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US Marshals join search for cult leader charged in sexual abuse

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The U.S. Marshals Service has joined the search for a former Minnesota minister charged with sexually abusing two girls.

FOX 9 reports that Victor A. Barnard, 52, was the leader of the River Road Fellowship near Finlayson, Minnesota, a sect that the Pine County sheriff described as a "cult." Pine County prosecutors have filed 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct against him. Barnard was last known to be in Spokane, Washington. He left Minnesota with some of his followers when the allegations of abuse began to surface.

The Star Tribune published a story about why it has taken so long for those charges to be brought. The story notes that while two young women said Barnard had molested them as children and the Sheriff’s Office built its case, it took two years for the Pine County attorney’s office to bring charges. The girls told law enforcement that they were 12 and 13 years old when the abuse began.

“We are frustrated in the length that it has taken,” said Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole, who sent investigators to Washington state before turning the case over to Pine County Attorney John K. Carlson in late 2012.

Barnard is accused of persuading parents of his followers to send their first-born daughters to live with him at the Shepherd's Camp campground near his home, starting in 2000. He sought girls to live with him in a position of honor as his “maidens.” One of the women, Lindsay Tornambe, told KMSP that Barnard began sexually assaulting her a month after she became a maiden at 13. The assaults occurred between one and five times a month for nine years, she said.

The long wait between the investigation and the charges left investigators and the young women “very frustrated,” according to Steven Blackwell, the Pine County chief sheriff’s deputy. “We had two victims who wanted something done.”

The Star Tribune story notes that authorities are often especially cautious when investigating crimes involving religious groups.

“It’s tough when you have vague statements of concern about what some people would say is a religious organization,” Hamline University law Prof. Ed Butterfoss said.

Police say Barnard's followers are not cooperating with their efforts to locate him. KMSP reported that detectives believe the followers may be shuffling him from home to home while Homeland Security monitors the borders and airports nearby.

"We were taught that if we had to go to prison for him, we would," one of his alleged victims Jessica Schweiss told Fox 9 News.

Investigators say if there are others who believe they were victimized by Barnard, they should to come contact the Pine County Sheriff's Office at 320-629-8342.

KMSP-TV

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