Houston County case pits couple against religious group
CALEDONIA — It's a case that has seen courtroom walkouts, family divisions, allegations of violence and a man who says God speaks to him.
It's also spanned five years, two trials, 13 lawsuits, 26 defendants and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At the heart of the civil case filed by two former members of a religious group in Spring Grove is a disagreement over the extent of community ownership. Members of the religious group shared financial resources, but the two former members say the sharing did not extend to land ownership. The religious group, called the Maranatha Fellowship, contends it did.
Testimony in the court case has shined a less-than-favorable light on Maranatha Fellowship, which quietly has gone about its business for 40 years in this Houston County town of about 1,300 people.
Karl and Suzanne Solum, now of Texas, claim Maranatha Fellowship has no right to land they own — and have the title to.
"This part of the case has been going on since June 2009," said Jed Hammell, the Solums' attorney. "There's two pieces of property titled in my clients' name. The first one, they were living on for 15 years, before someone from outside the community asked them about it."
The telling of the dispute comes exclusively from the Solums' side. An attorney representing the Maranatha Fellowship said the group declines any public comment.
As Hammell describes it, the Solums were doing all the work, and the Maranatha "shepherd" and title-holder, Tom Tollefsrud, was getting all the income from the farm.
When someone questioned this, Tollefsrud transferred the property to the Solums, Hammell said.
Sometime later, Karl Solum and his brother bought a neighboring piece of real estate.
Solum did receive some money from the group to help purchase the land, his attorney said, but Solum also contributed "hundreds of thousands of dollars for other people's real estate" within the Maranatha group.
Part of the religion was to give money where it was needed, Hammell said, a pooling of resources.
According to Solum: "Some people gave some to me, but I gave a heck of a lot more to other people in the group. That real estate was titled in their name, and I always considered it their property.
"They pay the real estate taxes, and so whatever's theirs is theirs, and what's mine is mine," he told Hammell.
Only when the Solums decided to leave Maranatha Fellowship did the concept of group ownership come up, Hammell said.
"It was the first time Solum ever heard of it," the attorney said. "It was never a policy in the group, never written down. There's no evidence that there was any of these so-called agreements to hold property in the group until after the litigation had started."
Group members filed a notice of adverse claim when the Solums left the group and planned their move to Texas.
"Then we had to bring forth a lawsuit to remove the cloud on their title so they could sell it," Hammell said. "These group members, when they knew the Solums were going to leave, wouldn't even let my client leave his own house without signing over the title of the property. They do that to everybody who talks about leaving.
"Whatever property is owned by a member of a group, if they leave the group, it has to be transferred to another member of the group.
"It's pretty insane," he said, "and I didn't even touch on the abuse-type things and intimidation."
That information was introduced during the first half of the trial in June "because of the credibility of some of the witnesses," Hammell said.
Tollefsrud has refused to produce complete tax documents or bank accounts, despite court orders to do so, Hammell said. The leader has been held in contempt of court but hasn't served any jail time.
Closest to God
Members of the group "absolutely" believe God speaks to Tollefsrud, the attorney said.
"The other group members say he tells them 'God speaks to me. No discussion,' about an issue," Hammell said. "He's the closest to God, so everyone has to listen to him."
That includes the Solums' five sons, who remain a part of Maranatha Fellowship and testified against their parents.
"I asked their youngest son, 'What's your priority? Who's the authority?' No. 1 was God; No. 2 is their spiritual leader, Tom Tollefsrud, and No. 3 is parents and family," Hammell said of the June testimony.
"That's what they testified to, and (their mother) said, 'That's exactly what we taught them because Tom told us he's more important than anything and we believed that,' and they taught their sons that. They did a great job of it," Hammell said.
The trial was scheduled for four days in June. Because it wasn't completed in that time, it will continue in August.
Any testimony in the first trial about Tollefsrud's role resulted in the men of Maranatha walking out of the courtroom as a group. It happened multiple times, according to court records.
When the judge asked why the men left the room, the witness — a former member of Maranatha — testified it was a show of solidarity for the leader and an act of further shunning the former member.
"My client knows they're going to say whatever they need to protect the group; that's part of the policy. If they all stick together and say the same thing, it's OK for them to lie as long as it protects the group. I need to introduce evidence to curtail the credibility of these people."
Not surprisingly, the lawyer representing members of Maranatha Fellowship disagrees.
"This began as an eviction action that was started way back," said Jeffrey C. Thompson. "That action was stayed until it was determined who owned the property; that's what's being determined in this case.
"There were some side cases that were opened and have all been consolidated into one case — this one," he said.
Other than that, Thompson declined to comment on the issue.
"My clients would prefer that this be kept a private matter," he said, "so I'd really prefer not to talk."
That didn't surprise Hammell.
"They're all pretty tight-lipped about the group," he said. "It's very secretive. Very secretive."