VICTOR BARNARD: Ex-follower says cult leader defended molester
The leader of a cult that began in Minnesota is not only accused of sexually abusing young girls for a decade -- Fox 9 News has learned he also may have protected and defended other abusers too.
In February, the Fox 9 Investigators broke the story about Victor Barnard and his River Road Fellowship after two women who were part of the group called "the Maidens" came forward to say Barnard sexually abused them for a decade, beginning when they were just 12 and 13 years old.
INVESTIGATORS: Maidens of River Road
Two weeks ago, prosecutors charged Barnard, who has since fled to the Spokane, Wash. area, with 59 counts of sex abuse. But although a nationwide manhunt is still under way, he remains at large.
Now, Fox 9 News has an exclusive update from a young woman who was not abused by Barnard but says he played an important role defending her abuser by isolating and banishing her.
"He had a way about him. Everyone either was afraid of him or adored him," Jessica Morcomb told Fox 9 News.
More than 20 years ago, Morcomb was at the turning point. She was just a young girl when a cluster of families living around Rush City, Minn., who gathered for Bible study became the cult led by Barnard. Quickly, she says things went from God's word to his.
"I know, when he got involved, it switched from this harmless thing to, 'He's the leader.' It's not like we voted on him, but Victor was the leader,'" Morcomb said.
Morcomb's new step-father, Dirk Cheshire, was a devout follower of Barnard -- but he had secrets all his own.
"I was sexually abused, sexually molested," Morcomb said. "There are two occasions I can specifically remember, and I believe I was 12 and 13. He got extremely controlling of me and started punishing me anytime I didn't speak of God. He would call me a slut."
In 1994, Cheshire pled guilty to criminal sexual conduct in the second degree. Morcomb came to the old Pine County Courthouse to give her victim impact statement at his sentencing at just 13 years old -- and she did it very much alone. She didn't even want her biological parents to see her testify.
"I did not want them to see me have to face them," she explained. "I knew it would break their hearts to have to see me go through that, and I didn't want that. I didn't want them to see me do that, and I didn't want to have them live with that."
Yet, someone else showed up that day: her intimidating pastor, Victor Barnard. -- but he wasn't there for her.
"He showed up outside the courtroom. I don't remember the exact words, but he said I needed to forgive Dirk," Morcomb remembered. "I was appalled. I couldn't understand why someone was telling me -- the victim -- that I needed to forgive this horrible man who did these horrible things."
Barnard even took the stand himself that day as a character witness for her step-father. In the end, Cheshire didn't spend a day in prison. Instead, he was sentenced to four months in jail -- with work release.
When Dirk got out, Barnard made sure he was still invited to worship -- but Morcomb and her mother were now treated as outcasts. Barnard even told her mother that Morcomb had to go.
"Basically, he told my mom she needed to get rid of me," Morcomb recalled. "She decided not to get rid of me, and we left."
The Fox 9 Investigators have learned of at least three other cases where Barnard allegedly told parents to give up their own children for adoption. Former followers say Barnard saw himself as the shepherd of his flock and believed his job was to cull the herd.
"I knew, one way or another, there would be more victims," Morcomb lamented. "Whether it was a family being torn apart, I knew that was going to happen."
All these years later, it's Barnard she's the most angry with -- even more than her own abusive step-father.
"What Dirk did wasn't right. I hate the man, but Victor has hurt far more people -- far more people," Morcomb said.
Cheshire left River Road Fellowship years ago, and he's no longer living in Minnesota. As far as the Fox 9 Investigators can tell, he has never re-offended.