MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A lawsuit has exposed deep-seated secrets surrounding a religious group in southern Minnesota.
For 35 years, Suzanne and Karl Solum were members of a Christian ministry called Maranatha in Spring Grove, Minn.
They pooled all their money with everyone else in the group but when they left six years ago, they wanted their share and sued.
In a Houston County courtroom in June, they testified about decades of control, abuse, and deceit from the man known as the group's shepherd.
WCCO has been following the case to untangle a simple life that has complicated a small town and pit a mother and father against their sons.
It is a Minnesota farming community just a few miles from the Iowa border that is steeped in Nordic tradition.
Spring Grove is home to more than 1,300 people and to a small fellowship named Maranatha, best known behind closed doors.
Suzanne and Karl Solum helped start the group. They left six years ago.
"I have no good memories of being there for 35 years except for my children. Those were my only good memories," Suzanne Solum said.
And, just this month in a small Houston County courtroom exposed the lifestyle they once followed so closely. Testimony of financial and family secrets, along with beatings and punishment, all the Solum's say at the hands of the man they once considered their spiritual leader.
"We wanted to serve God with all of our heart and soul and not just be a Sunday morning Christian," Suzanne Solum said.
It all began with such promise for the Solum's. In the early '70s, the young couple who once wanted to be missionaries instead chose to stay in their hometown.
With three other couples, they formed Maranatha.
They picked a close friend, Tom Tollefsrud, to be their pastor.
"He could be quite inspirational," Karl Solum said.
The families all lived in separate homes but by the rules Tollefsrud set, like to homeschool their children, share bank accounts, and involve him in every decision they made, from what furniture to buy to what to wear.
"When you have that kind of vision for serving God you're willing to give up a lot," Suzanne Solum said.
Maranatha members built successful businesses in Spring Grove like a sawmill and wood shop along with several stores on main street.
"They're known in the community as very hard working people and they are," Karl Solum said.
Karl managed Maranatha's logging company while Suzanne raised their five boys at home but over the years the Solums say the man they looked to as their leader began to change.
"He became less and less in contact with other Christians and we became more isolated as a group," Suzanne said.
There were no more Sunday services; only meetings that the men could attend.
"It's easy for us to look at that now and see that. At the time you're not seeing that. We should have," Suzanne said.
While the Solums' grown sons decided to stay, Karl and Suzanne had had enough and got out of the group in 2008. Tollefsrud told them their house and logging business belonged to Maranatha. So, the Solums left with nothing.
"I know what a refugee feels like. We had to walk away from 35 years of our life. It's like it's gone," Suzanne said.
The Solum's sued and after years of delays a judge began to hear their case this month.
It's where after decades of silence, former Maranatha members from across the country described that heaven Tollefsrud preached about as a hell they were afraid to escape.
"People can hardly comprehend the fear that rules a group like that," Suzanne said.
The Solums testified to one night when Tollefsrud brought his wife to their house after they'd been fighting in their own home.
"He got up and said pull the couch out and have her sleep behind the couch and the next day she's going into the garage," Suzanne recalled.
The Solums said they did as they were told. Tollefsrud's wife spent a week on their gravel garage floor with only water to drink. When questioned by the judge, Tollefsrud said it was her idea to spend time in silent retreat. Tollefsrud admitted to breaking the jaw of one Maranatha member to "teach him a lesson."
On another occasion when former members say Tollefsrud beat them because he didn't think they were taking him seriously.
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