Monday’s hearing.
“The Sheriff’s Office looks forward to working with the Pine County Attorney’s Office to ensure a fair prosecution as we seek justice for the victims.”