It’s hard to believe anyone could rape and brainwash so many people and get away with it for so long, but Victor Barnard did. The Minnesota religious cult leader convinced 150 people he was like God, invited them all to live on an isolated campground, and coerced the parents in the group into letting him rape their oldest daughters (his “maidens”) for years, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
Fifty-four-year-old Barnard fled the U.S. two years ago after two women accused him of abuse, sparking an international manhunt and landing him on the U.S. Marshals Service’s Most Wanted List. He was captured and held in Brazil for over a year until last weekend, when he was finally extradited back to Pine County, over an hour’s drive north of Minneapolis. On Monday, Barnard appeared in court for the first time, facing 59 counts of first- and third-degree sexual assault of minors from the two women who claim he raped them for years.
The judge set bail at $1.5 million. Prosecutors, who are preparing for Barnard’s next court appearance on July 5, say Barnard’s followers are now liquidating their assets to pay for his release.
How did this happen? Here, the horrifying story of Barnard’s cult, the “maidens” he allegedly assaulted, and how he might be brought to justice.
The cult: Before setting out on his own, Barnard was first a member of the Way International, a nondenominational Christian sect known for encouraging followers to interpret the Bible on their own terms. With tens of thousands of followers in 35 countries, the group fell apart in the mid-1980s. Its founder and his successor were both accused of brainwashing and having sex with female followers.
Barnard gathered former disillusioned members of the Way International and founded River Road Fellowship in the early 1990s, promising it would be different. As a minister, he had gained 150 followers by 1996, when the congregation purchased a wooded 85-acre campground in Finlayson, Minnesota. They called it Shepherd’s Camp, and Barnard convinced families to sell their homes and move there.
Shepherd’s Camp was an isolated, self-sustaining community. Families lived in old cabins and newer buildings along a dirt road, trading business (butchering, cabinet-building, soap-making), while raising cows, sheep, and chickens. They planted gardens, canned vegetables, and sewed their own clothes. There was no internet, no cellphones.
Barnard lived in his own cabin, slept with the men’s wives, and dressed like Jesus in billowy robes while carrying a staff. He drove a Cadillac Escalade, a motorcycle, and took children on trips in a chrome-finished tour bus. Rather than hosting church services in one sanctuary, members worshipped in small groups at home; when Barnard stopped by for such occasions, it was like a visit from the pope.
The Ten Maidens: Barnard apparently stood up one day, in July 2000, and called out the names of ten first-born daughters, ages 12 to 24, whom he’d chosen to live apart from their families at his private camp. Parents considered it an honor, and members saw them as nuns. As chaste, exemplar virgins, the “Ten Maidens” took a vow of celibacy, which Barnard called the “Salt Covenant,” promising to never marry and devote their lives to Barnard until they died. Sometimes the girls were called “Alamoth,” a biblical word for virginity.
The two women who accused Barnard of sexual assault say they were 12 and 13 when they were selected as maidens. Cloistered, the ten maidens allegedly did daily chores between scheduled days of sex with Barnard in his private lodge. One woman remembered a kitchen calendar noting appointments for each girl, though no one said a word to one another about the abuse.
The day after Barnard first touched one of the victims, when she was 12, she said he sent her a card: “To my beloved … I thank God for you as I remember your tears and love and believing. I have you in my heart, and I’m so glad to be waiting and watching and longing together for our beloved lord Jesus Christ. Kept by His love together with you, Victor.” He compared their relationship to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, or King Solomon’s affairs with concubines, and promised “he represented Christ in the flesh.”
The other woman was 13 when her parents dropped her off on July 23, 2000. “Victor had us celebrate it every year, it was like our anniversary,” she said. After about a month, he allegedly called her to his lodge, asked her about masturbation, and hit her when she didn’t know about it. She claims he raped her later that night, and then every month up to five times a month. At the beginning, she was told to use contraceptives with Barnard, but then he left for a surgery, returned, and explained he couldn’t have children anymore. When the girls seemed spiritual or obediently followed his orders, he’d demand sex less often, as if rewarding them. “He told me it was his way of being able to show me God’s love,” the woman said.
Her parents lived about five miles away, but she rarely saw them. She remembered Barnard telling the girls’ parents why everything was right: “He brought some scripture up and [said], ‘If these girls decided that they really wanted to keep their vows and to not be married but to have sexual desires and they were the aggressors — scripturally, I would have the right to do that.’”
A retired deputy police chief once recalled his interviews with the alleged survivors for the Daily Beast, explaining Barnard’s reasoning: “He said, ‘I’m the Holy Spirit and therefore it’s not rape. And you’re still a virgin, so it’s not sex.’” At some point, Barnard formed a second group of young women called the Auriga’s Band.
The Unraveling: Around 2008, a group of husbands confronted Barnard about his affairs with their wives and approached the local sheriff, claiming Barnard was sleeping with married women. But County Attorney John Carlson declined to press charges, explaining in a letter, “The sad truth is, these individuals admit they were essentially ‘brainwashed’ by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do.” Reports of child sexual abuse were deemed “merely suspicion.” The confrontation prompted Barnard to sell Shepard’s Camp and move dozens of followers to Washington State, in 2009, amid rumors of his sexual exploits and bankruptcy.
In Spokane, and outside Cheney, Barnard and his wife opened a nutrition company; his wife also registered a publishing company, Waymarks, which they ran in Minnesota. Some maidens opened a cleaning company in Cheney; Auriga’s Band members established their own in Bellingham.
The two women stepped forward in 2012, accusing Barnard of raping them for years; approached by an investigator, one mother reportedly “did not want to hear it.” When the county charged Barnard, in 2014, he fled the country, spending three months on the U.S. Marshals Service’s Most Wanted List with a $25,000 reward for his arrest. He was on the run for over a year, apparently using prepaid credit cards to travel to Brazil. Authorities apparently located him by tracking followers’ travels to Brazil, where they would visit his hiding spot. In February 2015, Brazilian authorities found Barnard in a condominium on Pipa Beach, an eastern resort town, where he was staying with a 33-year-old former maiden from a wealthy Brazilian family.
The Court Case: While U.S. officials worked to bring Barnard back to Minnesota, Barnard reportedly tried to hang himself in his cell. After Barnard spent over a year in prison, Brazil’s Supreme Court granted U.S. custody of Barnard on the condition that his prison sentence be no more than 30 years, the maximum time he would serve if he were convicted in Brazil. U.S. Marshals returned him to Pine County, Minnesota, on Saturday.
In the courtroom on Monday, Barnard looked pale and haggard, speaking only when questioned by the judge. Bail was set at $1.5 million with conditions (that Barnard never contact the victims, submit to GPS monitoring, and surrender his passport), but prosecutors were hoping for $7 million bail. They claimed Barnard’s followers had started to liquidate their assets to pay the sum. Pine County attorney Reese Frederickson also said that even if Barnard is convicted on only a few of the 59 sexual-abuse charges, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
“To know that they actually care, that people actually do care about what happened means so much,” one of the survivors once told Minnesota’s Star Tribune. “I definitely don’t want Victor hurting anyone else.” Barnard will appear again in court on July 5.