Arsenic investigation’s poisoned air remain after case is closed

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NEW SWEDEN (AP) – A three-year investigation didn’t fully erase worries that someone got away with the nation’s worst arsenic poisoning.

Most residents seemed to be relieved Wednesday that detectives concluded that a disgruntled parishioner acted alone in spiking the coffee at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church. Others, however, remain convinced that someone assisted in the act.

Three years’ worth of suspicions, it turns out, didn’t go away overnight.

“There’s always going to be questions in people’s minds. Some people are just going to wonder. It’s natural for people to wonder if there was anyone else,” said Dale Anderson, one of 16 parishioners who drank the tainted coffee.

People in this farming community of 621 residents spent Wednesday digesting the prior day’s news that the criminal investigation was finally over.

One parishioner died and 15 others were sickened after drinking the arsenic-laced coffee during a social hour after the service on April 27, 2003.

Daniel Bondeson fatally shot himself several days later in his farmhouse and left behind a blood-streaked suicide note in which he took responsibility. But state police maintained that there were one or more people involved in the conspiracy.

That left parishioners to wonder, and conspiracy theories festered. The state police announcement Wednesday that Bondeson alone was responsible didn’t erase all of those suspicions.

“People form opinions, and it’s hard to shift them. For three years to go by with all of the suspicions lurking, it’s hard for them in a matter of minutes to believe that their suspicions were totally unfounded,” said Brenda Jepson, a New Sweden resident.

Fissures in the church remain, as well.

Lester Beaupre, a parishioner who spent three weeks in a coma and 34 days in the hospital, said he and his wife recently decided to leave Gustaf Adolph because “it was getting too rough.”

“I decided to take some time off from that church, until they figure out where they are,” Beaupre said Wednesday.

For local residents, the poisoning was more than a Agatha Christie-style mystery. The crime created deep divides in a town where ties run deep, dating back to 1870 when Swedes migrated to the rolling hills.

The Bondeson name is intertwined with the town’s history. The original survey map lists Mons Bondeson purchasing a plot in 1871, the same year the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church was founded.

Despite the tragedy, the Bondeson family remains prominent in the church.

Daniel Bondeson’s brother, Paul, said Tuesday that he was interviewed twice by state police and never understood what detectives were looking for. People will continue to believe what they want to believe, he said.

“There are people who’ll still talk about it, especially behind your back,” Bondeson said in a workshop behind his house.

One thing most people agree on is that police bungled the investigation: Either they wasted everyone’s time on a fruitless search, or they let someone go scot-free.

“They kind of freaked out. They found it hard to believe that one person alone was responsible for so many people being poisoned. It was too big of a case and too crazy of a case for one person to do it,” Beaupre said.

One good thing that came out of the mass poisoning was that it provided an unprecedented number of victims for researchers studying the effects of toxic heavy metals and the best antidotes for poisoning victims.

Cary Medical Center, which treated the bulk of the victims, plans to bring toxicology researchers to Caribou next year or two for a symposium.

As whole, the victims are doing better than expected, said Dr. Carl Flynn, chief of medicine at Cary. But many of them still show the residual effects of the poisoning. Some have pain, weakness or tingling. One developed pulmonary fibrosis, which is associated with arsenic poisoning, Flynn said.

But life goes on.

Ralph Ostlund, 82, was the oldest of the arsenic victims, and he said he doesn’t dwell on the poisoning. He has recovered enough to resume the Nordic tradition of cross-country skiing, logging hundreds of miles each season.

“I can work, I can ski, and I can dance,” Ostlund said with a twinkle in his eye. “That’s the most important thing.”



On the Net:

Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church: http://www.galc.org/

Town of New Sweden: http://www.aroostook.me.us/newsweden/

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