By Daniel E. McGonigle
The Caledonia Argus
A religious group and two of its former members were pitted against each other this past week in Houston County District Court.
Former members of a group known as “The Maranatha Fellowship” Karl and Suzanne Solum, are in a land dispute against Thomas Tollefsrud and other defendents who are members of the Spring Grove area religious group.
The former Maranatha members left the group in 2008.
The heart of the case is the Solums are suing to secure property that they say is rightfully theirs given certain financial contributions and other considerations over the 35 years of which they were members of Maranatha.
The Solums also claim to have the title to the property.
Karl’s testimony stated that all of the properties titled in group members name was supposed to be their own individual property.
He states that “only after I left did Maranatha come up with the argument that all of the property belongs to the group.”
He also claims the group does not have any charter by laws or any rules. The Solums argue that Maranatha are making up everything after Karl left to try to keep property and prevent others from doing the same.
Supporters on both sides of the issue packed the courtroom at the Houston County courthouse in the four days of testimony thus far.
The case was adjourned on Friday afternoon with testimony being heard from Jared Solum, son of Karl and Suzanne. He is a member of the fellowship and testified against his parents. The case will resume on August 18.
The claims alleged
in the complaint
The complaint alleges that multiple members of the Maranatha fellowship, led by “shepherd” Tom Tollefsrud, seek to quiet the title of two parcels of real estate, a vehicle and other operations of which the Solums were long a part.
Founded in 1972 by Tollefsrud, Karl Solum, several of his brothers and a few others, Maranatha was founded on the principals of “an expression of their deeply-held religious convictions.”
The group has no formal organizational structure, and total membership is not known.
Members of Maranatha engaged in, and continue to run, numerous business enterprises including logging, farming and carpentry.
Tollefsrud founded the logging business in 1968, but it was eventually managed by Karl Solum for a number of years beginning in the early 1970s.
Some of the goods produced are sold outside of the group and some are used by the Maranatha community.
Court documents state that members of the Maranatha group “enter into written and unwritten agreements with each other regarding treatment of the group’s property and assets.”
Central to the case, is the Maranatha’s code “that no one person involved in the real properties or businesses of the group, has the right to claim an individual ownership interest or title in any properties, businesses, vehicles or equipment that were purchased for the group or with the funds from the group’s members or businesses.”
Tollefsrud testifed before Judge Jeffrey Thompson on Tuesday, June 3, that “members of Maranatha may leave the group at any time, but that no individual has the right to take or claim any Maranatha assets or property.”
He went on to state that a departing member may take all of his or her personal property, however, such as household items or vehicles.
This matter has involved several hearings before Judge Fabian in Houston County.
A seperate case is pending in Federal District Court.
Dairy Road property
Despite all of the turns the court case has taken, the heart of the matter is two parcels of property.
Property number one is referred to as the Dairy Road property.
In 1975, Tom Tollefsrud and his wife, Katherine, pruchased a 15 acre property at 19325 Dairy Road in Spring Grove. The property was managed by Maranatha.
Karl Solum claims that some money he received from his father’s farming operation went towards the purchase and upkeep of the property.
Maranatha claims that, “according to the group’s teachings and principals,” in 1993 the Dairy Road property was titled in Karl and Suzanne Solum’s names, under “a covenant of love and trust and for the overall benefit of the group.”
The Solums raised their five sons on the property.
In a court proceeding in 2009, a year after the Solums left the group, Karl and Suzanne Solum claimed to be the sole owners of the Dairy Road property.
2nd Avenue NW property
In 1994, the Maranatha group purchased a 25 acre property at 520 Second Ave. NW in Spring Grove.
The property was titled in the names of Karl and Suzanne Solum under the same covenants and guidelines set out by Maranatha from the Dairy Road property.
When asked by Judge Thompson how much the two properties are worth, Solum estimated that they had an assessed value of between $300,000 and $400,000 in 2008 when he and his wife left the group.
He was unsure of their current value.
Karl Solum stated on the stand on Wednesday, June 4, that he was instrumental in the formation of the Maranatha. He said in the beginning he believed Tollefsrud was indeed “the shepherd that he claimed to be.”
Solum spoke of being a member of the leadership circle and spoke of a strong bond between his family and the Tollefsrud’s in the early days.
Karl Solum and his wife Suzanne homeschooled their five boys.
His five sons sat in the opposite side of the courtroom in support of their shepherd, Tollefsrud.
Solum’s sons, Seth, Jared, twin sons Nathan an Ethan and brother, George, all remain current members of Maranatha. Their names also appear as defendants in the case.
“We raised our boys as part of the group,” said Karl Solum on the stand. “I taught them how to read the bible, but I failed at teaching them to be their own men.”
Solum, who when asked by the judge about some of the inter personal relationships with his sons broke down into tears, as did his wife, Suzanne.
Karl Solum was a member of the Maranathas from 1972 until he left the group in 2008.
On the stand several witnesses were called who leveled accusations against Tollefsrud of abuse, control and deceit.
Several witnesses, including Solum, said that Tollefsrud would claim, “I have heard from God and there is no more discussion.” The members of Maranatha who have left the group claim this was how Tollefsrud would “get his way” in matters of the group.
“It was definitive and he was in control,” said Solum.
Former wife of John Solum, Susan Wilde, who fled the group in 1990, spoke of a time when she was pregnant with her son, when Tollefsrud told her that the child was not of God.
“He told me I should run throughout my pregnancy,” said Wilde. “I was not a runner. But I did as he wished.”
When Judge Thompson asked her what became of this son, Wilde stated that he was born fine and is doing well, though he to this day doesn’t know all of the back story.
Wilde testified that she signed over $60,000 of inheritance money to Tollefsrud “sometime in late 1978 or early 1979,” after her father had died.
From there she is not sure what became of the money. She thinks it might have been used to upgrade some of the group’s machinery or something.
Throughout testimony similar to Wilde’s, the attorney for Tollefsrud would levy several objections.
Judge Thompson would allow the testimony but on some occasions would question where council, Jed Hammell, was going with this line of testimony.
On numerous occasions following, Judge Thompson, while ruling to allow the testimony, members of Maranatha would all walk out of court at the same time.
Tom Tollefsrud was not on time as the trial got underway. He was scheduled to take the stand at 9:00 a.m on Tuesday, June 3. However, several members of Maranatha had to retrieve him when the judge stated that a sheriff would be sent to find him.
Once on the stand, Tollefsrud, a soft-spoken man, professed his love for his fellow people, the good that his organization has done, “especially giving money to causes in Israel,” and how the group provided homes for his members.
“We do not store up treasures,” said Tollefsrud on the stand. “We are living by bible verses, living and loving each other.”
Tollefsrud stated that everything he did, “he did for the good of the group or for a member who might have a need.”
Tollefsrud started the logging business in 1968.
He built the business to success and by 1972 had stepped away leaving John and Karl Solum in control.
As the business continued to grow, the group would do more and more to provide for their members as well as offering help to Christian organizations throughout the world.
“The land was held in a trust for the purposes of our group,” said Tollefsrud on the stand.
Thursday, June 5
In testimony given on Thursday, June 5, a former member of Maranatha, now living in Montana, gave testimony of his dealings with Tollefsrud and the group in general.
He related how, during a difficult time when his wife was suffering from a mental illness, his six children were parcelled out to three different Maranatha families.
The witness also related how Tollefsrud seeked him out as he was working at his logging job and with one punch, Tollefsrud broke his jaw because Tollefsrud was angry that the witness’s wife was “not in my control.”
The witness testified to other instances of violence, such as the time, early in the days of Maranatha, all the men were called down to the Tollefsrud home, a very rare occurence. While all were sitting around the table, Tollefsrud removed his belt and beat the men on the backs of their heads with the belt, becoming further enraged if someone tried to protect himself. No explanation was ever given for the instance.
The witness stated that although Tollefsrud did not give direct orders, he “suggested.” The suggestions from Tollefsrud were taken by the group as the way things must be. Tollefsrud, the witness said, always stated that he heard from God, and “no discussion.” There were consequences if suggestions weren’t followed. One of Tollefsrud’s ‘suggestions’ was that everyone should be “imaginative” while paying taxes, which he thought they were paying too much of. Tollefsrud pointed out that his wife, Katherine, kept two books.
The witness stated that members were told by Tollefsrud that they could never make it alone on the outside. In 2002, when he informed the Tollefsruds that he was leaving the group after being a part of Maranatha for 29 years, Tollefsrud’s wife, Katherine appeared offering the departing member a “blessing” from the Tollefsruds. What the blessing entailed, he never knew because he told Katherine that he “didn’t want their blessing.” If the blessing would have included any money, he wanted to go out on his own and make it without help from the group. When asked if he had succeeded on his own, the witness replied that yes, indeed, he absolutely had made it on his own.
When testimony began regarding Tollefsrud, all the men belonging to Maranatha walked out of the courtroom as one group.
Judge Thompson asked the witness if this act of removing themselves from the courtroom, which happened before, was significant in any way. The witness replied that indeed, it was significant. He testified that this act showed solidarity for Tollefsrud and was a further act of shunning aimed at a former member who left the group. He stated that this act was part of the group dynamic; there was one opinion, one way to live. Everything was at stake, the witness said.
Friday, June 6
On Friday, June 6, Jared Solum took the witness stand. He is the 35 year old son of Karl and Suzanne Solum.
Jared Solum claimed that right around the time that Karl and Suzanne became disenfranchised with the group, Suzanne had caught Karl surfing the web looking at “unpure websites.”
Jared Solum testified that he felt helpless as his mother and father were the only ones in the household who understood how to use the internet.
Jared was asked several questions by Judge Thompson regarding the group.
Judge Thompson asked Jared if it had been discussed previously that the entire group get up at once and exit the courtroom as they had done on several occassions.
“No,” replied Jared.
When asked ‘why’ they had done that.
Jared replied “I can’t speak for why the others chose to do that but I got up and walked out because I couldn’t stand hearing the accusations made against my spiritual leader” (Tollefsrud).