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Several Believed Responsible in Poisoning Case

May 21, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — Maine state police said Tuesday that more than one person was responsible for the arsenic poisoning that killed a church elder in the tiny town of New Sweden and sickened 15 parishioners.

"Based on a solid month of investigation, we are now convinced that Daniel Bondeson did not act alone," state police spokesman Steve McCausland said Tuesday by telephone from his office in Augusta. "The question is, who helped him?"

A lifelong member of New Sweden's Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church, Bondeson, 53, fatally shot himself four days after the April 27 episode. McCausland confirmed Tuesday that the contents of a note left by Bondeson "linked him to the church poisoning, although we have not said in what way."

He said that as many as six to 10 people in New Sweden are considered suspects.

That announcement came as five poisoning victims were released from a hospital in Bangor. Jill McDonald of the Eastern Maine Medical Center said Tuesday that two victims remain hospitalized -- one in good condition and the other in fair condition.

McCausland said all 50 members of the church, known locally as "GA," have been interviewed. He said DNA testing has been conducted, but would not discuss the details or objectives of those procedures.

Investigators were continuing to explore tensions over a possible merger with a neighboring congregation, he said. Disputes over an impending change in the Communion ritual practiced at the 132-year-old church and the acquisition of a new Communion table -- a gift from the Bondeson family -- also are under investigation, McCausland said.

Not everyone in New Sweden was prepared to accept Bondeson as the culprit, with or without help from anyone else.

"The general consensus is, we still don't think he did it," said Stan Thomas, proprietor of Stan's, one of New Sweden's two small coffee shops.

"Even the ones that were poisoned don't think he did it, and I don't," Thomas said in a Tuesday telephone interview. "He might have known something, though."

Congregants at Gustav Adolph -- one of four churches in the remote town of 621 residents that lies about 20 miles from the New Brunswick border -- gathered after the April 27 worship service for a social hour featuring coffee and Swedish pastries. A number of those attending complained that the coffee tasted bitter, and almost immediately afterward many became ill. Retired railroad electrician Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died the next day. In a community settled in 1870 by 50 Swedish immigrants, nearly half the victims were related in some fashion.

Many of those sickened also belonged to the 12-member governing council of the church, police said.

Investigators say the coffee was laced with arsenic, a poison used until recently as a pesticide by many potato farmers in northern Maine. Arsenic is usually a white powder, and investigators say that a lethal dose could be as small as half an aspirin tablet.

Arsenic also can remain active for as long as three weeks. But McCausland said state police are focusing on "a 36-hour timeline, the period before the victims became ill."

Thomas, who sells coffee at his shop for 10 cents plus a penny for tax, took issue with police depictions of Bondeson as a loner. Bondeson was a substitute teacher who ran marathons and participated in cross-country ski marathons -- even traveling to Sweden to compete, Thomas said. He also was active in the Swedish Club, an organization in which members meet to discuss their Scandinavian heritage.

"He was quiet, but he was usually around," said Thomas. "If he was a loner, you never would have seen him."

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