Church of the poison mind

There's a corner of America where the locals speak Swedish and live a life little changed since their ancestors arrived more than a century ago. At least, that was the case. Then someone tried to kill an entire church congregation. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent US

For Erich Margeson, the first sign that something might be wrong with the coffee the church members had prepared at the end of the service was the aftertaste: it was too bitter and, as he swallowed, it burned the back of his mouth. Within minutes he was reeling, suddenly feeling nauseous. Back at his father's house, just a few miles from the church, he couldn't stop throwing up.

"It was horrible," recalled his wife, Alana. "He was being sick every five minutes. He said that the coffee had not tasted right, but he was just so sick that at that point we weren't thinking about why."

Before the afternoon was over, Mrs Margeson had driven her husband to the local medical centre where other members of the congregation from the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church were already stumbling in, clutching their stomachs and complaining of cramps. By the evening, 12 of the 16 members who drank the after-service coffee had arrived for treatment. By the next morning, one of them - 78-year-old Walter Morrill, a church usher who was recovering from heart surgery - was dead.

What none of them knew at the time - including the bewildered doctors struggling for a diagnosis - was that the church members of the tiny community of New Sweden, Maine, had become victims in America's largest-ever mass poisoning. And it was no accident. Someone had deliberately tampered with the coffee they had sipped from plastic cups that morning in the 132-year-old church. And whoever it was had used a poison with which these descendants of Swedish immigrants were all familiar - arsenic.

It all seemed too unlikely to believe. The arsenic was the easy part: for generations, farmers in this part of the world had used arsenic to kill off the green tops of the potato crop. It was replaced years ago by sulphuric acid, which is more environmentally friendly, but no one was surprised that whoever had poisoned them was able to lay their hands on a jar of the stuff, tucked away and forgotten on a shelf in one of the vast wooden barns that dot the landscape.

No, what was unbelievable to the 630-strong population of New Sweden was that anyone should want to try to kill the congregation at the local church. It made no sense whatsoever. Who on earth could have been behind it?

Then, five days after the church members were taken ill, there was another shock. Daniel Bondeson, a farmer and nursing assistant who had lived in the village all his 53 years, and who had served on the church board, was found fatally wounded in the old, sagging house he had shared with his late parents - a single shot to his chest, apparently self-inflicted. A hunting rifle lay nearby, along with a note, written on both sides of a single sheet of paper, which police said "strongly linked" him to the poisonings.

Had matters ended there, it would have been confusing enough for the people of New Sweden, but at least there would have been a sense of conclusion. People would have remained bemused as to what had apparently led Bondeson to poison his lifelong friends, but at least the matter could have been closed. They could have attended the funeral services for Bondeson and Morrill - both were packed - and returned to their farms.

But last week, three weeks after the initial incident, police investigators in the state capital, Augusta, made another stunning announcement. They were convinced that someone else was actively involved in the poisoning, and they had narrowed the pool of likely conspirators down to no more than 10 people. They also said they believed that the motive for the poisoning lay in "the dynamics of the church".

New Sweden lies about as far north as it is possible to get within the lower 48 states. It is about 20 miles from the Canadian border, in a remote area of forests and lakes from which the settlers cleared their farms and fields. Those settlers came from Sweden, invited by the United States government in an effort to shore up the border with Canada as many locals were joining the gold rush. The first group of 22 men, 11 women and 18 children left Gothenburg on 25 June 1870, travelling via Hull, Liverpool and Halifax, Canada, before making their way by steamer up the St John River. When they arrived, they found just six log cabins rather than the 25 they had been promised.

The Swedes brought with them their names, their language and a stoic nature. They cleared forests, planted turnips, winter wheat and rye and worked for the state, building roads for one dollar a day. Today the roads and farms they built are still there, while the phone book is full of Scandinavian names - Anderson, Erickson, Jepson. About 50 people still speak Swedish as their first language. They speak it in a way that has not been heard in their mother country for more than 70 years.

The case may bear some of the hallmarks of a Miss Marple story, but there is a darker edge to it. It is more - as one writer noted - "like an Agatha Christie mystery directed by Ingmar Bergman".

I arrived at New Sweden's nearest airport, Presque Isle, on a damp afternoon in a tiny, whining Beechcraft twin-propeller plane in which there was not enough room for a cabin attendant. As we dropped beneath the clouds, the seemingly endless forests and fields below appeared to carry a thousand shades of green: beer bottles, dollar bills, dense woodland, traffic lights, seaweed dredged from the seas off the Hebrides. There was something slightly sinister and mysterious about it. "Watch your heads," said the co-pilot as he opened the door and stepped out on to the runway. The air smelt cool and fresh, clean and new.

Stan Thomas runs a store and coffee shop in New Sweden. The shop is next to Madawaska lake (the word means "porcupine" in the local native American tongue) and his windows look out over the placid water. He charges 11 cents for a cup of coffee, and you can usually find one or more of the townsfolk sitting chatting over a cup. These days they talk about little other than the poisoning.

"There are too many unanswered questions," said Thomas, standing behind a counter stacked with dried food and supplies and with piles of snowshoes all around him. "If you were going to kill yourself, would you shoot yourself in the chest? Ninety-nine per cent of people would chose a head shot. And why would you put on your [nursing] uniform?

"There is lots of hearsay, but few facts. At first people wanted to believe that the poisoning was an accident. Some still do. They still forgive Danny because they don't believe he did it."

Brenda Nasberg Jepson, an independent film-maker, was sitting at the back of the store, looking towards the lake. Everyone in the town, she said, knew everyone else, and most were related. It was impossible for people to hold a grudge against Bondeson. "The Swedes don't have hot tempers," she smiled. "It's the nature of the Swedes not to seek revenge."

Revenge or not, most people are anxious to get to the bottom of this matter. They talk over various theories, ask themselves what might be behind the poisoning. Some talk of the communion table that Bondeson and his siblings had recently donated to the church in memory of their late parents, and which had not yet been used. The unmarried man had been very close to his parents, and the death of his father last year had hit him very hard. Was he upset that the table was still standing, unneeded, at the back of the church? Upset enough to kill the people he had grown up with?

Naturally, much local attention has focused on Bondeson's family. His sister, Norma, was interviewed by police last week. She returned to New Sweden last year after a career as a military nurse. Though Daniel Bondeson was no longer on Gustaf Adolph's council, Norma was, and she had recently become the superintendent of the Sunday school.

Given the intense interest the case has received, the police have provided very little information beyond the basic facts and their belief that the church and its workings are the key to the mystery. There had been disagreements over the possibility of joining with the town's two other churches because of dwindling numbers. "There were clashes within that church," Lt Dennis Appleton told reporters last week. "But I sure as heck find it hard to believe that any one issue would cause that much agi- tation in people's lives. You cannot find a logical explan- ation for an illogical act."

But there are some thing of which they are more certain. "We are very comfortable with the fact that Daniel Bondeson didn't act alone, because of things we've learnt in the last week," Appleton said.

I found the elder brother of the presumed poisoner in a wood of poplar and spruce trees above his peeling house, gathering the curled heads from a patch of ostrich ferns. "We call them fiddleheads," he said, as he tossed another handful of the soft, green heads into a plastic bucket. "I like them with butter, though some people prefer to have them with vinegar."

A builder and sexton at the town's cemetery, Paul Bondeson is five years older than his brother, and a friendly, straight-speaking man. Though he did not see his brother that often, he cannot believe that Danny had anything to do with the poisoning - or indeed his own death. "Well, of course, I only know what I hear on the news or read in the papers," he said. "As far as the investigation goes they don't tell me much."

Paul Bondeson is not convinced by much of what he hears. He cannot accept that his brother killed himself, citing the unusual circumstances, nor can he accept that he wished to poison his friends and family. Paul's wife and child were at church that morning. "I don't believe that Danny poisoned the coffee. One hundred per cent, I would have to have some hard evidence for that. But someone did put it in the coffee. It did not fall in there by itself. A little bird did not fly in there and do it."

Back at the Gustaf Adolph church, the congregation has been trying to return to normal. The first Sunday after the poisoning, the church held its usual after-service coffee meeting. All but two of the people who were poisoned have now left hospital and returned home. But everybody knows that things cannot return to normal while this mystery - thrust into their lives in the most startling of ways - remains unsolved.

Brian McDougal lives opposite the church. He is a college teacher in Presque Isle, and has lived in New Sweden all his life. He cannot fathom what may lie at the bottom of this matter, what mystery may reside behind the walls of the cream-painted church. He stood on his driveway, the evening calm and peaceful as he looked over towards the building, angular and bold, with large stained-glass windows. "I think they are moving towards forgiveness," he said. "That's good. That's a powerful thing."