Freeborn Lawsuit 2021 Press Release

Posted on: March 8, 2022, by :

January 11th, 2021


STANWOOD, Washington—Freeborn Lutheran Church in Stanwood did something extremely unusual this week. They filed a lawsuit against a former member to prevent a hostile takeover.

On Monday, January 11th 2021, the 120-year-old Freeborn Lutheran Church filed a complaint in Snohomish County Superior Court against former Council President David Thomsen and the Pilchuck Learning Center. In the 25-page document accompanied by over a hundred pages of evidence, the Church accuses Thomsen of a number of improper and illegal actions and lays out a decades-long scheme to take over church property and put it into the control of Thomsen and his accomplices. 

“I never expected to be involved in something like this,” says Mike Cairus, Freeborn’s Council President, who is named as Plaintiff on the Church’s behalf. “As a Christian, you always want to expect the best in people. But there are people out there who will take advantage of that.”

Many of the details of Thomsen’s actions were unknown to the Church until his resignation in May of 2018, when the incoming Council President asked for, and later demanded, the return of over a decade of Church records in Thomsen’s sole possession. As the Church leadership examined these records, they were astounded at what they found. 

“When we started looking through these files,” Cairus continued, “we asked Mr. Thomsen to help us understand what had happened, but he wouldn’t give us a solid explanation. As we kept digging and realized just how much had gone on without the Church’s knowledge or approval, we let him know how serious this situation was. We then negotiated for over a year with Mr. Thomsen to try to reach a resolution and thought we had come to an agreement this May. But Mr. Thomsen cut off all communication and so we find ourselves having to go to court.”

“We’re not looking for a multi-million-dollar payout here,” said Deb Seay, Freeborn Church’s Vice President. “We just want to have what was taken from us restored, to make sure we don’t end up paying for his misdeeds, and to go our separate ways. Our church is a loving family and this has distracted us for far too long. We are looking forward to getting back to worshiping God and serving our neighbors without this hanging over our heads.” 

In the lawsuit, the Church alleges that Thomsen, beginning in 1997, made several failed attempts to replace the legal governance of Freeborn Lutheran Church with a three-member trustee board, which he controlled. They believe his intention was to bypass the Church’s non-profit governance structure and have full control of the church’s property and non-profit organization, both of which he could then freely use for his wild schemes to develop the property. Even though his grandiose plans were much publicized in multi-page color booklets mailed to the entire surrounding community, Thomsen’s development and takeover attempts were repeatedly thwarted by the Church’s members, leaders, and by the leadership of Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of which Freeborn is a member congregation. 

After again failing to get the Church to approve of his plans, County records show that in 2005 Thomsen personally purchased the land next to the Church—and began to develop what would eventually become the Bonhoeffer Botanical Gardens. In 2006, after Thompson was cited for logging without a permit, Snohomish County placed a 6-year moratorium on the property, prohibiting Thomsen from getting development permits until 2012. Undeterred, Thomsen continued to develop the land, which was largely wetlands, without permits, and in 2009 transferred the partially developed property to the Stanwood Camano (now Pilchuck) Learning Center, which he controlled. 

Thomsen continued his unpermitted excavations and wetland degradation until 2012 when Snohomish County, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology learned of the damage he was doing to wetlands, streams, and habitats under their jurisdiction. The Department of Ecology issued a ruling on behalf of these various agencies under Administrative Order Docket #10500, which mandated Mr. Thomsen comply with extensive remediation and many years of ongoing environmental monitoring requirements. Freeborn Church only discovered in 2018 that the Church’s main parcel was also subject to ongoing remediation from this earlier environmental order on account of additional unpermitted work Thomsen had performed on the Church’s property. 

In the last few months, Freeborn Church has also learned that Thomsen filed a large number of easements, created a drinking water access situation for the Church that may cost $250,000 to resolve, and even today the Church doesn’t know the full extent of the damage that has been done. Thomsen’s continued development and operation of the Bonhoeffer Gardens and the Pilchuck Learning Center Preschool without the necessary permits has further subjected Freeborn to the possibility of thousands (and potentially tens or hundreds of thousands) of dollars in fines and compliance costs.

Freeborn’s lawsuit also includes recently uncovered evidence from 2009 when Thomsen served as president of Freeborn’s Church Council. These documents appear to show that Thompson, two days after again being officially removed from church leadership because of his land development schemes, gathered after midnight with two accomplices and illegally formed a rogue “Board of Trustees.” This group put in writing the false claim that the Church had voted in 2009 to disband entirely, when what actually happened was Thomsen and others were removed from leadership. Their minutes show that these “trustees” (also employees and or officers of the Pilchuck Learning Center) continued to conduct business as if they had the authority of the Church for the next several years—largely without the knowledge of the Church or its actual elected leadership. They operated mostly in the shadows until 2014, just before Thomsen would become responsible for the unmet conditions of the Administrative Order. Thomsen then orchestrated a land swap between the Church and the Learning Center, exchanging 4 acres of farmland the church owned for a little over an acre of land-locked wetlands, land which the church later discovered was also subject to the Administrative Order. Though many in the Church’s leadership immediately objected when they learned of this plan, and the pastor issued a strongly worded letter to Thomsen outlining the illegal nature of the transaction, Thomsen and the “trustees” nevertheless swapped the parcels, further entangling the Church against its will in Thomsen’s scheme and his wetland violations. 

In 2018 the Church learned that in addition to the land swap in 2014, Thomsen and the illegal board of trustees had filed unauthorized Articles of Amendment with the Washington Secretary of State, in what appears to be an attempt to solidify their hostile takeover of Freeborn Church. However, they did so without following the church’s existing non-profit governing documents or following the legally required process of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Neither the Church nor the denomination had any record of the new Articles.

“I know all of this sounds like it’s some convoluted plot from a 1980’s John Grisham novel,” said Ernie Fosse, Freeborn Church’s Treasurer. “And I nearly wouldn’t believe it myself if I didn’t have all these documents in front of me. But I’ve read David’s novel, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.” Thomsen is, in fact, the author of a 1985 “Fictionless Novel” entitled “Merger Takeover Conspiracy.” Thomsen’s novel is based on his experiences singlehandedly planning and executing a hostile takeover of a retail business chain in 1983, which the book’s dust jacket claims was the “largest ‘non-oil’ hostile raid yet completed in the United States.” 

“I’ve known David for a long time and considered him a friend,” Fosse continued, “and so I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, when he didn’t get his way, and especially when we called him out and asked him to explain himself, he started publicly saying all sorts of unkind and untrue things about the Church and its leadership. When he absurdly accused me in a mass email of wanting to update our constitution to align it with the KKK, I finally had enough.”

“We realized,” President Cairus added, “that for several decades Thomsen had been preventing Freeborn from updating our Constitution and Bylaws as is required by our denomination, and now we think we know why. If we hadn’t caught on, the terms of a supposed loan he cooked up would have had the entire Church property default to the Learning Center in 2025. But we decided to stand up to him.”

“I’m really proud of the leadership of Freeborn Lutheran Church,” said Rev. Erik Samuelson, Freeborn’s pastor. “It’s not easy to stand up to a bully, especially when that person is wealthy and a major contributor to your church. This whole scheme reminds me of the ‘reverse mortgage scams’ that I was taught to look out for with older church members,” Rev. Samuelson continued. “Had something like this this happened to one of our vulnerable elderly members, I would have contacted Adult Protective Services. Freeborn’s leaders have shown great courage in calling out these misdeeds and following through both to protect our church and to prevent this from happening to others. This is a strong reminder that no matter how rich or powerful someone might be, and no matter how much they might want to operate under their own rules and their own version of reality, the truth and the rule of law still matter. Our faith reminds us that what is done in darkness will eventually come into the light of day and that in the end, justice will prevail.” 

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