By Tom Olson
PINE CITY, Minn. – A minister who led a cult-like religious sect in northern Pine County sexually abused numerous girls and young women who lived apart from their families in a “Maidens Group,” ac-cording to charges filed in State District Court.
Victor Arden Barnard, 52, was charged last week in State District Court with 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct. The charges pertain to two young women who reported being abused during a period of several years while living on the congregation’s compound in Finlayson. But authorities said there probably are more victims.
Barnard, who likened himself to Jesus, was last known to be living in Spo-kane, Wash., and remains at large. A nationwide warrant has been issued for his arrest.
The charges are the re-sult of a more than two-year investigation by the Pine County Sheriff’s Of-fice. Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell said Tuesday that his office has compiled boxfuls of evidence and logged countless hours trying to put the pieces together.
“The really difficult ele-ment about going in and trying to investigate this is that they’re a very tight religious sect,” Blackwell said. “It’s very difficult to get answers and infor-mation from that kind of community.”
The sheriff’s office began investigating in 2012, when a 24-year-old woman, iden-tified in the complaint as “B,” reported that she had been abused from the ages of 13 to 22.
B said she and her family joined a church called the River Road Fellowship, which had a camp on land near Finlayson, in 1998. Authorities said the con-gregation is an offshoot of The Way International, a nondenominational Chris-tian group that has fre-quently been alleged to be a cult.
In July 2000, Barnard set up a group for young girls called the “Maidens Group” or “Alamoth,” according to the complaint. The group was to stay virgins and never marry. B was invited by Barnard, and she and her father agreed, thinking it was a summer camp.
A group of about 10 girls and young women, ranging in age from 12 to 24, moved away from their families to live together. They soon found that the group was meant to be permanent, according to the complaint.
Investigators learned that Bernard moved out of the house he shared with his wife and children and into a lodge on the “Shep-herd’s Camp” portion of the property where the Maidens lived.
B said the sexual abuse started when she was 13.
“Barnard repeatedly preached to her that he represented Christ in the flesh, that Jesus Christ had Mary Magdalene and other women who followed him, that King Solomon slept with many concubines, that the firstborn child was to be sacrificed to God, and that it was normal for Barnard to have sex with her because it was in God’s Word,” the complaint states.
Barnard would call girls to the lodge when he want-ed to have sex with them, and would order them to not tell anyone about it, the complaint alleges. B reported that Barnard also prevented her from leaving the Maidens when she was 15, and decided that she wanted to marry someday.
In 2004, the Shepherd’s Camp property was sold and the group moved to another property near Finlayson, where the abuse continued, the complaint alleges.
In 2009, the girl traveled to Brazil with another girl from the group. When she returned, most of the Maidens had moved to Washington state, B told authorities. She learned that there had been a divi-sion in the congregation because Barnard had ad-mitted to having sexual relations with several married women in the congregation. B was upset by his confession and moved to Pennsylvania, where her parents had since relocated.
In fall 2011, B was con-tacted by another former Maiden, identified in the complaint as “C.” For the first time, they talked about the sexual abuse and decided to report it to au-thorities.
C stated that she was abused starting when she was 12 in 2000, and kept a calendar and noted each day she was abused by Barnard until he prohibit-ed her from keeping calen-dars, according to the complaint.
“(Barnard) began to ex-plain that sex with him was not wrong because he was a Man of God and she would remain a virgin because of it,” the com-plaint states. “C said he quoted parts of Scripture, saying it gave him the authority to do this be-cause he was Christ in the flesh.”
C reported that Barnard kept a calendar in which he would schedule a time to be with each girl, the complaint states.
Both B and C reported that Barnard would some-times beat them. He also told both of their parents that he might have sex with them, even though he already was, according to the complaint.
C left the group in 2009 and moved to Wisconsin. She stated that she never wanted to talk about the abuse, but it began to make her depressed. She at-tempted suicide in January 2011, according to the com-plaint.
Both women told investi-gators that they had not told their parents about the abuse. Urged by authorities, B eventually talked to her parents. Her mother did not want to hear about it, but her father listened and later gave a statement.
He told investigators that his daughter always seemed happy with the group. However, in hind-sight, he said that he should have realized that she was being sexually abused, the complaint states. He also described to investigators the power that Barnard had over the congregation.
“He described the atmos-phere in the congregation and said it is a very power-ful force to face the idea of losing everything – family, home, friends, business and being cast out of the church – if you do not go along with what Barnard wants you to do,” the com-plaint states.
In November 2012, a Pine County Sheriff’s Office investigator flew to Wash-ington and worked with local authorities to try to locate Barnard, according to the complaint. They went to an address listed on his driver’s license and found one of the congrega-tion’s elders, who was described as Barnard’s “right-hand man.” The man declined to talk to them or help locate Bar-nard.
Investigators monitored three other addresses believed to be associated with Barnard or the Maidens, but failed to locate anyone who would talk. A Washington State Patrol sergeant spoke with another church elder, whose two daughters were reported to be members of the Maidens. He denied that there had ever been a group of young females separated from the rest of the congregation.
Authorities decided to bring charges without having Barnard in custody, and obtained an arrest warrant in an effort to find him. Blackwell said a fugitive task force in Washington is still checking addresses of potential associates.
Because of the difficulty in interviewing members of the congregation and obtaining evidence, the two alleged victims who came forward were instrumental in being able to bring charges, Blackwell said.
“There’s been a lot of frustration and a lot of digging in trying to cor-roborate what the victims are saying, but we’ve final-ly come to the point where we have enough to charge,” Blackwell said.