AUGUSTA – Coffee that was laced with arsenic before it was served to church members attending a post-service reception in a northern Maine town killed a 78-year-old man and made several others sick, state investigators said Thursday.

Officials said the investigation following the death of Walter Reid Morrill “has produced no evidence that … the arsenic was introduced into the brewed coffee accidentally.”

Two other members of the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden remained in critical condition Thursday, while the condition of a third was upgraded from critical to serious.

The case was declared a homicide following laboratory tests conducted by the Maine Bureau of Health and a private laboratory in Pennsylvania, which confirmed that the source of arsenic was in the brewed coffee.

Arsenic was also confirmed in samples from the victims, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Public Safety Department.

State police were continuing to interview members of the congregation in the community of about 650 people, including more than two dozen who had coffee and baked goods following Sunday’s service in the church that has long symbolized the cultural fabric of a town settled by Swedish immigrants in the 1800s.

Several people reported feeling sick and some said the coffee had a peculiar taste. Morrill, a longtime member of the congregation who lived next to the church and acted as a caretaker and head usher, died early Monday.

McCausland said it was premature to say whether there are any suspects in the case.

“We don’t know what the motive is. We don’t know who was responsible for doing this, but our investigators’ focus now is to find answers to those questions,” said the spokesman.

McCausland said he did not know whether the tan stucco church, which sits on top of a hill near a vacant parsonage, was locked before last weekend’s incident. But state police do know who had access to the building, he said.

Residents of the town in northeastern Maine’s potato farming country pride themselves on the safety of their community, many boasting that they do not leave their house doors locked at night.

Several also dismissed the notion earlier this week that anyone would harm another member of their close-knit community.

McCausland said he did not know whether investigators, who have turned their attention to interviews with church members, had discovered any disagreements, saying, “This case remains wide open.”

Pam Landeen, whose uncle Dale Anderson is in critical condition at the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, was shocked to hear that the case was a homicide.

“I just can’t believe any of it. We watch TV and things like this happen,” she said. “When something actually happens to you, it’s hard to believe.”

Some local residents held on to hopes until Wednesday that the poisonings would turn out to be accidental, said Alton Ketch. Told of news it was a homicide, he said, “That’s what we were scared of.”

The chief investigator in the case, state police Lt. Dennis Appleton, said on Wednesday that he hopes residents being questioned by police would not dismiss a disagreement they might know of as too irrelevant to mention.

“I think my investigators and my interviewers can convince people that even the smallest thing maybe should be brought to our attention and we should evaluate that,” Appleton said.

AP-ES-05-01-03 1743EDT

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