Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By A. R. Vander Vegt
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

An inside look to River Road Fellowship

 


The case of Victor Barnard has been a source of interest and baffled horror for people not only in Pine County, but across the world. Reese Frederickson, Pine County Attorney and prosecutor of Barnard, presented at the Pine County History Museum in Askov on Saturday, June 23, on Barnard’s background and Frederickson’s involvement in the case.

“Not in a million years did I think I would be in the middle of a case involving a cult,” Frederickson said. Not only did the case involve a cult, but it culminated in an international manhunt, saw parent turn against child and shook a small community, garnering widespread attention and coverage.

Frederickson shared, like many people, he had a fascination with learning about cults, even before law school. While in undergraduate, Frederickson attended a presentation by Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor against Charles Manson and author of “Helter Skelter.” Little did he know that his own future would involve a high-profile case involving a cult leader.

A familiar history

Barnard’s way into cult leadership began in college, Frederickson said. He attended Hobart College in upstate New York, the first time he spent extended time away from home. Lonely, depressed and vulnerable, Barnard became involved with The Way International, founded by Victor Wierwille. Similar to Barnard later in life, Wierwille claimed to be an apostle of Jesus Christ and considered himself a direct mouthpiece of God. During the 1980s, the group fell apart amid sexual misconduct allegations that arose.

It was then Barnard and his wife purchased property east of Rush City, off River Road. Recruiting fellow followers from The Way, Barnard launched River Road Fellowship. In 1996, River Road Fellowship catapulted into Shepherd’s Camp after $500,000 of property was purchased east of Finlayson.

Enter Jess and Lindsay. Their families traveled from their home states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, respectively, to follow the teaching of the man who claimed to be Jesus in the flesh. “They believed him,” Frederickson said, and their families uprooted their lives to be near him.

In 2000, Lindsay and Jess were subjected to sexual abuse committed by Barnard. After removing his wedding ring and declaring himself to be married to the church, Barnard moved into a separate lodging from his wife and four sons. He instituted the Alamoth (often translated as “virgins”) and Maidens. Just 12-13 years old, the two girls, along with other young girls part of Shepherd’s Camp (up to age 24), were selected as “Maidens,” essentially performing as Barnard’s servants, waiting on him hand and foot. In 2001, Barnard sought parental blessing to begin having sex with their daughters, though he had already coerced the girls into sexual acts beforehand. Brainwashed, the parents consented.

Shepherd’s Camp was sold in 2004 for $3.5 million, but Barnard and his followers remained in the Finlayson area, buying up land.

It was in 2010 that an elder finally confronted Barnard on his behavior and the cult “imploded,” Frederickson said. Some followers left Barnard’s teaching, others went out to Washington state.

Around this time, as well, a mandated reporter learned of the affairs occuring within the cult. An investigation was launched, but in 2011, charges were declined.

Taking back the narrative

At the turn of the new year, in January 2012, Lindsay came forward with her story. She had a realization at a New Year’s party, Frederickson said. Her childhood was not standard. Families, as a rule, do not pick up and leave their lives to live in a secluded space, virtually cut-off from the outside world. She filed a report with the Pine County Sheriff’s Office. Jess did the same the next day.

Even with Investigator Matt Ludwig’s extensive work into their reports — submitted statements, evidence gathered — no charges were filed against Barnard. Two long years went by and little headway was made.

The former sheriff of Pine County, frustrated with the lack of progress, consulted fellow law enforcement colleagues. They recommended Jess and Lindsay take their story to the media. That’s exactly what they did.

The story broke on Fox 9 in 2014 by investigative reporter Tom Lyden. Finally, the case gained traction. Michelle Skubitz of the Pine County Attorney’s office compiled a complaint against Barnard and brought 58 felony charges in April against him for first degree criminal sexual conduct.

So much attention was garnered that its presence influenced the upcoming Pine County election of the County Attorney.

Frederickson was working in a neighboring county attorney’s office at the time when he received a call from Jennifer Brooks of the Star Tribune. He answered a few questions related to the race and what his thoughts were on prosecuting cult leader Barnard. His chat with Brooks ended up on the front page of the Star Tribune. She had talked with both Frederickson and the incumbent opponent, focusing on their posture toward bringing charges against Barnard.

He was elected into office that November, and two days later, was on the phone with the U.S. Marshals, attempting to locate Barnard’s whereabouts. They tracked known maidens and followed the trail to Brazil. On February 28, 2015, Frederickson received a text message from Sheriff Jeff Nelson at 8:15 a.m., “Sounds like Barnard is in custody in Brazil.” There Frederickson was, eating pancakes with his children, when this message came in.

In March 2016, after Barnard initially fought extradition to the U.S., Brazilian authorities sent him back to be tried in Minnesota. In June, Barnard arrived and was booked into the Pine County Jail. It was time for Frederickson to put together his prosecutor’s case.

He was presented with several hurdles to overcome. Could River Road Fellowship be considered a cult? If it was, how could parents be convinced to give up their children to it? What are the characteristics of a cult leader?

Putting together a case

Frederickson dug into cult research. “I began watching documentaries on Netflix.” The documentaries led him to a professor in California, one who had actually been involved in a cult as a child. He asked her a question of paramount importance: How can you convince a jury that parents would give up their children? She provided insight and lent expert testimony for the prosecution, answering questions of cult leader characteristics and follower mentality.

When Frederickson met Lindsay and Jess, “I knew within 10 seconds they would be believable (witnesses).” They decided to give Frederickson a tour of their childhood, he said. One morning, they met at Banning Junction, piled into Jess’ car and took off towards Finlayson.

As they drove and walked around, Frederickson got a glimpse into the young women’s pasts. They spoke of news reports coming through Barnard. When 9/11 occurred, that was filtered through Barnard. He camped in a field for weeks afterward, they said, because he was convinced law enforcement would come after him. They recalled how no one was allowed to be more than 30 minutes away from the compound. They missed out on pop-culture — they didn’t know about iconic movies like Titanic or even know how to use a telephone until after they left the fellowship, well into their teens.

Though the defense initially presented letters from Lindsay’s mother, sisters and other cult members claiming Jess and Lindsay fabricated their experience, in October 2016, Barnard pled guilty to two of the felony counts and agreed to 30 years in prison. “Everyone who touched this case” seemed to be there at the sentencing date, Frederickson said. For the first time, Investigator Matt Ludwig, who had advocated strongly for the case in the beginning stages, met Lindsay and Jess.

Following the case, the defense attorneys nominated Frederickson and Skubitz for the 2016 Attorneys of the Year, which they won.

Earlier this year, in April 2018, Barnard appealed his sentence and it was reduced by six years. Though the decision was disappointing, Frederickson said, “In seeking a shorter sentence, he’ll actually stay in longer.” After completing 24 years in prison, Barnard will be civilly committed, meaning he will be removed from prison but relocated to a different, confined facility to prevent further offense.

Lindsay filed a civil lawsuit against the elders of River Road Fellowship in January 2017. It named more than a dozen people involved with the group. Its outcome was settled out of court and details of the settlement were not made known to the public.

 

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