NEW SWEDEN – The pain lingers and the mystery remains in this tightly knit community that was shaken to its roots a year ago by the nation’s worst case of arsenic poisoning.

But there have been moments worth celebrating.

Just before Christmas, the oldest survivor, 80-year-old Ralph Ostlund, went cross-country skiing for the first time since he and 15 other members of the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church drank tainted coffee at an April 27 church gathering.

The youngest survivor, Erich Margeson, 31, became the father of triplets less than a month ago.

“They’re the two poster children, the two on either end of the age spectrum,” said Dr. Carl Flynn of Cary Medical Center in Caribou, who cares for eight of the survivors.

But physical and psychological wounds remain. Some live with intermittent pain and cold and numb limbs that serve as frequent reminders of what they have been through. Short-term memory loss has also been a problem, and the future impact on the survivors’ health is still a question mark.

Meanwhile, the survivors and others in northern Maine’s Swedish Colony, settled by immigrants in the late 19th century, continue to wonder who was responsible for the poisonings that killed Walter Reid Morrill, 78, and what the motive was.

Five days after the poisonings, longtime church member Daniel Bondeson shot himself in the chest at his home. He left a suicide note that implicated him in the poisonings and convinced investigators that he hadn’t acted alone.

State police say the investigation remains open; a detective, Dale Keegan, has been working nearly full time on the case.

Lt. Dennis Appleton, who oversees the investigation, says internal church issues remain “high on the list of speculations” about a motive.

Bondeson’s suicide note has not been made public.

Some survivors are trying to put the poisonings behind them and get on with their lives, but others say that will be hard to do without assurances that no one who had a hand in the calamity is still in their midst. Some refuse to talk to reporters, giving no inkling of how they feel.

“I’m ready to move on and be left alone, except for good things,” said Margeson, who was staying with relatives in the Portland area while his three newborn sons, Evan, Nicholas and Reid, were being kept at Maine Medical Center. Reid was named in memory of Morrill, who was known to everyone as Reid.

Margeson said he suffers no ill effects and is looking ahead to planting seven acres of organic seed potatoes this spring and being with his newly expanded family.

Ostlund says his recovery has gone well, though he still has numbness in his feet.

“I’m feeling good, but not 100 percent,” he said.

There have been setbacks. Last summer, Ostlund had to start using a cane.

Months later, two of his grandchildren came for a visit and they decided to go cross-country skiing. It was a sport Ostlund enjoyed for much of his life, often with his good friend Bondeson.

“We went about two miles that day, and I found that I could handle it,” Ostlund recalled. By the end of winter, he had logged 150 miles, one-fourth of what he did the year before but enough to serve as an inspiration to a town still trying to come to terms with what had happened.

Lester Beaupre spent 34 days in the hospital, the most of any of the victims. The 54-year-old – he jokes that he’s really 53 because he spent his 53rd birthday in a coma – says he’s getting better, but slowly. He responds badly to cold, especially in his legs, and feels numbness in his lips.

Beaupre has been able to return to work for about five hours a day making cabinets in a shop in his basement. He thinks about the poisonings often and said he is unsettled by the thought that another perpetrator may be in his midst.

“Now, you’re looking around at church, thinking there could be somebody out there who’s trying to play another trick on us,” he said. “When I go to potlucks, I don’t eat anything unless the person’s name is on the crockpot. It’s terrible to be paranoid like that, but once bitten twice shy.”

Dale Anderson, also 54, who experiences constant pain from his knees down and complains of memory loss, agrees that the case needs to be solved. The Vietnam veteran said it’s hard to get past the poisonings without solid answers.

“There’s always this feeling: who did this? We want to know the full story,” he said. “I want to know who did what so I can ripped at them.”

Flynn said most of the survivors seem to have come to terms with what happened. Those who haven’t, he said, “might be better off by not letting it eat away at them.”

As for physical ailments, those who had back or hip pains prior to the poisonings find that pain now seems to be more of an issue, Flynn said. Some had memory problems, but most of those have improved. Fears that the arsenic might lead to cardiac problems or cancers have yet to be borne out, he said.

“For the most part, they’re all doing pretty well. They’ve all gotten back into their previous life styles, at least in some capacity,” he said.

A retired pastor from Norridgewock, who has worked as a hospital chaplain and is experienced in helping people deal with grief and stress, has been assigned to Gustaf Adolph on an interim basis.

The Rev. Peter Drever, who began his work in New Sweden two months ago, said he will commemorate the anniversary of the poisonings with two minutes of silence during the Sunday service.

“I want to encourage people to use that in whatever way they choose. I want to make sure they have a moment to point to that kind of marks the occasion,” he said.

Two women – one an outsider, the other a member of the community – are coming out with books that chronicle the event that made New Sweden, population 621, front-page news around the world.

“A Bitter Brew: Faith, Poison and Power in a Small New England Town,” by former TV and newspaper reporter Christine Young, seeks to penetrate what she portrayed as a veil of silence among church members reluctant to see their dirty laundry aired.

Although she won’t tip her hand before the book comes out next winter, Young thinks she has the answer to the whodunit. “I have a theory, and I’m 90 percent sure it’s correct,” she said.

In “Murder in Maine’s Swedish Colony,” Brenda Jepson tries to put the incident in context to explore how something so terrible could happen in the home town she dearly loves. Jepson, who is trying to line up a publisher for her memoir, said she doesn’t think Bondeson meant to murder anyone and she, like many in town, still remembers him as a friend.

Although a year has gone by, Appleton says investigators have not given up on the case.

“We’re optimistic because history tells you that if you persevere on these cases – six months, a year, two years, 10 years – sometimes somebody steps up, or something happens that makes people come forward with something,” he said. “We’ll need some breaks, absolutely, but we want to finish this case.”

AP-ES-04-24-04 1252EDT



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