Pine County attorney reviews case against alleged cult leader - FOX 35 News Orlando

Pine County attorney reviews case against alleged cult leader

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One week ago, the FOX 9 Investigators told the story of two young women who say they were abused by a cult leader for years in rural Pine County. Now, the county attorney is reviewing the criminal case.

INVESTIGATORS: Maidens of River Road

Although the Pine County Attorney's Office declined to comment beyond saying the investigation is active -- as they always do, Fox 9 News has learned they are actually reviewing the case because the clock is ticking. The criminal statute of limitations to file charges is set to run out next year.

Jess Schweiss and Lindsey Tornambie shared their memories from when they were members of the River Road Fellowship, a group with 150 members and one authorities call a cult.

For more than a decade, the group operated near the town of Finlayson. When Schweiss and Tornambie were just 12 and 13, their parents allowed them to live with other girls -- called "the maidens" -- at the group's large camp headquarters. That's where they say the cult's leader, Victor Barnard, sexually assaulted them for years.

The first tip that came to police dates back four years to a member of the group, David Larson, who confronted Barnard about sleeping with adult, married women in the group. He later learned about the allegations involving underage girls.

On Thursday, Larson told Fox 9 the police did their job -- but he claims Pine County Attorney John Carlson simply wanted the case to go away.

"He kept saying, 'No way we'd win.' We wouldn't win the case. They'd come in with all these experts, discredit these girls -- everyone," Larson said. "He said adamantly that he didn't have a chance to win, but everyone else was 100 percent disagreeing with that."

Larson wasn't the only one to hear the discouraging sentiment either.

"They've explained to me that they're worried they won't win -- that this is a case they can't win, that there are too many people who will defend Victor," Schweiss said. "They will defend him before me."

When declining to file charges against Barnard four years ago after the allegations of adultery -- which is still illegal if it involves coercion by members of the clergy, the county attorney wrote, "The sad truth is: These individuals admit that they were essentially 'brainwashed' by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do."

Prosecutors also wrote that there were concerns Barnard was having sex with juveniles too, but referred to the claims as "merely suspicions" -- much to the chagrin of Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole.

Cole said, "I have no doubt we have probable cause."

With young women now coming forward to police two years after the letter declining charges was written, it remains to be seen whether the doubts county prosecutors expressed before can be cleared up; however, time is running out because the criminal statute of limitations will expire next year.

Investigators believe Barnard and many of his followers left for Washington state, and Cole told Fox 9 News there is no reason to believe he's changed his ways.

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