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 over the weekend, along with a woman whom Brazilian 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 in the secretive religious community he founded in Pine County. He stands accused of separating young girls from their families and sexually exploiting them for years on end, while assuring them that the abuse was God's will.
Barnard was arrested Friday in the beach resort community of Pipa. According to local news reports, Liberato had spent months or years shuttling Barnard between hideouts in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte.
In a statement Monday, the U.S. 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 in November.
The hunt gained traction after agents were tipped off that Barnard "was either in Brazil or receiving assistance from his followers there," the agency reported. It was a search that began with the Pine County Sheriff's Office and spiraled out to include the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. State Department, the Marshals Service and Interpol.
There is no timeline yet to return Barnard to Minnesota for trial. The Marshals Service also had no information about Liberato. According to Brazilian news reports, she was released from jail but faces charges of aiding a fugitive.
Brazilian federal police reportedly confiscated religious papers, diaries, computers, flash drives and cellphones from the condo where Barnard had been staying.
Case began in 2012
Barnard founded the River Road Fellowship community near Finlayson, Minn., 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 had raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to move out of their parents' homes and live near him as part of a cloistered group he called his "maidens."
According to court documents, Barnard told the maidens that sex with him was God's will, just as it had been for the biblical King Solomon to have concubines or for Jesus to have female followers like Mary Magdalene.
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.