Cult leader recalled by woman who grew up in his River Road Fellowship

Publish date:

New details of the River Road Fellowship, the Pine County religious community founded by accused cult leader Victor Barnard, are posted on the Gawker website. A lengthy first person account headlined "The more you commit, the more the leader loves you," was written by Kehla Backman, whose parents joined Barnard's church community in 1985 when she was five.

A nationwide manhunt is underway for Barnard, 52. FOX 9 first detailed allegations that he sexually abused two women, part of a group of firstborn daughters of followers whom he called "maidens." He's been charged in Pine County with 59 felony counts of criminal sexual conduct.

"Victor's rise to power was gradual and methodical," Backman writes. "That's the thing about cults, and about predators. There's a slow but constant grooming. You don't really realize how drastically things have changed, so it feels normal. And all the while you're being reassured that what you believe in—what you've devoted your life to—is real and right. The more you commit to it the more Jesus loves you. The more Victor loves you."

Concerned about Barnard's behavior, Backman's family ultimately left the group in 1994. Today Backman wonders if she might have been a victim had they remained. "Being the first-born daughter in my family I can't help but think that if we hadn't left when we did my name would have been on that list," she writes, contrasting her situation with that of the women who have accused Barnard. "I had parents that saved me from it; they had parents who served them up to it. It's unimaginable, incomprehensible. But it's the power Victor wielded."

An editorial in the Star Tribune questioned the delay in prosecuting Barnard. The editorial noted that two women came forward with allegations in 2012 and Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole investigated and forwarded the findings to Pine County Attorney John K. Carlson. Carlson's office did not press charges for two years, which the editorial calls a "...troubling time lag" that Carlson has not explained.

"Carlson is one of the state’s longest-serving county attorneys, a position that should make him a powerful advocate for crime victims. He doesn’t get to brush off questions about his decisionmaking, particularly those involving whether he used his office’s authority and resources in the best interests of justice," the editorial continues.

A lengthy story in the Star Tribune, headlined "Caught in a cult's dark embrace," followed up on Barnard's disappearance. The story said that a splinter group from the River Road Fellowship including Barnard settled in Washington state, where they established businesses around Spokane. Barnard and his wife established a nutrition company, and his wife registered Waymarks, a publishing company they’d also had in Minnesota. Several of the so-called maidens opened a cleaning companies.

"Former members say that even after the charges, many followers are standing beside Barnard," the story said.

Next Up