VICTOR BARNARD: The history of a cult leader - FOX 10 News | fox10phoenix.com

VICTOR BARNARD: The history of a cult leader

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Victor Barnard Victor Barnard
Victor Barnard Victor Barnard

He's the focus of a nationwide manhunt, but there are still many questions about Victor Barnard. One stands out more than any other: What makes a man like that, and why would so many people follow him?

To begin to understand Victor Barnard, it's important to know who he followed. When he was just 19, Barnard met a charismatic religious leader who had tens of thousands of followers in 35 countries -- but even those who knew him back then tell Fox 9 News that something happened before Barnard went rogue with the Bible.

According to friends from that time, Barnard was a party animal back in 1979, which is when he graduated from the prestigious Breck School. In fact, they were surprised to hear he'd found God the following year in Ohio after he met the man who would become his mentor -- Dr. Victor Wierwille, the founder of a religious sect called The Way International.

Karl Kahler took theology classes with Barnard, and wrote a book on The Way International titled "The Cult that Snapped," and he told Fox 9 News that Barnard had charismatic qualities but did not stand out as unusual in Way Corps training in Kansas and Ohio in the 1980s.

"I just knew him as a mellow guy, nice guy," Kahler recalled. "Not a huge personality, not a leader of his peers."

Kahler and former members of The Way International say there was a culture of adultery in the group.

"I have heard from women who say he had a way with the ladies -- a seductive personality with women and used it," Kahler said of Barnard.

Wierwille was accused of brainwashing and having sex with female followers -- as was his successor, Craig Martindale. Hundreds left the group in the late 80s, and Barnard was one of them.

So, how exactly does someone become the leader of a cult -- someone brazen enough to dress like Jesus and convince parents that he should have sex with their young daughters?

"He made it clear he talked to God on a regular basis," Jess Schweiss said.

Barnard began networking with other former members of The Way International -- like Schweiss's parents, who followed Barnard to Rush City when she was just 6 years old.

"At first, I thought he was a very scary person," she admits.

Barnard's own biography, obtained by the Fox 9 Investigators, details sermons he gave around the Twin Cities in the early 1990s, and his theology was becoming more radical.

There were pilgrimages to Gooseberry Falls, which Barnard considered sacred ground -- but it wasn't until 1996 that the River Road Fellowship christened Shepherd's Camp in northern Pine County. Barnard had 150 followers by then, and he began taking the firstborn daughters as his so-called "maidens."

Barnard's former followers told Fox 9 that he may have learned some techniques in The Way International but took things to a new level at Shepherd's Camp, finding words in the Bible here and there to justify his own carnal appetites.

"Victor would say at times, 'Age doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that I'm in my 40s and you're a teenager,'" Schweiss said.

A spokesperson for The Way International confirmed that Barnard got a degree in theology in 1986 before leaving in 1990; however, they insist he never held any leadership position while he was in the group.

Additionally, the spokesperson said The Way International considers adultery of any kind to be an abomination.

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