Fugitive preacher Victor Barnard will spend the next 30 years in prison for raping teenage girls entrusted to his care.

Barnard, who fled halfway across the globe to avoid prosecution, made a surprise confession in a Pine County courtroom Tuesday, accepting a plea agreement on two counts of felony sexual assault against young women he isolated from their families and molested for years.

Barnard, 55, accepted two consecutive 15-year sentences that almost guarantee that the leader of the cultlike River Road Fellowship will spend most or all of his life behind bars.

Dressed in a baggy blue sweatshirt, Barnard arrived in court clean-shaven and soft-spoken. He said little, beyond agreeing to the conditions of his plea deal.

Both of his victims approved the terms of the agreement. One of them sat in the courtroom and watched Barnard finally admit to the assaults that he — and many members of her family and community — had denied for years.

"I don't think my heart has ever pounded as hard as it was in that courtroom," Lindsay Tornambe said afterward. She was 13 when Barnard convinced her parents to bring her to live in a compound, close to his home, with a group of other young girls and women he dubbed "maidens." The abuse began soon afterward and continued for years.

Barnard's guilty plea brought her some measure of closure, she said, and vindication.

"Hearing him confess that he was guilty ... definitely was satisfying," she said. "Knowing that he is guilty definitely helps close this chapter, in being able to move forward."

'He feels terrible'

It was an unusual plea deal. The prison sentence Barnard agreed to was almost as lengthy as if he had been prosecuted on all 59 of the first- and third-degree assault charges he was facing, said Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson.

Afterward, Barnard's attorney said his client agreed to the deal and lengthy punishment to spare his victims and remaining followers the pain of a trial.

"There is no question that he feels terrible about what he did," attorney Dave Risk said. "Contrite doesn't begin to express how badly he feels about what he's done and the impact he's had. And the reason he just chose to put himself in prison for 30 years is because he didn't want to make it any worse than what he'd already done."

If the case had gone to trial, it likely would have dragged in friends and relatives to testify against one another and dredged up the details of the assaults in lurid detail. Barnard decided he didn't want that.

"It's very unusual that a person in his position would put their self-interest aside, especially as it relates to going to prison for 30 years," Risk said. "And instead look to spare the victims in this case, the community and a lot of other people he cares about all the litigation and all the heartache."

Asked whether she believed Barnard took the deal for her sake, Tornambe scoffed.

"No, definitely not," she said. "I think maybe [he took the deal] because deep down he knows he's guilty. Anyone who would look at this case and sees that he chose 30 years to sit in prison knows that he must be guilty, and I think he does, too."

Barnard used to compare himself to Jesus, sometimes dressing in shepherd's robes as he moved among his followers. Taking the plea deal, without having to go through the lurid details in court, might also allow him to cast himself in a new role as martyr, Tornambe said. That "is how he sees himself, as an apostle ...[as] pretty much Jesus Christ in the flesh," she said. "So he would take this on to spare the church."

Tornambe spent years fighting to convince family, friends and Pine County officials that something terrible had happened to her during her years with the secretive River Road Fellowship. As the trial loomed, she had not been afraid of another fight in court.

"I had a wonderful attorney and people supporting me, and I was completely ready to go to trial and to tell everyone what really happened," she said. "But looking at things, this seemed like a better option."

Barnard approached the Pine County attorney's office with the plea offer Friday, surprising Frederickson.

If there had been a trial and Barnard had been convicted on all counts, "he would have been looking at 30 years anyway," said Frederickson, who had been holding out for a 30-year sentence on any plea agreement. "So it was an interesting turn of events."

'Maidens' at ages 12 and 13

Barnard had coaxed families in the River Road Fellowship to send their daughters to him, promising that a group of young women he called "maidens" would live lives of prayer and purity. Years later, two of the so-called maidens turned to Pine County authorities for help, saying Barnard began raping them almost as soon as he separated them from their families. They were 12 and 13 at the time.

Barnard left Pine County in 2009 amid rumors of sexual impropriety and financial bankruptcy. When Pine County brought charges against him in 2014, he fled, setting off an international manhunt.

Barnard landed on the U.S. Marshals Service's most-wanted list. Brazilian authorities tracked him to a beachside resort town, where he was in hiding with one of his former maidens — a young woman from a wealthy Brazilian family. He spent more than a year in a South American prison before he agreed to be extradited to Pine County in June. His sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 28.

Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008