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Small Town Big Controversy

November 15, 2009, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

His church gained attention earlier this year when a fight inside its walls led to a baby's death. But inside the small town of Wheaton, Minnesota, people have known pastor Danny Barnes and the controversy that surrounds him much longer than that.

"I support him with all my heart," Steve Willborn said.

"In my opinion he's a con of one kind. He's a convict or a conman and a conman pretty good," Steve Boehmlehner said.

Barnes served as pastor for Thy Kingdom Come Church in Wheaton. His ministry in the town went on five years. But in September one man attacked another inside his church with a baseball bat according to police and inadvertently hit 14-month-old Aundrea Brownlow in the process, killing her.

After that, large financial supporters of the church left. With funds running out, its lights are off now, and Barnes says he got a ministry job in the Twin Cities.

But he doesn't rule out a return to Wheaton in the future either. Whether or not he returns to the town to live, he'll always have five years in the city marked with controversy.

"I think I'm doing a good job and I guess God will decide that, not you or Wheaton or nobody," Barnes said.

Those who argue he's not doing a good job have legal arguments to use. His run-ins with the law since living in Wheaton have been numerous and include assault, disorderly conduct and more. Barnes argues he's just doing the right thing.

"If you witness something wrong that's taking place, you have every right to address it. And you can use reasonable and necessary force to stop it," Barnes said.

Barnes is currently being charged with burglary and kidnapping in Minnesota's Big Stone County.

According to court papers, a group of men broke a door and window when entering a house in Beardsley, Minnesota with a gun, pinning down a person inside and leaving with another person.

Barnes admits he was there and justifies entering the house saying he was saving the young man he’s accused of kidnapping from what he says was a destructive drug situation.

"If the house is on fire and there's a three-year-old in the upstairs room and you've got to kick in the door to get the three year old out of the house that's on fire, did you enter the house unlawfully?" Barnes said.

If Barnes serves time for those actions, he says he'll be happy to do it if that's what it takes to rescue a member of his flock.

But Barnes also faces charges of assaulting a police officer. In that case, court papers say Barnes ran into the officer and head-butted him. Barnes had given them a tip about a man with a warrant out for his arrest and the officer told that man where the information came from.

"Yes, I was irate about it but when I stepped off the curb and stepped toward Jason Berning, it was not my intention to assault him," Barnes said.

Barnes said he was trying to divert attention away from the person who had given him the information he passed on to police.

Patrick Settle used to go to Barnes' church and says many of the pastor’s actions are not justified.

"I wouldn't recommend to anybody going there or dealing with him," Settle said.

Settle had been in jail after getting in trouble for drugs. He heard about Barnes, gave him a call and the pastor picked him up and brought him to Wheaton when he got out.

Settle says he's clean now and credits Barnes in part for that but also says he witnessed Barnes assaulting people.

"I'm thankful for the help he gave me. But I'm not thankful for the things he did in front of me or how he preached about God and this and that and then turned around and did the complete opposite things. You know, I can't be thankful for those," Settle said.

But Jennifer Zamilpa is thankful for Barnes. She was a single Mom who had drugs in her past when she moved to Wheaton. She says she relapsed after being sober about four and a half years but Barnes was there to help her.

"He believes in restoration of families and wanted the best possible thing for me and the kids and set us up in a home and ministered," Zamilpa said.

She can list other people helped by Barnes too and says some of those are people others wouldn’t help.

But when faced with the question of whether their community is better off with or without Barnes, many would disagree with Zamilpa.

"Way things have been going lately, without him. If it was the way he originally came where it looked like he was maybe going to help a few people out and get people straightened out, might have been a good deal. But not anymore," Boehmlehner said.

Barnes says people in Wheaton don't like that he's desegregated the town. Steve Boehmlehner has lived in the area all his life and says it's not the color of anyone's skin he looks at but their actions.

Barnes has brought people to Wheaton with a criminal past, and some of them continue with crime in the small town as well. Two men arrested in connection with that fight in the church that killed the 14-month-old were not Wheaton natives.

"They just live by a different set of rules or no rules and that definitely brings us problems. Problems for the law enforcement, problems for just the city of Wheaton," Boehmlehner said.

But Barnes argues his ministry's bringing people to town has benefited the community. For one, it brings more students into a small-town school.

Those who support him see benefit too.

"I think people hear half of the story," Zamilpa said. "People see what they want to see. They don't see the in depths of lives that have actually been touched and changed."

Even if Barnes doesn't come back to Wheaton as a pastor, he won't be a stranger to the area as court cases he's involved with remain open.

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