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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The leader of an isolated religious sect in Minnesota pleaded guilty Tuesday to sexually assaulting two teenage girls who were members of his community.
As part of the plea deal, Victor Barnard, 55, agreed to serve 30 years in prison.
Barnard was the longtime leader of the River Road Fellowship near Finlayson, about 90 miles north of Minneapolis.
In 2012, two women came forward and told authorities that Barnard began assaulting them when they were as young as 12 and 13. The women said they were among about 10 girls and young women who were chosen to live in a camp apart from their families as part of Barnard's "Maidens Group."
Barnard kept the girls secluded, using religious coercion and intimidation to maintain his control over them, authorities said. He allegedly told one victim she would remain a virgin because he was a "man of God."
Barnard was charged in April 2014 in Pine County, where Finlayson is located, with 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct for having sexual relationships with the two girls. He was placed on the U.S. Marshals Service most-wanted list and was arrested in Brazil last year after an international manhunt.
Barnard pleaded guilty Tuesday to two counts in the complaint — one for each victim. His attorney, Dave Risk, said Barnard admitted in court that he had sexual intercourse with each girl when they were 15, and while he was their pastor and in a position of authority over them. He also admitted that the sexual acts happened multiple times over a period of years, Risk said.
Risk said his client chose to plead guilty to spare his victims, their families and the community from a trial.
"He wanted to do the right thing, admit what he did wrong and basically let everyone move forward and get closure," Risk said.
Reese Frederickson, the Pine County attorney, said given Barnard's age, the prison term is essentially a life sentence.
"It's nightmarish, what had occurred," Frederickson said, adding that the victims were forced into a situation where they were sexually assaulted for a number of years. He said the victims approved of the plea deal and will have a chance to make a statement to the court before Barnard is sentenced on Oct. 28.
Barnard has been in custody since he was extradited from Brazil this year.
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