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Attorney: Religious group's leader wields power

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SPRING GROVE — Karl and Suzanne Solum were members of the Maranatha Fellowship for about 35 years, until their decision to leave the group and move to Texas.

During that time, they started working in a logging business started by Tom Tollefsrud in 1968.

Eventually, said the couple's attorney, Jed Hammell, "Karl took it over, ran everything, but Tollefsrud took all the money."

That seemed to be the way the group operated, according to most accounts. Members pooled their money, distributing it as needed.

Tollefsrud and John Solum, Karl's brother, started the group in Spring Grove in 1972, basing it on a ministry founded in 1971 by a youth pastor in Kentucky.

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According to court documents, the current Maranatha members belong to an unincorporated Christian association known as the Maranatha Fellowship, founded by Tollefsrud "as an expression of deeply held religious convictions."

The group "does not have a formal organizational structure, official membership policy, formal titles or formal leadership positions. All decisions are made collectively by the group," the document says.

"They tried to get high school kids to come in," Hammell said of the founders, "and my client … joined up right away. They were growing away from the Lutheran Church, thought they could do a better job, and it evolved from there."

Despite the group's claim otherwise, Tollefsrud stepped into a leadership role almost immediately, Hammell said.

"He took over right after it was formed," and his power has grown, Hammell said.

"What's so weird about this group," he said, "is if Tom Tollefsrud hears somebody's doing something they shouldn't be doing, there's major repercussions. They really can't talk, even among their group. It all gets back to Tom Tollefsrud — that way, he can manipulate it. He doesn't want them talking, because so much of the businesses are interrelated and he benefits; he's at the center point of all this.

"He owns the saw mill, lumberyard and logging business," Hammell explained. "The logging business sells to the saw mill; the saw mill sells lumber to mill work, the carpenters and the lumberyard. Loggers can't talk to carpenters, because then they can figure out what margin Tom is charging."

Tollefsrud issues checks, which members "take as gospel," he said.

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"With this group, there's no church charter, no organizational documents, no operating agreement, no minutes, absolutely no written documents," Hammell said. "Is it the safe way? Absolutely."

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