March 17, 2010

'You've got to forget about it' WORLD

DAVID SHARP

— By

NEW SWEDEN
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NEW SWEDEN

AP

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STAFF PHOTO SHAWN PATRICK OUELLETTE 050403 Church goers make their way into the Gustaf Adolph Lutherine Church in New Sweden Sunday Prior to Service

Additional Photos Below

The Associated Press

NEW SWEDEN — It has been five years since this tiny farming community was turned upside down by a crime that still baffles: Someone used arsenic to spike the coffee at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church, killing one parishioner and making 15 others violently ill.

Back then, church members were frightened and bewildered and the community was rife with rumors as a Maine State Police investigation unfolded live on CNN.

These days, most people are trying to put the episode behind them after authorities concluded that a church member who confessed in a suicide note acted alone. Although some still have unanswered questions, the bulk of the 621 residents are getting on with life.

''It seems as if, as painful as this all was, that we can't remain gripped in fear forever, which is really how this place was five years ago,'' said resident Brenda Jepson.

Last week, the temperature reached the 60s, the sun shone brightly and melting snow exposed the potato fields in the rolling hills of Aroostook County.

Few people seemed interested in reliving the event five years ago that brought an onslaught of news media and international notoriety to the church and the town.

''You've got to let bygones be bygones. It's over. You've got to forget about it. Life goes on,'' said Ralph Ostlund, one of the arsenic victims.

The crime struck two important institutions that Swedish settlers brought with them when they moved to the region in 1870: the Lutheran Church, and a love of coffee.

Coffee takes on a special significance here because it's a Swedish tradition. ''There's one woman who boasted of drinking 24 cups a day,'' Jepson said.

So it was that after services in the white-steeple church built by Swedish immigrants that parishioners moved from the sanctuary into the fellowship hall for coffee on April 27, 2003. Some complained that it tasted funny, but most drank it anyway.

Soon those who drank the coffee were throwing up, suffering diarrhea, or both.

The first patient arrived in the Cary Medical Center emergency room in nearby Caribou at 3:30 p.m., and sick parishioners kept pouring in over the next six hours. Dr. Dan Harrigan, an emergency room physician, arrived at work at 6:30 p.m. to find one of the parishioners outside on his knees.

Not knowing what they were dealing with, doctors and nurses at the 65-bed hospital struggled to keep patients' blood pressure from dropping too low.

It wasn't a pretty sight. Nurses described countertops and the floors covered with vomit-filled basins, buckets and garbage cans. ''Out of 26 years in emergency medicine, I doubt I'll have another night like that,'' Harrigan said.

By dawn, one of the parishioners had died, several had been transferred to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and doctors had figured out they were dealing with a heavy-metal poisoning. Laboratory tests later confirmed it was arsenic.

A SUICIDE NOTE

Days later, a member of the congregation, Daniel Bondeson, was found in his farmhouse with a gunshot wound to the chest. He died later at the same hospital. In a bloodstained note, Bondeson took responsibility for the crime. He said he never meant to seriously harm anyone.

Whatever the motive was, Bondeson took it to the grave. Investigators believed he retaliated against church members because of some slight, whether real or perceived.

While tragic, Bondeson's death should have brought a sense of closure.

But the story did not end there. State police detectives continued to investigate and they worked for the next three years under the assumption that there could have been additional conspirators.

Rumors continued to swirl in the community, neighbors eyed one another with suspicion and the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church limped along in survival mode.

''We had this big question mark hanging over us,'' Jepson said.

It wasn't until the attorney general and state police chief announced in 2006 that they were closing the investigation that residents were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

It turns out that Bondeson talked to a lawyer the day before he killed himself and confessed to the crime. He never mentioned any co-conspirators and there was no evidence of any.

Cliche or not, the old saying that time heals all wounds rings true around New Sweden, said the Rev. Shelly Timber, pastor at Evangelical Covenant Church.

''It's like any traumatic event. You're never totally over it. You'll always carry some of it with you, but life moves on,'' she said.

PAINFUL REMINDERS

For the poisoning victims, however, moving on hasn't been easy. Some were hospitalized for weeks and carry with them painful reminders that they nearly died.

Dale Anderson suffers from neuropathy in his hands and legs that leaves them numb. Sometimes, he feels throbbing pain in his legs, and he can walk for only short distances.

Just last week, his daughter noticed that he was bleeding from a bloody gash on his hand. Anderson hadn't even noticed because of the loss of feeling.

''Some people try to put it behind themselves ... But they don't have the lingering effects like I do. So it's kind of hard to forget about it,'' he said.

Lester Beaupre came home from the hospital with a lip that felt like he'd had a shot of Novocain at the dentist office, and his legs were so numb that he wobbled when he walked. He said the arsenic also made him forgetful.

Each year, though, his body continues to improve, Beaupre said.

But he still has questions.

''It's almost as if ever since day one people didn't want to talk about it. That's one of the problems with a lot of the people at the church. People didn't want to talk about it. There are things you really have to talk about to get out of your system,'' he said.

Anderson and Beaupre are among those who left the church.

Many stayed behind, though, and there are signs that the church is coming back to life.

There are some new faces, and some past church members have returned. Last summer, the wife of the only person to die -- head usher Reid Morrill -- returned to play organ for the church.

The fellowship hall where the coffee was served -- and is still served -- has a fresh coat of white paint.

Some have accepted that there will be questions that cannot be answered: Why did Danny Bondeson do it? Did anyone else know what he was planning?

The Rev. James Morgan, the pastor, said residents are the descendants of ''stubborn frontier people'' who aren't letting the past keep them from moving forward.

''The idea was to make the best of it, to pick yourself up, and to step past it as best you can,'' said Morgan, who was close to Danny Bondeson and remains close to the Bondeson family. ''It's going to be an unsolved riddle. We'll let it go.''

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Additional Photos

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Staff Photo By Shawn Patrick Ouellette Wednesday April 19, 2006: The Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden.

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STAFF PHOTO SHAWN PATRICK OUELLETTE 050403 Memebers of the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden make their way out of the church following Sunday's service. It was the first service since arsenic poisonings at the church left one man dead and fifteen others in the hospital.

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The Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine, is shown Tuesday, April 29, 2003. Arsenic is likely to blame for an outbreak of illness that swept through the church in northern Maine, killing a 78-year-old man and sickening a dozen others, health officials said Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Bangor Daily News, Beurmond Banville)

AP

GUSTAF ADOLPH LUTHERAN CHURCH
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GUSTAF ADOLPH LUTHERAN CHURCH

AP

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050303 Staff Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette-The town line into New Sweden on New Sweden R. coming from Woodland.

Brenda Jepson, Alan Jepson
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Brenda Jepson, Alan Jepson

AP

Dale Anderson
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Dale Anderson

Michael C. York

Pastor Jim Morgan
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Pastor Jim Morgan

AP

RALPH OSTLUND
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RALPH OSTLUND

AP



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