I thought I'd never see my cult leader again.
And then a month ago, he showed up on my bedroom television. His name is Victor Barnard, and he was on the local news because two women in Pine County, Minn., near where I grew up as a member of his Fellowship church, had accused him of sexual abuse.
He had allegedly chosen a group of adolescent girls—the daughters of church members—to live alone in the church headquarters, where he sexually abused them with their parents' permission. The women said he dressed like Jesus and called them "maidens." He'd been accused before of sleeping with his married female followers, but this was the first time his child sexual abuse was being spotlighted. An investigation was open against him, but nothing had gone forward.
But the news report brought survivors out of the woodwork. Follow-up stories were aired, and Victor Barnard was, last week, officially charged with 59 counts of sexual misconduct. He's now on the run from authorities—maybe being smuggled between the homes of his remaining followers.
I never had a sliver of hope that he would be brought to justice and made to answer for the horrific things he's done to those girls, it's hard to even now, it just seems too good to be true.
My family joined the Fellowship when I was five, in 1985. My mom lost my little brother in childbirth and our preacher at the time told her it was because God was testing her. That hurt my mother, who didn't want to believe in a God that would do such a thing. We switched churches, and got involved with a small Christian group that we called "Twig" or "the Fellowship." Twig was an offshoot of The Way Ministries, another Christian sect.
Twig was different enough for my mother. It preached love, not vengeance and pain, and, at least initially, it was warm and collegial. We became fast friends with another family, the Cheshires—my mother with Jean Cheshire and me with her daughter Jessica, who was a year younger than me. We'd have Fellowship on Sundays at a mix of different leaders' houses. It seemed like anybody who wanted to host and lead Fellowship could.
That was before Victor came along.
I actually know very little about Victor's background. I was so young when we got involved with Twig; it was mostly just my parent's friends who led Fellowship at their houses around Minneapolis. There were little pockets of us all over Minnesota, and eventually we all started to get together in the summer for picnics. That's when we first met Victor, and a few other families that seemed to be very closely tied to the Barnards. The picnics soon turned into weekend getaways every summer where everyone would show up, all of it organized by Victor.When I was 10, the Cheshires moved north of Minneapolis to a tiny town outside of Mora, and my family followed. We were very close, having attended the same Fellowship exclusively for several years now; we rented the house right next to their double wide mobile home on the same plot of grass.
A couple years later, in 1992, Victor moved up north too, to a neighboring rural area called Rush City. Another family the Barnards were close to, the Roarks, soon followed him and built a house on the same plot of land. Not long after that we all began to attend Fellowship at their compound, always in Victor's house and eventually led by Victor only.
Sunday Fellowship became restricted to just the Barnards' house. A slew of other new restrictions arose. We were no longer allowed to have friends outside of the Fellowship—unless we were trying to show them The Light, The Word and The Way. Victor required approval of what we were able to watch and listen to. At first it was just small silly things. We weren't allowed to say something was "awesome," because only God is awesome. Then my sister had to cut the horns off of her My Little Pony unicorns because it was a mythical creature and therefore "devilish." We also could no longer watch the movie Ghost, which wasn't a huge blow, honestly.
Essentially everyone was a mole, even our closest friends. If a friend from Fellowship told her parents that she watched something "bad" at my house, Victor would find out.
Victor's rise to power was gradual and methodical, starting at those group picnics and continuing long-distance even before he moved to Rush City. 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. Victor became just as much of a focus as God and Jesus. After a while there wasn't a prayer that went by without the speaker thanking God for Victor before they said "amen."
Every Sunday the "horn of plenty" was passed around. It was nothing more than a wicker trinket from Pier One, meant for decorative purposes, but everyone stuffed 10 percent or more of their earnings—in cash—inside to fund The River Road Fellowship. I even put in part of my baby-sitting money.
Victor asked that our parents have us enrolled in the school system in Rush City, where he lived. I was tormented daily by the girls in my grade. Victor made me stay—because, he said, I needed to turn the other cheek and show them Jesus' love and forgiveness. I developed a horrible case of insomnia. My hair started falling out.
At this point Fellowship had become incredibly strict; my mother had been personally reprimanded by Victor for letting us watch Fantasia because it portrayed magic which is a tool of the Devil. While I was being forced to go to Rush City school by Victor in that same year it was also "suggested" that I watch a movie called The Buttercream Gang, over and over until I got it.
The Buttercream Gang is about a friendship between two kids, Pete and Scott. Pete goes off the Chicago and comes back "bad," stealing Scott's bike and selling it. Scott turns the other cheek. Pete sees the error of his ways and changes.
I am here to tell you as Victor's guinea pig that the turn-the-other-cheek shit does not work on eighth-grade girls in a small town. In fact, my Jesus-like approach only fueled their fire. And I was terrified of these girls because I wasn't allowed to retaliate. I was a straight-A student, and I faked illnesses and failed classes until my mom pulled me out.
Many years later, I was passing by Rush City on my way back to Minneapolis and I was starving so I stopped at the freeway-side gas station combination Burger King. I cannot express in human words how satisfying it was to hand my worst bully cash as she passed me a Whopper Jr. and fries. She didn't recognize me. I guess some of us make it out and some of us don't. I'm not a religious person but maybe sometimes you really do reap what you sow.
Eventually, my best friend Jessica and I were allowed to go to the adults-only leadership weekend retreat at Craguns, a resort in Brainard, Minn. At the start of the retreat, Victor announced that Jessica and I would be speaking in tongues in front of everyone on the final day. This was news to us. We were terrified.
We had watched the adults do it every Sunday, but none of the kids had ever been asked to do it ourselves. For the rest of the weekend we tried to slip away when we could into an empty cabin and practice our shubba-lubba gibberish so it would sound authentic. After the shubba-lubba-ing we knew we'd have to interpret the gibberish as if God were speaking directly through us. We tried to come up with anything that sounded like it came from the Bible: "I sayeth unto you, my children, I am the Father, and I hath given you my son to be your Lord and Savior, in his love and light you shall never be lost."
We dreaded it the entire weekend. When it came time to stand up I was terrified, and convinced that everyone would know instantly I was faking it. But the practicing paid off. I made it through, when I was finished my father was so proud of me he started crying. I've never felt like such a fraud in my life.
When Jessica was 13 she told her mother that her stepfather Dirk, who was also a Fellowship leader, had been sexually abusing her. Jean left him immediately. Dirk was charged and convicted with criminal sexual conduct, and when the case was brought to a sentencing hearing in Pine City, Victor showed up to testify on Dirk's behalf, and told Jessica that she needed to forgive Dirk because it's what Jesus would do. Dirk was sentenced to four months in jail, with work release. Last I heard, he'd moved to Kentucky and got a job selling used cars.
Things started unraveling from there. Victor told Jean that she needed to get rid of Jessica, and that Jessica should go live with her father in California because she was a bad influence. This was the final straw for Jean. There was no way anyone was going to tell them they had to abandon their children, not even the all powerful Victor Barnard.
So we all left. On New Year's Eve 1994, my mother was thinking about everything that our family had gone through in the past year when, as she puts it, "God struck me on the head with a hammer": Victor and The River Road Fellowship were wrong. We stopped attending Fellowship immediately, without warning or explanation.
A few weeks later my mother received a phone call from Victor asking why we hadn't attended. She told him God told her she needed to focus on her family; he retorted, "What about my family?" Another congregant, sent by Victor no doubt, came to the house and told my parents that if they didn't come back they would die like Ananias and Sapphira—the Biblical couple who held back on the profit of the sale of their land and were struck dead for lying to the church. This was their plea to come back. How will the Barnards survive without the tithe we gave every Sunday?
After the biblical threat came a nasty letter from Victor's mother, accusing my parents of abandoning her son and his family and the Fellowship. When we still refused to return, Victor himself showed up at our doorstep. My parents let him into the kitchen and told us to go downstairs. The three of them sat at the table, and Victor demanded to know why we'd left the Fellowship. My mother was terrified, but her strength outmatched her fear. She told him he'd have to answer to God for what he was doing—but he and my family were done with one another. He berated my parents more, and told my dad he wasn't a good father because he traveled for his job and wasn't around. But his threats didn't persuade my parents, and eventually he left.
Shortly after that we moved from rural Minnesota back into Minneapolis. We'd lost our friends, our community, our faith. I was 15. My mother was terrified that he'd keep coming after us, stalking and threatening. He probably would have if they didn't think we'd moved out of state. It took my mother several years to even feel safe. We hadn't gone far, and it's a small world even when you're not an ex-member of a cult.
Nobody had left, as far as I can remember, not before us. There were pockets of believers all over the state but the ones closest to Victor, the ones who could be controlled wouldn't even consider it. We were all so tightly knit and secluded in our Christianity, our beliefs. That's how he could threaten and deliver on us losing everything if we left; all the people we'd ever known would stop speaking to us, on his command. If people left after that it was only because he became even more controlling.
A few years later the Fellowship sold its property in Rush City and moved to a campground in nearby Finlayson. By 2000, Victor was living in a separate compound with his 10 Maidens.
Jessica tried to keep tabs on him over the internet. She tracked him through forums started by jilted husbands who Victor had weeded out by sleeping with their wives, and she learned that they'd sold the Rush City houses and moved to a campground in Finlayson. The forums talked about those "Maidens," daughters Victor was taking for himself, and we wondered how many of them were girls we knew and grew up with—the only friends we had at one point.
I don't know if Victor was already abusing children during the time we were involved in the Fellowship. I know that my sisters and I were never groomed or physically abused, but Jessica was molested by her stepfather, a prominent Fellowship leader on whose behalf Victor felt the need to testify in court, against a 13-year-old girl.
The warrant says Victor just stood up one day and announced 10 first-born girls he'd be taking to his private camp. 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. So what do I think when I look back? That our parents saved us from unimaginable Hell.
Through Jessica's relentless sleuthing we found out that the reason they sold the campground in Finlayson and moved to Washington state was because those jilted husbands had gone to the Finlayson/Sandstone sheriff back in the early 2000s to complain about Victor and the cult. The consensus seemed to be that the sheriff couldn't do anything about what these women were willingly submitting to, but he did warn Victor that he knew what Victor was up to, and shortly after that the Fellowship moved out of state.
I am in total shock that he has a nationwide warrant out for his arrest. In all of my wildest dreams and fantasies (of which I've had many) I never imagined it would happen like this. He's a monster with a tremendous amount of charisma and power.
But what I personally went through is nothing—nothing—compared to the horrors these girls had to endure. 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.
[Manipulated image, original screengrab via Fox9]