MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Authorities were searching Tuesday for a self-professed minister accused of sexually abusing at least two girls in a "Maidens Group" at his religious fellowship in rural Minnesota, where he told one victim she would remain a virgin because he was a "man of God," according to a criminal complaint.
Victor Arden Barnard is facing 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct related to two young women who said they were abused for nearly a decade at his secluded River Road Fellowship. The 52-year-old was last known to be in the Spokane, Wash., area where the fellowship resettled soon after the investigation began in Minnesota, Pine County Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell said Tuesday.
Washington state's fugitive task force and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also are searching for him. People associated with the group in Washington have been uncooperative, Blackwell said.
According to the criminal complaint, the two woman were among about 10 girls and young women who lived apart from their families in a camp Barnard set up near Finlayson, about 90 miles north of Minneapolis. One woman alleged Barnard sexually abused her from the ages of 13 to 22, while the other said it occurred when she was 12 to 20.
Barnard kept the Maidens isolated and used "religious coercion and intimidation" to maintain his control, Blackwell said Tuesday, adding: "It's certainly cult-like behavior."
Investigators believe Barnard abused other girls but have been unable to get others to come forward, Blackwell said. Most of the criminal counts against him carry maximum sentences of 30 years in prison.
The River Road Fellowship settled in a "very secluded" area of Pine County about 16 or 17 years ago and had fewer than 50 members, Blackwell said.
"They were pretty self-sufficient. They processed their own meat, they grew their own crops. As much as they could they kept themselves separated from regular society," he said.