Less than four months after appearing in Pine County Court on 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct, the former leader of an alleged cult in Pine County shocked most court observers by pleading guilty to two of the counts, which means he is facing 30 years in prison.Victor Arden Barnard appeared before Judge P. Hunter Anderson and told him he agreed to the plea deal, which also had the support from two victims, who first alerted authorities of the crimes Barnard did while the leader of River Road Fellowship, that was once based just west of Finlayson.
While the sentencing was set for October 28, Barnard agreed to two 15-year terms on two of the counts, which must be served consecutively. All other charges are being dropped. He will receive credit for the time he spent in a Brazil prison.Normally, these charges carry a maximum of 144 months on each charge, but for both, they are for 180 months.
County Attorney Reese Frederickson, after the appearance, said, even if the county went to trial, he anticipated a sentence of around 30 years. “If you abuse a child in this county, we will go to the ends of the earth to find you,” Frederickson said.
The case against Barnard lasted several years, and a search for him led first to Washington, and then became a global manhunt. He was found in Brazil and held there until there was an extradition agreement. At one time, he was also put on the nation’s Top 15 most wanted.One of his victims, Lindsay Tornambe, who wanted her name public for the case against Barnard, said she felt the case had just started against Barnard, but “it was definitely satisfying.”
Tornambe said the other victim who stepped forward in alerting authorities also agrees with the sentence. She said just having him in court and hearing him say he was guilty helps.“I was ready for it,” Tornambe said if it went to trial. “I was completely ready to go to trial.”
Some defenders and detractors of Barnard were also in the courtroom, along with four deputies. For Tornambe, the case against Barnard meant vindication as many of her own family members still supported Barnard, even after the first allegations were made, and that today, Barnard admitted to be true.
“Honestly, I have not had a family since I’ve been 13,” Tornambe said to a small group of media there for the hearing. While confident going into a trial phase, Tornambe said her heart today in court had never pounded so hard.
So why did Barnard plead guilty before the trial phase of the court proceedings started? “I think it was more for his followers,” Frederickson said, something that Tornambe agreed with, so he could become a martyr to them. Tornambe said that Barnard sees himself as an apostle, “as Jesus Christ in the flesh.”
Frederickson said discussions on a plea deal were held last Friday, but had been discussed for the last couple of weeks. He said the minimum that he and the victims could accept, if there was a deal, was 30 years. Frederickson said he has never had a person facing 30 years agree to a plea before trial.
Barnard’s attorney, David Risk, has also not seen it either. “He sought to spare victims,” Risk said after court. Risk said he talked to Barnard for several weeks and this is what he wanted. “There is no question he feels terrible for what he did,” Risk said. “He did not want to make things worse.”
“He wanted to do the right thing now,” he added. Risk said he refused to call the River Road Fellowship a cult, and he did not know if the group still formally existed, but said there are still many people “who love and care for him.” Risk also stated there were both legal and factual items in the case they could have challenged.
“He wanted to set the record straight,” Risk said.“He will likely spend the rest of his life in prison,” Risk said of Barnard, who was 41 when he sexually assaulted the girls, and is now 55 .Barnard pled guilty to counts No. 42 and No. 52 in the case against him. Both the judge and Risk went over many items to make sure that Barnard agreed to the upward departure of the sentence, and asked him if he understood that any appeal would be very difficult if he agreed to plead guilty without going to trial. In all questions, Barnard said he knew what he was doing.Barnard was in jail on a $3 million bail without conditions.
Before Barnard was extradited to the U.S. The charges against Barnard by the two victims stated they were raped by Barnard at ages of 12 and 13 when they were chosen for a group of girls called his “Maidens.” At one time, the Fellowship group had around 150 members who lived in the county. In 2000, he created the “Maidens” group of about 10 girls and women. One of the victims who was then 13, said within a month that Barnard raped her. The same woman reported that Barnard said it was his way of being able to show “God’s love.” When Barnard was not found after he left for Washington, the story became of national interest following its appearance on the CNN Show, “The Hunt with John Walsh.”