Trial Set for Commune Members

Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1998
By John Canalisspecial

NEWPORT BEACH - Members of a Costa Mesa religious commune pleaded not guilty at Municipal Court in Newport Beach on Friday to charges that they violated city codes at their crafts store and warehouse.

Judge Susanne S. Shaw denied a request from the Piecemakers, who also call themselves the Body of Christ Fellowship, to dismiss the charges. Shaw ordered them to stand trial Feb. 10.

Marie Kolasinski, 76, and Anne Sorensen, 68, are charged with failing to secure permits for a September performance of the musical "Big River" in the Piecemakers Country Store parking lot and an unrelated crafts fair. The case also involves charges that group members illegally blocked a city sidewalk in October and illegally hosted a peddlers' market in November.

A separate pretrial hearing will also be held on Feb. 10 on 11 additional allegations that city regulations--including those relating to safety signs and plumbing--were violated at the Piecemakers' warehouse on Logan Avenue. Sorensen and Jim Merklin, 60, are the defendants in that case and have pleaded not guilty.

The Piecemakers are fighting all the charges, arguing that the laws are unconstitutional and contrary to orders from God. They insist they should be allowed to do what they like on their own property and deny that safety was ever overlooked.

Attorneys for the city met with the defendants for about an hour Friday and tried to work out a settlement. Those proceedings were confidential, but Piecemakers said they were only offered a chance to plead no contest to the charges.

William Litvak, an attorney representing the city, would not discuss those proceedings in detail, but he said some of the time was used to explain the laws to the Piecemakers.

"We try to educate them as much as we can, and we certainly did that in this case," he said.

The Piecemakers plan to represent themselves during the trial.

"The more we can stay away from the lawyers, the better we feel it will go for us and the country," Kolasinski said.

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