Poison Mystery Widens After a Suicide Note
By MONICA DAVEY, The New York Times
NEW SWEDEN, Me., -- The mystery of who poisoned 16 churchgoers here with arsenic-tainted coffee seemed to be solved the other day when a congregant shot himself to death, leaving a note that the police said tied him to the poisonings.
But Sara Anderson, who hears all the town's important news from behind her register at the Northstar Variety store here, is not buying it. And the police are trying to figure out whether someone else may have been involved.
"None of us believe that Danny did this - or at least not him by himself," Ms. Anderson said of the man who killed himself, Daniel Bondeson. "Even the people still in the hospital, unless the police find the proof and put it in their faces, they're still not going to believe he would have done this."
People in this northern Maine town of about 650 say Mr. Bondeson, a 53-year-old potato farmer, was just too nice to have put the arsenic in the coffee that killed an elderly churchgoer, Walter Reid Morrill. In fact, they recall, Mr. Bondeson was the person who climbed atop Mr. Morrill's roof and shoveled two feet of snow from it this winter.
At the town offices this week, the police took DNA samples and fingerprints from the surviving members of Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church, and two F.B.I. profilers were expected to arrive in town by Friday.
In a town with families that settled here together more than a century ago and so few homicides that people strain to remember the last one, all of the doubts have left people wondering whether someone else could be right here, right among them.
"Most people would like to hear of some arrest in this case," Ms. Anderson said. "Not knowing and waiting for an answer is almost as hard to take as what happened in the first place."
On that Sunday, April 27, some of the church elders and congregants gathered after services to sip coffee and eat treats left behind from a bake sale the day before. Though people here, many of them of Swedish descent, pride themselves on making strong "rugged" coffee, this brew, percolated in a big old urn, seemed downright bitter. Within minutes, people were vomiting.
Five days later, as Mr. Morrill's family mourned his death and other families waited by bedsides in two hospitals, Mr. Bondeson shot himself at his farm a few miles from the church, police said. Nearby, they found a suicide note. Although they have refused to reveal its contents, one thing is clear: it raised as many questions as it answered.
Something about the wording of the note led police to wonder whether someone else might also be involved, and so, the investigation rolled on. The police will not say whether they know if the poisoning was, in their words, a "conspiracy-type act," nor will they say that they know it was not.
"The overall investigation gives us a feeling that that possibility exists," said Lt. Dennis Appleton, the lead state police investigator, who added that officials were looking at some "real intriguing points" that they hoped to clear up within a few days.
"We just really are reluctant to just close the case and go away - we won't sleep well," Lieutenant Appleton said. "Based on our theories, we can't put it to bed."
Police would not say what physical evidence was found, but by today, 35 church members had driven to the town offices to give blood samples and fingerprints, and 15 others were expected to do the same in the coming days. They also were asked to answer a questionnaire, the contents of which the police would not reveal.
Edmund Margeson, a farmer and member of the 12-person council that leads the church, was one of those who spent about 30 minutes with the police, as his fingertips and thumb sides were inked. Mr. Margeson, 63, said the questionnaire he filled out was five pages long and posed some peculiarly direct questions like: Did you do it? Why should police believe you? How do you think the arsenic got into the coffee?
Mr. Margeson, whose own son was released from the hospital on Wednesday after days of treatment for poisoning, said he found the investigation into church members troubling. "This is upsetting like the whole thing has been," he said. "There is something in the back of your mind that says, well, you know you are not involved, but it feels odd to be suspected somehow."
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