MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A religious leader in southern Minnesota will go back on trial next week, as a couple fights for the life savings they left behind once they left his group.
Beyond the courtroom, the back and forth is also playing out in a small town newspaper.
WCCO first uncovered the allegations of emotional and physical abuse against Tom Tollefsrud in July.
He calls himself the shepherd of Maranatha Fellowship, a religious group in Spring Grove, Minnesota.
Tracie Henkel’s five uncles and their families were all Maranatha members.
“My family has been aware of these things for decades and our hearts have been breaking,” Henkel said. “Maranatha families would no longer celebrate birthdays, weddings, Christmas, and other holidays.”
Growing up, Henkel said the stories were well-known. How she said the leader of the group, Tollefsrud, once kept his wife in a garage for a week, broke one member’s jaw, and told another pregnant member to run every day to miscarry her baby.
“This happens to people you’d never expect it to,” Henkel said.
Maranatha owns several successful businesses in the small town of Spring Grove. In a letter to the local paper they said they are hurt that the “opposition would try to harm with things that can’t be proved or disproved.” The group added that they are praying “God will forgive them for the harm they are trying to cause.”
Henkel wrote back this week to say she and many others are backing the testimony of the former members.
“Members of Maranatha have carefully crafted their public image for years,” Henkel wrote.
Three of her uncles left Maranatha years ago but she believes as many as 20 of her relatives still belong.
“Pray for these families as much as possible and reach out to them in love,” she wrote.
In all, it’s believed 80 people are members of Maranatha.
On Monday, a judge will once again hear testimony in a property dispute surrounding the group and its leader. A couple that spent 30 years in Maranatha is suing. They say they left with nothing because Tollefsrud says all money and property belong to the group and not individual members.
Tom Tollefsrud’s attorney told WCCO that what’s already been said in court is hurting Maranatha’s businesses, and he believes it has permanently damaged the group’s reputation.