Victor Arden Barnard, a minister who claimed to be the messiah and dressed to match, is now facing 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct for abusing girls who came to live at his compound.
Barnard, 52, is the founder of a Minnesota cult where he ministered to his “maidens,” a group of virginal girls and women who came to receive his teachings. Two girls who were sent to live with him at River Road Fellowship camp near Finlayson, Minn., at the ages of 12 and 13 have come forth with accusations that Barnard sexually abused them.
But Barnard guarded his cult carefully, making it difficult for authorities to infiltrate. For more than two years, the Pine County Sheriff’s office has been investigating the leader.
"The really difficult element about going in and trying to investigate this is that they're a very tight religious sect," said Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell. "It's very difficult to get answers and information from that kind of community."
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The probe started when a 24-year-old woman, referred to in the complaint as “B,” said she and her family joined the “fellowship” in 1998. Two years after that, Barnard established a “Maidens Group” of virgins who were never supposed to get married and lived with Barnard, apart from his wife and kids, in “Shepherd's Camp.”
"Barnard repeatedly preached to [B] that he represented Christ in the flesh, that Jesus Christ had Mary Magdalene and other women who followed him, that King Solomon slept with many concubines, that the firstborn child was to be sacrificed to God, and that it was normal for Barnard to have sex with her because it was in God's Word," the complaint states.
Jess Schweiss, one of the two women who came forward, expressed her relief that after so many years of confusion, she will have justice.
"I feel bad in one sense that I am taking Victor's life away from him by putting him behind bars, but then again, he took my life away from me, which I should have had," she said. "So, I feel that — for lack of better words — I think I'm even."
Since Schweiss’ parents are still in the cult, she may have to testify against them.
Running from the charges filed last week, Barnard is thought to be somewhere near Seattle or Tacoma. Authorities have issued a nationwide warrant for his arrest.