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In Maine, pains linger for arsenic poisoning survivors

Tainted coffee served after Sunday services in 2003 killed one and sickened 15 others. Some are still afflicted.

June 15, 2008|David Sharp | Associated Press

NEW SWEDEN, MAINE — Most of the time there's a dull ache in Dale Anderson's legs. Those are the good days.

On other days, the throbbing pain in his legs and feet makes it difficult to walk more than short distances, and even then he sometimes stumbles as if he's drunk.

There's neuropathy in his hands as well. They don't hurt, but they're so numb he can't feel anything. Recently, Anderson's daughter saw he was bleeding from a gash on his hand. He hadn't even noticed.

Five years after one of the worst mass arsenic poisoning in the nation's history, Anderson and several other victims still carry lingering emotional and physical maladies.

Many in this tiny potato-farming community in far northern Maine want to put behind them the tragic episode in which someone put arsenic in the coffee after services at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church here. One parishioner died and 15 others fell violently ill.

For Anderson, 58, a former railroad worker who was among those worst affected, putting it all behind him is not so easy. "It's hard to put it behind you when someone tried to kill you," he said.

The attack in April 2003 struck at two important traditions settlers from Sweden brought with them: the Lutheran Church and a love of coffee. It was after the Sunday service at the white-steeple church built by Swedish immigrants that parishioners moved from the sanctuary into the fellowship hall for coffee.

Some complained that it tasted funny, but most drank it anyway. And soon they fell ill.

Within hours, the emergency room at the 65-bed Cary Medical Center in nearby Caribou was full of patients, many of them fighting for their lives. Nurses described countertops and floors covered with vomit-filled basins, buckets and garbage cans.

By dawn the next day, a parishioner had died, several victims, including Anderson, had been transferred to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and doctors had figured out they were dealing with a heavy metal poisoning. Laboratory tests later confirmed it was arsenic.

Anderson spent a total of 12 days in a medically induced coma, so he wouldn't thrash and tear out his IV. The chelation agents used to treat arsenic poisoning are extremely painful. Even while unconscious, Anderson winced when the medicine was injected, nurses told him.

As he and others fought for their lives, one of the church members was found inside his farmhouse, a gunshot wound in his chest, apparently self-inflicted. Daniel Bondeson, 53, died later at the same hospital that treated the rush of victims that first afternoon.

In a bloodstained note, Bondeson took responsibility for poisoning his fellow worshipers.

He did not give a motive; investigators believed he retaliated against church members because of some slight, whether real or perceived.

That didn't signal the end of the investigation, however. For the next three years, state police detectives kept the case open and worked under the assumption that there could have been additional conspirators. Rumors swirled and neighbors eyed each other with suspicion.

Eventually, law enforcement officials closed the investigation and residents learned that Bondeson had confessed his crime to an attorney. He hadn't mentioned co-conspirators.

The Rev. Shelly Timber, pastor at Evangelical Covenant Church, which is half a mile from Gustaf Adolph, said time was slowly healing wounds in the community. "It's like any traumatic event. You're never totally over it. You'll always carry some of it with you, but life moves on," she said.

Like Anderson, Lester Beaupre, 58, carries painful reminders that on the holiest day of his week he nearly died from drinking coffee. He spent 34 days in the hospital, the most of any victims, and part of that time in a coma.

He returned home with his lip feeling like he'd had a shot of Novocain at the dentist's office, and his legs were so numb that he wobbled when he walked. The arsenic also damaged his memory.

Each year, though, his body continues to improve.

But Beaupre still has questions.

"It's almost as if ever since Day 1 people didn't want to talk about it. That's one of the problems with a lot of the people at the church. People didn't want to talk about it."

Anderson says the case should have been kept open.

"I think there are people out there who know stuff. And they're not talking," he said. "I don't think the whole truth has come out."

Anderson and Beaupre are among those who left the church. Anderson, his wife, and several former Gustaf Adolph members now attend Timber's church, Evangelical Covenant.

But many stayed behind, and there are signs that Gustaf Adolph Lutheran is coming back to life.

"You've got to let bygones be bygones. It's over. You've got to forget about it. Life goes on," said Ralph Ostlund, a poisoning victim who still attends the church.

Members recently voted to buy a furnace to make the church more energy efficient, and they've begun sprucing up the 125-year-old building. The fellowship hall where the coffee was served -- and is still served -- has a fresh coat of paint.

The Rev. James Morgan said residents were the descendants of "stubborn frontier people" who weren't letting the past keep them from moving forward.

"The idea was to make the best of it, to pick yourself up, and to step past it as best you can," said Morgan, who was close to Danny Bondeson and remains close to the Bondeson family. "It's going to be an unsolved riddle. We'll let it go."

For Anderson, he's grateful to be alive but there's no letting go. Not yet, at least.

"I'll never forget the day, April 27th," he said. "I just try to forget what happened. But I can't forget what I'm going through."

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