The naïve part of me believes that once evil is locked away, closure and healing can begin. But, reality is complicated, and the scars from years of trauma remain even after achieving justice.
Reality delivered a blow last week when I learned that Jessanna “Jess” Schlinsky took her own life. She was 32 years old. We sent the monster who had sexually abused her for all her teenage years to prison three years ago. Although the crimes were in the past and her abuser will spend many more years in prison, the suffering loomed large for Jess every day. It ultimately proved insurmountable.
Jess, along with Lindsay Tornambe, bravely exposed cult leader and traumatizing narcissist Victor Barnard for the years of childhood sexual abuse suffered at his hands. Jess and Lindsay grew up in Barnard’s cult that was located on an isolated camp in Pine County. When Jess and Lindsay were 12 and 13 years old, respectively, Barnard separated them from their parents, forced them to reside in a remote spot of the camp, and began raping them. The sexual abuse and Barnard’s control of their daily lives continued for the next nine to ten years until the women escaped the cult.
Jess and Lindsay’s quest for justice took many years. Barnard was eventually charged, caught hiding in Brazil and extradited to Pine County in 2016. As county attorney, the case was my responsibility to prosecute.
I didn’t know what to expect before meeting Jess and Lindsay. They were both featured in national and worldwide media. Lindsay had been a guest on Dr. Phil. It became one of the most high-profile abuse cases in the nation. I wondered if they would trust me, a new county attorney, with this monumental task. I hoped that they believed the system could deliver justice despite the barriers they encountered getting the case charged. I worried whether a Pine County jury could connect with or understand two people who had the rare experience of growing up in a cult. The entire case hinged on Jess and Lindsay.
On May 17, 2016, they arrived at my office and I met them for the first time. Within seconds, all my worries and concerns evaporated. I immediately liked them. They were down-to-earth. Both were kind, funny and energetic. Jess was more edgy in her appearance – sporting a partially shaved head and many tattoos, indicative of someone trying to recapture her lost teenage years. Lindsay was more conservative. But both shared the same strong spirit. I also knew that I had won the case – they were solid witnesses that a jury would love.
I asked Jess and Lindsay if they would be willing to give me a tour of Pine County areas from their childhood to help me prepare for the case. They agreed. The next day Jess and Lindsay drove us to the former camp near Finlayson. They described life as part of the cult. They also had not seen many of the places since their childhood, so it was fascinating watching and listening to them process their memories. I was in awe of their strength. We quickly became friends.
Barnard was arrogant enough to believe that Jess and Lindsay would never testify against him. He was wrong - neither showed any inclination of backing down. Barnard caved and pled guilty, agreeing to the maximum sentence for criminal sexual conduct rather than facing these two courageous women in court.
On Oct. 28, 2016, Jess spoke at Barnard’s sentencing hearing. Jess told the court: “I am affected every day by what Victor did to me. I have been diagnosed with multiple mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of Victor’s sexual, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. I suffer from debilitating depression, I battle constant flashbacks of the abuse and I suffer through continued night terrors. . . . My family has been torn apart by what happened.” She continued to battle those demons long after the sentencing.
We had a post-sentencing celebration at the Pine City Country Club. When I left that evening, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend. She hugged and thanked me. It was the last time I saw her.
Jess and Lindsay trusted me with their case. Their belief in me still means the world, and I’ll always have the honor of being “their attorney.” Since my first meeting with them years ago, not a week goes by where I don’t think of them. Every time I enter a courtroom on behalf of a victim of childhood sexual abuse to battle another monster, they are in my thoughts.
Prosecutors have many cases where the victims are forever an inseparable part of our careers and lives. When I learned that Jess had passed away, I thought of John Donne’s poem, For Whom the Bell Tolls:
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
The world is less, and I am less, now that we’ve lost her. Rest in peace, Jessanna, we will continue your fight from here.