“Christ in the flesh” has been captured. And now, his alleged victims and embittered kin are left to process the damage he’s wrought.
Self-professed holy man Victor Arden Barnard, 53, was busted in a beachside community in Brazil on Friday after almost a year on the run—and three months on the U.S. Marshals Service’s Most Wanted List. For years, according to court documents, Barnard had his way with several girls as young as 12, including a Brazilian exchange student, and also fornicated with church members’ wives back in his sect’s original compound based in Finlayson, Minnesota.
The Daily Beast spoke exclusively to numerous relatives, friends, and even a former member of Barnard’s River Road Fellowship who managed to escape the spiritual leader’s clutches. Only years later did the former member learn that his daughter allegedly was one of Barnard’s corrupt conquests.
Carmen Tornambe, 61, became a River Road Fellowship member when he was in his 40s and a professional trumpet player living in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He remembers heading to Minnesota to help do some sound engineering for Victor Barnard and his 150-member evangelical sect. “Once I got out there the manipulation really started,” Tornambe said. “I felt like I was under a spell.”
Tornambe, who soon moved his entire family to Minnesota, later took a job as a cabinet maker. What was supposed to be a two-week gig recording gospel tracks turned into a sadistic saga where Barnard’s influence was everywhere.
“I thought I could have left, but what kept me there was my family wanted to stay; they had all this affection for Victor,” he said.
All the women did. And Barnard’s accusers told authorities the pastor claimed “he represented Christ in the flesh” and that “‘Christ had Mary Magdalene...and King Solomon had lots of concubines’—and managed to turn them into his playthings.”
“He would work on the women and work on their minds,” Tornambe said. “He would promulgate the idea that Christ has to have a face. It’s not like an ethereal spirit. You got to have something tangible, and he was that.”
Their own personal Jesus. That, Tornambe says, was Victor Barnard’s power: “He would use his words to really capture your mind, and before you know it you are thinking his way.”
But cross Barnard and he would inflict psychological punishment. Tornambe said that when he wasn’t playing music “with all my heart,” he would get a dose of Victor.
Physical punishment, the complaint alleges, was part of Barnard’s way of keeping his faithful in check. One accuser “said she was hit by Barnard when he was angry and sometimes left bruises. He also would yell at her and make her feel very small and afraid.”
The women who didn’t dress properly were humiliated, Tornambe added. “The clothes were all made by hand, and dresses were longer, no short shorts or tight-fitting apparel. Nothing low-cut.”
Barnard, who wore biblical, hand-sewn flowing robes and carried a staff, started to take the wives of the ministry’s men as lovers.
“He told me with a couple other guys that he had sexual relations with one of the wives,” Tornambe said. “[Victor] thought he was trying to help this woman because she was having problems.”
The philandering with wives was a precursor for Barnard, who soon allegedly spread his love around to younger prey. “He talked to the parents,” Tornambe recalled. “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.’”
That proposition was more of an exercise of taking the temperature of his followers. Barnard was already deflowering his so-called Maidens, according to the court papers.
Those alleged actions would only be known long after the church imploded.
Tornambe said he found out more than three years after the fact that Barnard had repeatedly done unspeakable things to Tornambe’s daughter, Lyndsay, now 27.
“The biggest mistake of my life is I trusted this person,” Tornambe said.
In 2009, Tornambe and other men in River Road Fellowship confronted Barnard over his affairs with their wives. Barnard couldn’t contain the fallout. “He started losing power and control when some of the men confronted him,” Tornambe said. “That’s when I felt things were really loosening up and I was gaining my strength back.”
All along, despite his growing reluctance about being a member of River Road Fellowship, Tornambe was blind to allegations that Barnard had been bedding his daughter for a decade. It allegedly started when she turned 13 years old.
Lyndsay was chosen to be a part of Barnard’s summer camp and continued for years. Barnard was able to win over his lovers. “He was very careful,” Tornambe said. “If I knew my daughter was getting hurt, I would have pulled her out in a second. Even with my frame of mind I would have had enough to grab her and go.”
One neighbor who lived next-door to River Road Fellowship for 20 years described how the couple hundred acres of land that Barnard’s church had seemed almost like a military institution. “It was more like an Army barracks rather than houses,” Joseph Mitchell, 45, told The Daily Beast.
One day the church group up and left. “I knew it was weird deal when all of a sudden they were gone,” Mitchell said.
The group split after three girls who had grown up came forward to local authorities and accused Barnard of being a pedophile.
Steve Blackwell was the deputy police chief of Pine County last year before he retired. He told The Daily Beast that Victor Barnard never left the compound before the allegations and kept his followers, whom he used as “shields,” living in fear.
“The guy is a predator,” Blackwell said. “He became ordained as a minister so he could have an avenue to feed his hunger. So he could dedicate his life as a disguise and be a predator and feed the beast. He’s an animal.”
Out of the “boxes full of evidence” Blackwell said his office collected on Victor Barnard, he says there are interviews with the leader’s alleged sex victims in which they said he would tell them “I am the Messiah” so he could violate them. “He said, ‘I’m the Holy Spirit and therefore it’s not rape. And you’re still a virgin, so it’s not sex,’” Blackwell said.
Initially, investigators on Barnard’s trail believed the cult leader was “house-hopping” in sleeper cells dotted around Spokane, Washington.
But it turns out Barnard was laying low in South America all along. Police in Pipa, Brazil, took him into custody alongside Barnard’s exchange student; the 33-year-old woman who reportedly will face charges for aiding a known fugitive.
The authorities also tagged as evidence Barnard’s cache of scripture books, diaries, computers, flash drives, and cell chips.
The self-proclaimed prophet Barnard awaits extradition back to Pine City, Minnesota, where he’ll be formally charged with 59 felonies for molesting multiple members of his flock who believed the wooden-staff-clutching, bearded fake was the son of God.
“He has a huge ego and he thinks he’s the holiest man on earth,” a close relative of Barnard’s, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast.
The family member says Barnard managed to brainwash his wife into letting him attack the prepubescent girls: “All he does is write books that no one wants to read and surrounds himself around young girls because he can’t get laid.”
Another relative of one of the accusers tells us that when Barnard is finally brought to justice he deserves “to go away for a long time with all the charges on him.”
The same relative told The Daily Beast it’s fortunate that Barnard is in custody, because he would suffer vigilante justice otherwise. “His teeth would be down his throat in a hurry…. The worst thing he could do is not kill me, because I would come back at him with a stick.”
It’s also possible that the extent of Barnard’s alleged crimes is unknown and the current revelations could be just the beginning, Blackwell said. “Were any children born or abortions performed? Were they sacrificing things? We don’t know.”
Rather than think of the River Road Fellowship community as a church, former deputy chief Blackwell likens them to terrorists. “There’s cells all over the country,” Blackwell said. “There’s factions of them still out there. They don’t talk. They still meet and have congregations and they are deliberate about their recruiting.”
When one of the victims told the pastor she was sinning, Barnard would say the sex “was not wrong because he was a Man of God and she was serving the church and taking care of him,” the documents say.
One thing is certain: Victor Barnard was successful because most of the followers he shepherded ever since birth didn’t know any better.
“Keep in mind a lot of these victims have been under his influence since they were small children,” Chief Blackwell said. “He’s god of that world.”