Of all the abuse, manipulation, and horrifying crimes that religious cult leader Victor Barnard committed, no one could have predicted his youngest victim would wield the most damning evidence against him.
In court documents, her name is C. When she was 13, she started drawing a tiny Xon her calendar every day Barnard raped her.
Wedged into corners of her calendar’s white boxes, alongside notes about music practice or play dates with friends, the ink charted what would become the driving force behind 59 counts of sexual assault that C and her friend B, another victim, ultimately filed against Barnard. Years after he first abused them, the two women spoke directly to Barnard in court on Friday.
Barnard, now 55, rose to power in the 1990s as the charismatic leader of the River Road Fellowship, an offshoot Christian sect he founded and later transformed into a cult. He convinced 150 people to sell their homes and move to Shepherd’s Camp, an isolated 85-acre campground in Finlayson, Minnesota. Life was simple and entirely self-sustaining: Families sewed their own clothing, planted gardens, and traded goods and services like butchering, cabinet-building, and soap-making. There was no internet, no cell phones.
At Shepherd’s Camp, Barnard told everyone he represented Jesus Christ, dressing in billowy robes and carrying a staff. He drove a Cadillac Escalade and took children on trips in a chrome-finished tour bus. Rather than hosting church services in one sanctuary, River Road members worshipped in small groups at home; when Barnard stopped by for such occasions it was like a visit from the pope.
In the summer of 2000, Barnard announced the names of ten first-born daughters, ages 12 to 24, whom he selected to live apart from their families at his private camp within Shepherd’s Camp. The “Ten Maidens,” as he called them, would be the congregation’s chaste, exemplar virgins, taking a vow of celibacy in a ceremony Barnard called the “Salt Covenant,” in which they promised to never marry and devote their lives to Barnard. Parents considered it an honor, as if their daughters were nuns. C and B were 12 and 13 then, the two youngest maidens, close friends, and guitarists in the church band. They would later remember moving to Barnard’s compound initially felt like a trip to summer camp.
Cloistered, the ten maidens cooked, cleaned, and sewed for Barnard between scheduled days of sex with him, though no one said a word to one another about the abuse. Barnard compared their relationships to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, quoting scripture to persuade the girls it was okay. “He said that this was his way to teach me love,” C told Minnesota station Fox 9 KMSP in an investigative report. “My parents had never even had the talk with me.”
Barnard manipulated the two girls’ parents in the same fashion, coercing them into giving him permission to have sex with their daughters. He shared with them biblical passages that he said showed he could have sex with the girls — even though he started abusing both girls months before that. “I didn’t know that he would want to do it right away,” B’s father later remembered about those meetings. “I would call it a spiritual stupor. The line was drawn that we would either be loyal to Victor or we would not.”
People who know nothing about cults besides the horrors of Jim Jones and Charles Manson will wonder: What kind of parents give up their daughter in the first place? The two cult experts I spoke to — New York psychotherapist Daniel Shaw, who has counseled former cult members for over 20 years, and Dr. Marc Galanter, professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center — were saddened by the story of River Road, but not surprised. Anyone can fall into a cult under the right circumstances.
“Nobody joins a cult,” Shaw said. “You join a community that you believe will have positive benefits and goals.” Galanter agreed, noting people who feel vulnerable, displaced, or unhappy are at the highest risk of joining a cult — they’re searching for a lost connection.
For many members of River Road, this was true: They first knew Barnard as a fellow member of the Way International, a nondenominational Christian sect that fell apart in the mid-1980s, after the group’s founder and his successor were both accused of brainwashing and having sex with female followers. When Barnard founded River Road years later, he promised them it would be different. He lied.
Barnard developed trademark signs of a religious cult leader, whom Shaw defines as a “traumatic narcissist”: He claimed perfection and that he was one with the divine (“Jesus Christ in the flesh”) and considered himself exempt from the group’s social and moral standards. These were all red flags, but few seemed to notice the dangers of Barnard’s ascent.
“They’d stick around because they loved him,” an ex-member told me of the people who stayed. Another woman argued it wasn’t so simple. “I can’t say to somebody this is how we got tricked,” she said. “He’s using people’s faith and their pain and their suffering and their longing for comfort — he’s using all of that.”
River Road members’ blind dependency on Barnard could have been mutual, according to Shaw: The cult leader — deluded, psychotic, and highly functioning — comes to rely on followers to worship him and validate his supposed perfection. Often, people decide to leave cults only after their sense of self is destroyed. “It’s not just because you’ve come to know information about the leader,” Shaw explained. “It’s more because you have reached a point of utter despair and emptiness. You’ve been abused to a point where you can’t take it anymore.” That moment came around 2008, when a group of husbands confronted Barnard about his affairs with their wives and approached the local sheriff.
River Road soon unraveled, though John Carlson, who was Pine County’s attorney at the time, declined to press charges. “The sad truth is, these individuals admit they were essentially ‘brainwashed’ by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do,” he wrote. Reports of child sexual abuse were deemed “merely suspicion.” Many followers eventually left the cult, including C and B, amid rumors of bankruptcy and Barnard’s sexual exploits. Dozens of others moved with Barnard to Washington State.
C and B came forward in 2012, accusing Barnard of sexually assaulting them for years. At the time, both of their mothers were reportedly in denial. Approached by an investigator, B’s mother “did not want to hear it.” C later recalled telling her parents that Barnard raped her: “My mom said the blood of the lamb covers it all,” she told Fox 9. “Jesus Christ forgives.” C and B waited two years for the county to finally charge Barnard, after Fox 9 investigative reporter Tom Lyden produced an award-winning segment that exposed Barnard’s crimes. “How in the world could you pass on this case?” Lyden told me, referring to the county attorney. “This kind of story doesn’t exist.”
C’s calendar became vital because, in the court filing, it made her charges hauntingly exact. Whereas B could legally claim only ten counts for every year of multiple assaults, C’s precise recordings meant prosecutors could charge Barnard more aggressively. Her 49 counts show how terrifying Barnard’s abuse really was, day-by-day, until he forbade her from keeping a calendar. Sometimes he raped her four times in one month, or two days in a row. Other times he’d leave her alone for two months, calling her to his room to clean or cook for him instead.
Barnard was charged and fled the country soon after the Fox 9 broadcast aired. He was on the run for over a year, spending three months on the U.S. Marshals Service’s Most Wanted List with a $25,000 reward for his arrest. Brazilian authorities found him in February 2015 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.
He spent over a year in a Brazilian prison cell while U.S. officials worked to bring him back to Minnesota. Brazil’s Supreme Court granted U.S. custody of Barnard last June, 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). Court proceedings began four months ago and ended Friday, after Barnard surprised C, B, and Pine County attorney Reese Frederickson earlier this month with a plea deal. The 55-year-old pleaded guilty and agreed to 30 years in prison on two counts of felony sexual assault.
“I was surprised because Barnard had nothing to lose by going to trial,” Frederickson told me. “Most defendants would have taken the risk of trial.” In interviews with reporters, defense attorney Dave Risk seemed to paint Barnard as a martyr while admitting Barnard felt “terrible” about what he did: “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.”
C and B, now in their late 20s, addressed Barnard in the final hearing Friday afternoon, reading statements to the court that described the impact Barnard’s crimes had on their lives. The judge sentenced Barnard to 30 years in a Minnesota prison.
“They lived through a nightmare and emerged as good, strong, and positive people,” prosecuting attorney Frederickson said earlier this month, after the surprise plea deal, referring to the two women. “I hope that they serve as an inspiration for other victims of abuse to come forward.”
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