“It Ripped My Heart Out”: A Q&A With a Dad Who Unwittingly Introduced His Daughter to a Child Predator
Carmen Tornambe uprooted his family to join a cult. But even worse, he failed to see that the cult’s “Jesus Christ in the flesh” leader was molesting his child
What if you found out that your daughter has been raped—more than once—by the leader of a cult that you led her into?
That’s what happened to Carmen Tornambe. Back in 2000, Tornambe, then in his early 40s, left his home in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to help a preacher in Minnesota create a gospel record. Tornambe, who has played trumpet since he was a toddler, signed up to be a sound engineer for the minister, Victor Barnard, who ran a 150-member evangelical sect called the River Road Fellowship.
The two-week recording gig at the forest camp 90 miles outside of Minneapolis turned into a 10-year nightmare for Tornambe and his family. The megalomaniacal Barnard, who carried around a staff and wore flowing robes, persuaded his followers to send 10 of their girls, between the ages of 13 and 18, to live with him at a camp removed from where the rest of the flock resided. He called the girls his “maidens,” and their job was to serve him, which for some included sex whenever he chose. Barnard preached to his disciples that because he represented Jesus, they could have sex with him and still remain virgins.
Finally, in 2010, some of the men in the cult got wind that Barnard was also having sex with their wives, and Tornambe made up his mind to leave the cult with his family and return to Pennsylvania. Two years later, Tornambe says, his daughter, Lindsay, told him and his wife that Barnard had raped her multiple times over the course of the decade. Tornambe says he was devastated. Despite the revelation, Lindsay’s mother returned to the River Road Fellowship.
Lindsay also went to the police, which triggered an investigation and search for Barnard. Two other ex-members of the cult subsequently shared their own tales. When the police came after him, Barnard went on the lam. Last week, Lindsay went public with her story, and police announced that they now have a full-fledged manhunt on for Barnard. He is facing 59 counts of child molestation.
We tracked down Carmen Tornambe, now 61, to find out more about what he knew and when he knew it during the decade that he and his family were in Barnard’s cult. Tornambe is now living in East Norriton, Pa., where he performs with the soul band Wildflower and offers private trumpet lessons. Lindsay, now 27, lives not far away, in Beltsville, Md., and, according to her LinkedIn profile, works as a nanny.
How did you first meet Barnard?
We were living in Royersford [a Philadelphia suburb]. The way I got hooked up is I had a mutual friend and Victor was visiting my friend. Through the process of a couple years we decided to move out with our family.
How did you and your family become members of the River Road Fellowship?
I went out to Minnesota for two weeks to do a recording project. The thing is, at first I was only involved in recording gospel music. It seems pretty innocent. I went out there just to engineer the recording.
But you and your family ended up staying for more than a decade?
Once I got out there, the manipulation really started. I felt like I was caught in the middle of things. I was under a spell. I believe in the world there are demons and devil spirits. This manipulation grew, and while I thought I could have left, what kept me there was my family wanted to stay. They all had affection for Victor. Especially the women. They would claim a spiritual manner of affection with him. He drew that affection, and he would work on the women and work on their minds. It was a religious thing.
Did Victor ever try to have sex with your wife?
I don’t know if he had sexual relations with my wife. I have no knowledge of that, so I can’t say yes or no.
How did Lindsay become a “maiden”?
It was in 2000, and Lindsay was 13-years-old. It was going to be a summer camp, and then pretty soon we got called to the dining hall and they had a thing where 10 girls made a vow to serve in the church. They were very happy, and they were not going to be getting married. You know, stay virgins. And that’s how it all started. All during that time I didn’t receive any feedback that she was getting hurt in any way. It was something that you had to be very committed to. It was kind of a religious thing. They committed their lives to serving the church.
Did you have any suspicions that Barnard was molesting Lindsay?
She would come home sometimes, but she wasn’t living with us. She seemed like she kind of kept distance from all of us. I still knew she loved us, but I know that there was kind of a distance there, which kind of hurt me.
You were in the dark the whole time?
Yes. [Victor] was very careful. If I knew my daughter was getting hurt, I would have pulled her out in a second. Even with a my frame of mind, I would have had enough to grab her and go. I would have said, “If anybody wants to come you can come, but we’re not staying here.”
What about calling the cops?
I don’t know if I would have been able to call the authorities in the [mental] state I was in. But the least I would have done was leave. It seemed like everything was really great. They were content, and I’m thinking this is seeming to work out pretty good. At one point she did decide to come home and she was 16. She told us, “I want to eventually get married.” She was at home for a couple weeks, and my wife wanted her to go back to the camp.
But Barnard’s infidelity was out there now, right?
He told me with a couple of other guys that he had sexual relations with one of the wives. I thought maybe it was a mistake and people make mistakes. He felt like he was trying to help this woman because she was having problems. Victor told me that he had relations with another woman, and I made up my mind then to leave. This was 2010. I was ready because Victor was being confronted by some of the men.
Did Victor ever talk to you and your wife about becoming intimate with your daughter?
He put it to us like this: “If these girls decided that they really wanted to keep their vows to not be married but to have sexual desires and they were the aggressors—scripturally I would have the right to do that.” He told me, “After 18 years, you don’t have control of your daughter,” and I told him I didn’t agree, that it wasn’t right. He said, “Think about it.” I wondered, Am I being tested to show my loyalty to him? When I found out years later, all I could do was cry with Lindsay. It ripped my heart out.
By M.L. Nestel