NEW SWEDEN (AP) – The police tape is gone, the satellite trucks have decamped, and Town Hall is no longer a fingerprinting lab, but this once placid farming community remains deeply unsettled.

It has been four weeks since 16 churchgoers were poisoned by arsenic-laced coffee, plunging New Sweden into a sensational murder-mystery that continues to shock and confound the town’s 621 residents.

The sense of confusion only grew when investigators announced they were convinced that a member of Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church who later committed suicide did not spike the coffee on his own.

“It’s a bewildering type of frustration,” said church member Raymond Hildebrand. “It was that comfortable familiarity that was shattered.”

Gossip has been running wild for weeks, especially since Daniel Bondeson shot himself on his family farm five days after the poisonings. Many believe Bondeson, a passive man and a helpful neighbor, couldn’t have done it.

So it was with mixed emotions that weary residents absorbed word from police that Bondeson did not act alone, leading to the chilling conclusion that someone else involved in the plot is still on the loose.

“The one thing we always loved about living here was being able to trust everyone,” said Brenda Jepson, who lives nearby and has produced documentary films about this community that clings fiercely to its Swedish roots.

“There is a fear that life isn’t like it used to be.”

Despite the unease, residents have tried to move forward with spring rituals.

Farmers planted their potato fields. Residents prepared for Memorial Day by marking soldiers’ graves with American flags. Volunteers at the historical museum discussed plans for next month’s Midsommar Festival, when children will wear wreaths of wildflowers and dance around a 20-foot maypole, as they have for 131 years.

In the weeks since the poisonings, Madawaska Lake has thawed and the last patches of a long winter’s snow have melted. Still there is a sense the town won’t experience the rebirth of spring until the case is closed.

That could happen next week or next year, said State Police Lt. Dennis Appleton, who is leading the investigation.

Appleton believes the poisonings emerged from a stew of personal grudges and church politics, some rooted in tension between modernizers and traditionalists.

Police are considering the possibility the arsenic was meant to harm members of the church council, which was to discuss a new furnace system on the day of the poisonings. Churchgoers said at least four members of the 12-person council ended up hospitalized.

Appleton admits the evidence is pulling him in different directions, but he feels more confident than ever that Bondeson did not act alone.

One issue under investigation is the Bondeson family’s donation of a freestanding communion table. The congregation had traditionally used its altar for communion.

But Ed Margeson, a member of the council whose son was among those poisoned, said the table was not really an issue. And even if there had been some opposition, the council had voted to make the switch a year ago, he said.

Church politics in a small town like New Sweden can seem petty. But whatever disputes existed were minor, worshippers say. “Compared to murder, they were just a tempest in a teapot,” Hildebrand said.

Margeson said the council’s meetings had been “routine” and “humdrum.”

“I know people get serious about their religion and stuff, but if you don’t like something, go to another church,” he said. “Don’t kill someone.”

Hans Arnesen is associate bishop of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He said the search for a motive that makes sense may be futile.

“I think people are trying to understand rationally what seems to be a pretty senseless act,” he said.

Appleton, too, suggested mysteries could linger after any arrest and conviction. “Even if we solve it, I’m not sure we’ll know all the answers,” he said.

One thing everyone wants to know is what Bondeson’s suicide note says. The contents have been kept sealed, even from Bondeson’s family, by the state medical examiner in Augusta.

Alan F. Harding, a lawyer hired to settle Bondeson’s estate, was told by some who claim to have seen the note that Bondeson indicated he never meant to kill anyone, only to make people sick, to settle a score. Harding said the note did not appear to implicate others, though he acknowledged he wasn’t privy to all the evidence.

In spite of it all, the church and town have not turned their backs on the Bondeson family.

At least two of the poisoning victims attended Bondeson’s funeral, and the church was as crowded as the Sunday after the poisonings, when congregants spilled into an adjacent fellowship hall, Hildebrand said.

But some say things may never be same. Already, some residents are looking at one another differently.

For example, a woman with a history of mental illness used a rusty shovel last week to attack two minivans parked at an auto-repair shop. Word quickly spread through town.

In normal times, residents probably would have written it off. Instead, some began speculating that the woman was behind the poisonings. Police quickly said the crimes were unrelated.

Residents say the case is an ongoing trauma that has deeply shaken the community, even beyond the two deaths. Part of it, Jepson said, was a loss of innocence for community.

“We’re grieving a lot more,” she said, “and that is the loss of our town.”

AP-ES-05-24-03 0714EDT


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