By Pam Louwagie, Jenna Ross and Paul Walsh, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
FINLAYSON, Minn. — Lindsay Tornambe was just 13 years old when she was chosen to be “sacrificed to God,” she remembers.
That announcement in July 2000 came from a minister who led an insular faith community that included her family in central Minnesota. As Tornambe sat in the congregation with her parents, she remembers the minister calling out a list of 10 girls for a position of honor. He would later call them “maidens.”
Soon, her parents dutifully dropped her off at his isolated shepherd camp, where she said she ended up living a nightmare of sexual abuse that went on for about nine years.
Pine County authorities announced Tuesday that the minister, 52-year-old Victor A. Barnard, is now facing 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct involving his chosen maidens.
Barnard ruled “like a rock star” over the Christian camp and sexually exploited girls and young women at his whim while they lived apart from their families, according to court papers, which spell out the alleged abuses against two unnamed teens.
Barnard had not been apprehended Tuesday evening but was believed to be in Washington state, where authorities began a manhunt for him Friday. His last known address was Finlayson, Minn. A nationwide warrant was issued for his arrest.
Pine County Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Blackwell said Tuesday that the 59 counts address only the alleged raping of the two women who have so far spoken to law enforcement, and he is confident there are more victims of Barnard.
“We are hoping to find more that are willing to come forward,” Blackwell said. “I don’t know how we couldn’t think that” there are more girls and women Barnard abused in his “secret little world,” he added.
The criminal complaint lays out the experiences of two of the girls, now women and identified in the document as “B” and “C.” Tornambe, who is now living in the Washington, D.C., area, confirmed in a phone interview Tuesday that she is one of the girls referenced in the charges, which she hasn’t seen.
She said she was relieved to hear that Barnard is facing justice. “To know that they actually care, that people actually do care about what happened means so much,” she said. “He is being charged. It was such great news.”
Tornambe said she first met Barnard when she was nine. Living in Pennsylvania, her parents had been following his ministry and home-schooling her and siblings. They visited Minnesota a lot, she said, and they eventually moved to join the congregation near Finlayson when she was 11.
They lived and worked there and had little contact with the outside world, she said.
After her name was called at the meeting with the congregation, it became clear later that the move was intended to be permanent. “My parents dropped me off July 23, 2000,” said Tornambe. “Victor had us celebrate it every year, it was like our anniversary.”
Within about a month of the move, she said, Barnard talked to her about sex using terms she didn’t understand, and he grew angry about it, thinking she was lying about not understanding. She said he raped her for the first time then and continued sexually assaulting her over the course of nine years. The frequency varied from about once a month to about five times a month, depending on how she was doing spiritually, she said.
“If I wasn’t being spiritual or following his orders, he wouldn’t have sex with us,” she said. “If we were doing well, it was almost like he rewarded us.” She rarely saw her parents, though they lived only about five miles away, she said. Other people were always around.
The complaint says girls aged 12 to 24 were in the Maidens Group and Barnard would preach to them about giving themselves to God and never marrying. They were alternately called “Alamoth,” a biblical word referencing virginity, the document says. Barnard taught his maidens that he represented Jesus and that he had left his wife and children to live on camp property, telling the larger congregation that this was so he could dedicate himself to God.
Tornambe said she tried to leave the group once, when she was 15. Barnard took back a ring and veil and other gifts he had given her before she went home to her parents, she said, and her mother cried for a week with disappointment. When Barnard called clergy members, the maidens and their parents together for a meeting shortly afterward, he talked about damnation from God. Fearful, Tornambe went back with Barnard.
“I was really scared, and I didn’t know what receiving damnation from God would be like,” she said. “I ended up just staying.”
On a rural dirt road five miles southwest of tiny Finlayson, the Salvation Army now runs the Northwoods Camp, a rustic collection of century-old cabins and newer buildings. But when this property was owned by the River Road Fellowship, which included about 150 people, it was home to “Shepherd’s Camp,” where Barnard brought the Maidens Group. He lived in the camp’s “lodge” and would call for one girl or another “when he wanted to have sexual intercourse with her,” the charges say.
According to the complaint, “B” told authorities that Barnard explained that Jesus had Mary Magdalene and other women as followers and that King Solomon had many concubines, and added that “God’s word” made having sex with him normal. She told authorities that Barnard warned her not to tell anyone about the sex, that he would hit her when angered and that other girls were called “to see Barnard in the same manner,” according to court documents.
A few years later, Tornambe said she left permanently. She had traveled to Brazil with one of the Maidens, originally from that country, and she decided there that she wanted out of the religion. When she came back to the United States, the group had moved to Washington state, she said. She went to live with her parents, who had by then moved to Pennsylvania. They still had pictures of Barnard in their house, she said, and continued to send money to him.
She stopped going to church, she said, and started to live in a world that was foreign from the insular one where she had grown up.
“I didn’t know anything. We made all our own clothes. I didn’t know anything about the Internet or cellphones,” she said. She took jobs working at a health club and waitressing, eventually becoming a nanny.
After ringing in 2012 at a New Year’s party with cousins who happily talked about their futures, she said, she decided she’d been robbed of too much of her childhood. That week, she called authorities to tell her story.
The criminal complaint details the story of another girl, called “C,” that is similar to Tornambe’s.
C said her abuse began in 2000, when she was 12. She lived with nine other girls and also rarely saw her family. C said Barnard also told her that the sex was ordained by God.
In February 2001, Barnard, C and her parents met. He told her family that he might have sex with her, even though that had already been occurring.
That month, C was part of a ceremony that Barnard called the “Salt Covenant,” a pledge to remain unmarried, virgins and loyal to Barnard until death.
C also said a calendar was kept in the kitchen that chronicled when the other girls would have sex with Barnard, all the while the Maidens would never speak to one another about what was happening.
C separated from the group several times in June 2008 until leaving for good and moving to Wisconsin in September 2009. She became depressed and attempted suicide in 2011. Her brother, also formerly part of the fellowship, confronted her. She then told him about the abuse.
The story of both girls, told in the charges, has rocked the normally quiet community near Minnesota’s eastern border.
From his carefully kept house, Jay Gault would sometimes see women and girls across the dirt road, in the camp property’s woods, tapping trees for maple syrup.
But when he would go get his mail, they would scatter, Gault, 61, said while sitting at his kitchen table Tuesday. “They’d go back in the woods,” he said. “They wouldn’t look at you.”
In an area where drivers wave when passing one another, neighbors noticed that the people living at the camp “kept to themselves,” as several put it.
Dick Bowser, who recently retired from East Central Energy, said the church wouldn’t let power company or fire department employees on the property — “and when they did let you in, they watched you very closely.”
“It was strange,” Bowser said.
The men sometimes left to do carpentry or construction work, but “you didn’t see the women very much,” he said. Bowser, 60, lives down the road, after it is paved, but even from that distance, he’d hear them, faintly, chanting and singing.
Then, a few years back, the camp cleared out. Gault noticed that businesses affiliated with the congregation — a construction company among them — suddenly closed, as well. Then word came about the alleged sexual abuse. “It’s been the buzz around here,” Gault said, shaking his head.
“I didn’t expect it to be anything good that was going on down there,” Bowser said. “But I certainly didn’t expect what it’s looking like it’s turning out to be.”
Now 27, Tornambe said life is still an adjustment.
The criminal complaints say that Pine County sheriff’s investigator Matt Ludwig told “B’s” parents about the abuse in June 2012 and that her mother “did not want to hear it.”
Her father agreed to speak with Ludwig, explaining that he allowed his daughter to live away from them because she seemed happy.
He described the “atmosphere in the congregation and said it is a very powerful force to face the idea of losing everything — family, home, friends, business and being cast out of the church — if you do not go along with what Barnard wants you to do,” according to the charges.
B’s father recalled Barnard coming to him and rationalizing his having sex with the girls. The father “felt pressured to not say anything,” the complaint continued. “(The father) said he did not know what he was thinking at the time but just remembers feeling so much pressure to not become an outcast and lose everything he had.”
Tornambe has had bouts of depression where she considered suicide, she said. She physically hurt herself, she said, feeling that actual pain was better than trying to confront her emotional pain.
“For so many years it seemed like I’d never have the chance to … even know who I was … we didn’t really have a chance to think for ourselves,” she said. “We were told what time to get up, what time to go to bed, what we were eating, when we were going to sew.”
Tornambe decided to speak out publicly, she said, to try to stop Barnard. Her mother and two sisters are still involved with him, she said. She hopes telling her story will help other maidens, too, she said.
“I definitely don’t want Victor hurting anyone else.”
AFP Photo/Justin Sullivan