Fugitive cult leader Victor Barnard is behind bars in Brazil, but getting him behind bars in Minnesota could take years.
Frustrated Pine County officials are waiting to hear whether Barnard is going to fight the extradition order that would bring him back to face 59 counts of sexual assault against young girls in his congregation. Barnard, 53, spent three years on the run in Brazil before his arrest Friday in the coastal resort town of Pipa.
"The only thing I know about timeline is, at the very earliest, one month. At the very latest, we're talking three years," said newly elected Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson. "We don't know. If he waives extradition, it will be one month. If he wants to fight it, it's a one- to three-year process, depending on his life circumstances."
Barnard left Pine County in 2010 bankrupt and under a cloud of suspicion for his behavior during his years at the head of the River Road Fellowship in Finlayson. After charges were filed a year ago, he was able to evade an international manhunt with the aid of one of his followers — a young woman from a wealthy Brazilian family.
The woman, identified by Brazilian media as 33-year-old Cristina Liberato, had been a member of the fellowship since she was in her teens. Former fellowship members identified her as one of Barnard's "maidens," young women between the ages of 12 and 24 he separated from their families and brought to live near him in the isolated religious community.
Two former maidens approached the Pine County Sheriff's Office in 2012 to report that Barnard began a sexual relationship with them when they were 12 and 13 years old, and that the abuse continued for years.
The lead Brazilian investigator in the case told the Associated Press Wednesday that Liberato took Barnard "under her wing" when he arrived in Brazil in March 2012. The two reportedly traveled together to Uruguay and lived in several different locations in the state of Rio Grande do Norte before settling in the coastal resort town of Pipa.
"She fully supported him at her cost," Kandy Takahashi, chief of federal police in Rio Grande do Norte, told the Associated Press. "She was hiding him."
Brazilian police arrested Barnard and Liberato Friday. Liberato, who works in real estate, was released but faces charges of assisting a fugitive.
"She was his favorite maiden. That's what I've always heard," said Frederickson, who inherited the Barnard prosecution when he took office two months ago. "She has a wealthy family and her family has a number of properties in Brazil and [Barnard] was shuttled among these properties. One of them, I believe, was a compound."
The uncertain timeline is making it hard for Pine County officials to plan a legal strategy for what will probably be a complicated and costly case.
"It's difficult for us. We need to know if we need to get this thing rolling now or if we can hold off and take our time with putting the case together," Frederickson said. "It really starts when we know for sure that this guy's coming in."
Barnard stands accused of using his charismatic hold over his followers to sexually exploit girls and young women at his whim. His accusers say he twisted biblical passages to convince them that a sexual relationship with their pastor was just as much God's will as it was for King Solomon to have concubines.
Pine County court documents mention a young Brazilian woman who came to the United States to study and ended up entangled with the fellowship. She returned to Brazil in 2009 when her visa expired. Former fellowship members say that woman is Liberato.
Brazilian authorities began searching for Barnard in September, after receiving an extradition and arrest warrant from the United States. In November, the U.S. Marshals Service placed Barnard on its most wanted list.
"We're excited that he was arrested. Now we feel like we're part of a holding pattern," Frederickson said. "Every day I go, I bug the sheriff, every few hours, actually, I go down there and ask, 'Have you heard anything?' And he says, 'No, I haven't heard anything either.'"