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Victor Barnard, ex-cult leader, heading to prison on sex charges

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Victor Barnard AP File
FILE - This June 18, 2016 photo provided by the Pine County Jail in Minnesota shows Victor Barnard. Barnard, the leader of an isolated religious community in Minnesota has pleaded guilty to sexual assault, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016. Under terms of the deal, Victor Barnard will serve 30 years in prison. He was the longtime leader of the River Road Fellowship near Finlayson. (Pine County Jail via AP File)
AP

The fugitive cult leader arrested in Brazil last year for sexually abusing girls in his congregation is headed for prison.

Victor Barnard, 55, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Pine County District Court Tuesday. Barnard had faced 59 felony charges since 2014.

"Fundamentally, Mr. Barnard wanted to spare everyone, especially the girls involved, but the families and the community, he wanted to spare them a trial that certainly likely would have been a very ugly, drawn-out trial with a lot of significant litigation," said his attorney, David Risk of the Minneapolis firm Halberg Criminal Defense. 

Risk said his client had agreed to serve two consecutive 15-year prison sentences.

Barnard has been under investigation since 2012 when two young women came forward and said he'd sexually assaulted them when they were as young as 12. They were members of his River Road Fellowship, near Finlayson. It was an offshoot of "The Way," a non-denominational Christian group.

Barnard had reportedly convinced families in the group to let girls live in a separate compound, as part of a "Maiden's Group." He'd told the girls he was representing Jesus Christ in the flesh when he started having sex with them in the "Shepherd's Camp."

The congregation had been in rural Pine County for more than a decade, and relocated to Washington state in 2011.

The investigation launched an international manhunt for Barnard, who was eventually tracked down to Brazil, where he'd reportedly been in the company of a former member of his congregation. He was extradited last year, after Brazilian authorities demanded he serve no more than 30 years if convicted.

Pine County Attorney Reese Fredrickson said it was the maximum he'd be able to serve under Minnesota law.

"Both of the victims in our case approved of our plea agreement," Fredrickson said in an interview after the plea hearing. "I gave them that option. If they'd said no at any time, we would have backed out of it. But essentially though, even if we'd gone to trial and won all the counts, we'd still probably only get 30 years total. It was a good deal. Thirty years was basically my bottom line."

Barnard is being held in Pine City and is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 28.