NEW SWEDEN – Investigators are convinced that at least two people were behind the arsenic poisonings at a small church in northern Maine, and their list of possible suspects has been narrowed to six to 10 parishioners.

One man died and 15 others were hospitalized after drinking tainted coffee following the April 27 worship service at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden.

Five days later, a longtime worshipper, Daniel Bondeson, shot himself in the chest and left a suicide note that convinced investigators he was involved in the poisonings but may not have acted alone.

Investigators have since obtained information substantiating their belief that the crime involved two or more members of the church, Maine State Police Lt. Dennis Appleton said Monday in Houlton.

“We’re very comfortable with the fact Daniel Bondeson didn’t act alone because of things we’ve learned in the last week,” Appleton told The Associated Press. “We strongly feel that somebody in that community helped Daniel Bondeson – helped, conspired with, planned to commit this act.”

Appleton, who is leading the state’s homicide investigation, declined to elaborate on the new information. But he spoke more openly than ever about potential suspects, their possible motives and intended victims, and investigators’ theories of the case.

There are about 50 regular churchgoers at Gustaf Adolph, and investigators have concluded that at least 40 of them were not involved in the poisonings, Appleton said. But he described a group of six to 10 people who are still considered potential suspects.

“I certainly hope that any co-conspirators are within that group we’re looking at,” Appleton said. “I think when we get all through, the group’s going to be a lot smaller.”

The only thread linking the potential suspects is their membership at Gustaf Adolph, Appleton said.

Investigators have not wavered in their belief that the poisonings that rocked the farming community occurred when seemingly innocuous small-town church politics turned combustible, he said.

One issue being explored is the Bondeson family’s gift of a communion table that sat unused for a few weeks.

Another is the possibility that the 132-year-old church was going to be consolidated with neighboring congregations.

“There’s some very traditional views, and there’s some more modern views,” Appleton said. “And I think some of the issues … come as a result of those differences.”

The lieutenant raised the possibility that Bondeson, 53, and any co-conspirators were trying to poison the church’s 12-member council.

He noted that the council has a weekly meeting after church where members regularly drink coffee. “There were … a number of people on the council that were sick,” Appleton said.

Appleton said he believes the people who drank the coffee were those meant to be harmed, but added, “I’m not sure if they were all intended to drink the coffee, or if the group was supposed to have been larger.”

Appleton described two police theories of the crime’s timeline. One scenario assumes the coffee urn was tainted within a 36-hour window. The other has it happening within just one hour of the poisonings.

Daniel Bondeson was not at church when the poisonings occurred, though he did attend a bake sale the previous day.

Bondeson’s sister Norma was not at church on Sunday either, and her absence has drawn investigators’ attention.

When asked about the cooperation of Daniel Bondeson’s siblings during the investigation, Appleton’s answers were equivocal.

“They have an appearance of being cooperative,” he said. “They give us information, they talk with us, they answer our questions, to some extent. … They have cooperated, but not 100 percent.”

Appleton also raised questions about the dozen or so people who attended the church social hour but didn’t taste the coffee.

“We’re still kind of looking at those and wondering why some people might not have consumed the coffee,” the investigator said. “That doesn’t mean that they’re guilty of anything.”

During police interviews with church members, no one has said they were warned not to drink the coffee, Appleton said.

The disclosure that detectives believe Bondeson did not act alone came as no surprise to Sara Anderson, owner of Northstar Variety.

“I don’t think it made anyone more nervous at this point,” Anderson said. “Everybody pretty much believes someone else was involved… They had pretty much felt that way from the start.”

Mike Hewitt, owner of New Sweden Service Inc., said he still finds it hard to believe that any of his neighbors could be a killer.

“I hope they do solve it and I hope they solve it soon,” he said. “New Sweden is a nice town and I hate to see it put on the map that way.”

Daniel Bondeson was a quiet but hardworking potato farmer, handyman and certified nursing assistant who also loved running and cross-country skiing. Appleton said police had gotten mixed information about Bondeson.

Appleton said most of what investigators learned points toward a man who wouldn’t have come up with the plan himself. Then again, he was perfectly capable of organizing sporting events.

“I just sit here and wonder to myself, ‘Was he incapable of putting this plan together, or was that an act, or just an appearance that he had in the community?”‘

AP-ES-05-20-03 1710EDT

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