Fugitive American minister caught in Brazil

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RIO GRANDE DO NORTE, Brazil — Victor Arden Barnard, an American pastor wanted for 59 counts of sexual assaults in Minnesota, was arrested by Brazilian authorities on Friday, the office of the governor for the State of Rio Grande do Norte said Saturday.

The 53-year-old suspect was wanted by the Pine County, Minnesota, Sheriff’s Office for allegedly sexually abusing two young girls who were members of his church, the U.S Marshals Service said.

Barnard — who was featured on CNN’s “The Hunt With John Walsh” in 2014 and again earlier this week — was last seen in the United States in Raymond, Washington, in 2014.

In April of that year, prosecutors in Pine County, Minnesota, issued a criminal complaint that accused him of 59 felony counts of criminal sexual conduct. The manhunt began after a two-year investigation into allegations from two women about Barnard’s alleged conduct while he was preaching to a religious group in Finlayson, Minnesota.

Barnard was featured on the United States Marshal’s 15 Most Wanted List along with a $25,000 reward for information leading to his arrest. He was also wanted for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

A 33-year-old woman was also arrested, Brazilian authorities said.

Charismatic leader

As a pastor, Victor Barnard inspired his congregants with his charisma and apparent devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ. “I had never met anybody that I thought loved the word of God as much as Victor Barnard did,” Ruth Johnson, a former member of Barnard’s River Road Fellowship, told “The Hunt.”

David Larsen, a former leader of the River Road Fellowship, said he helped Barnard set up a so-called “shepherd’s camp” in the mid-1990s in Pine County to help bring more people into the church. Several of his congregants, including Johnson, moved to the rural area about 100 miles north of Minneapolis to be a part of the camp.

In June of 2000, the charismatic religious leader allegedly convinced some members of his congregation to hand over their firstborn daughters to live with him in the secluded campsite.

Linsday Tornambe’s name was called and her parents allowed their 13-year-old daughter to join the group of girls at the camp, called “The Maidens,” under Barnard’s supervision. She and other congregants said the girls got up early, sewed, cooked and cleaned for Barnard.

“Everything that a wife would do, they did for him,” Johnson said.

Barnard proclaimed he was Christ on Earth.

“He taught that in the Bible, the church was the bride of Christ and because he was Christ in the flesh, the church was supposed to be married to him,” Tornambe said. “At that time I didn’t really understand the fullness of what it meant.”

The complaint filed in Minnesota says Tornambe alleges that she was sexually abused by Barnard from the ages of 13 to 22 while she and her parents were members of River Road Fellowship. Tornambe told investigators the group of 10 young girls and women were known as Alamoths, or maidens. Her group was sent to what she thought was a summer camp, the document says.

Tornambe told investigators that she estimated that Barnard sexually assaulted her one to three times a month until she left in 2010 to be with her parents, who had moved to Pennsylvania.

In fall 2011, she was contacted by another former maiden who shared a similar story: she said she was molested by Barnard from the time she was 12 until she was 20, although she said the number of sexual acts varied each month.

Tornambe and the other woman went to the police in Minnesota. Barnard had moved to Washington state after an admission to affairs with married women caused the religious group to split, the complaint says.

The ministry operated in a secluded area of Pine County from about 2000 until 2011 or 2012, Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell of the county sheriff’s office told CNN in 2014. The fellowship vacated the property shortly after a new sheriff was elected and began investigating the ministry, Blackwell said. The Salvation Army now runs a family camp there, he said at the time.