Sex crime victim from ‘maidens’ cult files lawsuit targeting River Road Fellowship elders who relocated to Spokane
After a decade of sexual abuse at the hands of a religious cult leader, Lindsay Tornambe boarded an eastbound train out of Spokane in 2010 and fled her life as a “maiden.”
She has returned, seeking legal vengeance.
Tornambe and her attorney, Pat Noaker, traveled to Spokane to announce that they have filed a civil lawsuit this week in Minnesota against church elders of the River Road Fellowship, many of whom relocated to Spokane.
They are connected to Victor A. Barnard, the imprisoned cult leader who eluded an international manhunt for more than a year until he slipped up in Brazil.
“I’m sure a lot of memories will come back,” Tornambe said earlier this week of her return to Spokane. “But I feel like I’m doing something about this situation and holding people accountable. And, letting people know.”
Her efforts are the latest chapter of the tangled history of a religious cult founded in 1996 and led by Barnard on a farm near Finlayson, Minnesota, which is about 100 miles north of Minneapolis.
“Barnard was a child sexual predator of the worst kind who used the medium of religion, cult, and his professed status as a religious leader, and even Jesus Christ Himself, to brainwash parents to serve up their first-born daughters” Tornambe says in her lawsuit.
In 2000, Tornambe was among 10 girls, ages 12 to 19, who were willingly turned over by their parents to become the Victor Barnard’s “maidens.” He justified having sex with them, according to court records and interviews, because they served as his concubines – just as King Solomon enjoyed in the Old Testament.
When police in Minnesota grew suspicious of the fellowship, some cult leaders moved the “maidens” to Spokane. All the elders relocated in 2009 when the group sold the Finlayson property to the Salvation Army.
Despite knowing about allegations of abuse at the compound for years, prosecutors in Pine County, Minnesota, didn’t file charges against Barnard until 2014. That’s when Barnard fled from Spokane to avoid arrest and landed on the U.S. Marshals Service most wanted list.
Brazilian agents discovered Barnard in a resort town in 2015 and returned him to Minnesota last year to face 59 criminal counts of sexual assault based largely on the testimony of Tornambe and another woman. Barnard pleaded guilty to two counts last October.
Now the women want the cult’s elders to pay for arranging their sexual servitude.
“This was her idea to come to Spokane,” Noaker said of Tornambe. “She’s afraid this is still going on here.”
Among those elders now living in the Spokane area are Barnard’s wife Stephanie, who lives in Liberty Lake.
Randal L. and Pamela A. Roark are listed in the suit as “elders” in the River Road Fellowship. They live in a rural home just outside of Cheney.
And Craig A. and Susan K. Emblad, also listed as elders, live in a large South Hill home that abuts the playground of Moran Prairie Elementary School.
Randal Roark, Craig Emblad and co-founder David A. Larsen “actually ran River Road Fellowship,” said Noaker, the attorney. “These three guys … ordained Victor Barnard into being a minister.”
Contacted by The Spokesman-Review on Monday, Randal Roark said he was aware that Victor Barnard had pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to 30 years in prison. But he said he wanted to see the allegations in the lawsuit before he would comment.
Susan Emblad answered her door and said she would not comment about the pending civil suit until she had spoken to her husband. Neither Randal Roark nor the Emblads returned requests for comment.
Noaker said he doesn’t know why Minnesota officials did not pursue criminal charges against the church elders other than Victor Barnard.
“They walked away entirely,” Noaker said of the church elders. “Victor Barnard could not have sexually abused these girls without help of other people. Lindsay wants all the adults who knew what was going on to be held accountable.”
Summer camp for life
Tornambe said her first memory of the River Road Fellowship started when she was a little girl. It was called “Shepherd’s Camp.”
“My parents first met Victor when I was 9 in 1996. From then on, we started making trips to Shepherd’s Camp,” she said. “We eventually moved out there in 1998 when I was 11.”
As a little girl, she said she immediately recognized Victor Barnard as someone with a lot of authority.
“I saw him spit in people’s faces or throw them out of the dining hall where we would be having a meal,” she said. “He was someone I didn’t want to make mad because of what I saw with other people.”
At its peak, about 150 people were living at the Finlayson property, which included a farm that was used to feed the families, Noaker said.
In 2000, Barnard gave a sermon and informed the parents that they needed to sacrifice their first-born daughters to God. He started reading off names. Tornambe’s parents made her the family’s “maiden.” She was 13.
“At the time, I didn’t realize it was a lifetime commitment,” she said this week. “I thought I was going to be there for the summer and I would go home to be home-schooled in the fall. Once I was in there, they said … ‘You are not going back home.’ ”
The girls were kept in a separate home used by Barnard, who began living away from his wife, Noaker said.
Pamela Roark, who now lives in Cheney, stayed with and oversaw the “maidens,” according to the lawsuit.
“She was kind of like a mother to the maidens,” Tornambe said of Pamela Roark. “She kind of helped oversee and helped organize our day. At one point, she brought us sex books to help show different positions for when we had our time with Victor.”
While her sexual encounters with Barnard started within weeks, Tornambe remembered a ceremony in 2001 that she referred to as a “salt ceremony.”
“He had all the maidens line up and we had veils over our heads,” she said. “He gave us rings to wear. He had each of us take salt with him. All the trustees were in that room when that happened. It was like a marriage ceremony.”
That same year, Barnard held a meeting with Tornambe and her parents.
“Craig Emblad was in that meeting,” she said. Barnard told her parents that he “may or may not want to have sex with me when I turn 18.
“Victor had me leave the meeting. I’m not sure exactly what they discussed.”
Tornambe continued to be with Barnard for years.
In her world as a maiden, Tornambe said she would seek attention from Barnard because she wanted to conform to the group’s wishes.
“There was one time he wouldn’t have any sexual relations with me until I lost 10 pounds,” she said. “He could make you feel like the worst person in the world. If he was mad at you, then everyone was mad at you. It made you want to do well. It almost became a reward.”
Once the cult began to break up, Barnard moved the maidens to large home in Cheney. The house also had a room reserved for Barnard, Noaker said.
“They just moved shop and set up out there” in Spokane, Noaker said.
The tipping point came after Barnard expanded his sexual exploits to include wives of his followers, which angered some of the husbands and even the maidens, Tornambe said.
“In June 2010, I told them I didn’t want to stay there anymore,” she said. “I didn’t agree with him sleeping with the married women.”
But Pam Roark and her daughter tried to talk Tornambe out of leaving.
“They said, ‘The blood of the lamb covers all sins. You have to forgive Victor,’ ” she said.
Instead, Tornambe left Spokane on a train bound for Philadelphia.
Family backs cult leader
The former maiden remembers the exact moment when her life changed focus.
It was Dec. 31, 2011, when Tornambe reconnected with cousins and heard about their life in high school.
“In that moment, I had a major meltdown and kind of realized all those years that Victor had totally taken away from me. I didn’t realize what he had done to me all those years was wrong, illegal and pretty much rape,” she said.
She relayed her concerns to her aunt and uncle and called the Pine County Sheriff on Jan. 3, 2012. She provided the name of another maiden who left the cult, and the legal case began.
But she had to wait two years before prosecutors charged Barnard.
Noaker said he believes Barnard was in Spokane when word of the prosecution prompted him to flee. Last October, Tornambe and another former maiden stood in court during Barnard’s criminal sentencing and read statements.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “I stopped two times in the middle. I couldn’t even breathe. I was sobbing. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of not being able to get through it.”
Tornambe said she hasn’t reconciled with her parents.
“My mom and two of my sisters wrote letters on behalf of Victor to the judge in Minnesota,” she said. “In the beginning, it hurt more. Now I am almost numb to it.”
Her father “wants to take no responsibility for what happened at all,” Tornambe said. “He says, ‘I’m the victim, too.’ He’s turned his whole side of the family against me. They think my dad’s the victim, and I’m making all this up.”
According to Spokane County records, the home on 5 acres where Randal and Pamela Roark live in Cheney is owned by Tornambe’s sister, Lacey Tornambe.
Lindsay Tornambe, 30, now works for a finance company in Philadelphia. She has a 2-year-old daughter, Francesca, who has become the new focus of her life.
The Spokesman-Review, as a practice, does not name victims of sex crimes. However, Tornambe said she wants her name used.
“I’ve been very open,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Your story gave me the strength to come forward with mine.’ I definitely want to be a voice for others.”