Vaughn Hardacker here. There have been a number of crimes in Aroostook County, but few, if any received the national attention of the April 27, 2003 arsenic poisonings at the Gustaf Adolph Evangelical Lutheran Church.
On May 2, 2003, Daniel Bondeson was found in his New Sweden, Maine farmhouse where he had committed suicide. Bondeson’s death alone would have been news in this small community of 650 people, however it was else was found that really shocked the community. Nearby was a suicide note in which Bondeson confessed to putting liquid arsenic in the after service coffee at the Gustaf Adolph Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Until the discovery of the note, Bondeson was not even a suspect in the case. On April 27, 2003, there were complaints about the coffee served at the church coffee hour being bitter. No one had a clue that, bu the end of that day, sixteen people would become violently sick and one (Walter Reid Morrill, 78, known locally as Reid) would perish in short time medical personnel at the nearby Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Maine blamed arsenic poisoning.
Detectives assigned to the case by the Maine State police believed there was more than one parishioner to blame for the poisonings and were focusing on six to ten members of the fifty-person congregation. The police, including FBI profilers arrived and church members, including the victims’ relatives, were fingerprinted. They gave blood samples and filed out police questionnaires that went so far as to come right out ans ask them if they perpetrated the crime. The result of this was that people became suspicious of neighbors and relatives, many of whom they’d known for years. The began asking questions: Who skipped coffee hour? Who attended but did not drink coffee?
New Sweden and the surrounding communities (such as Stockholm, Westmanland, and Jemptland) is a shrinking remnant of the Swedish migration of the 1870s. Maine’s farmers were leaving the area to settle in the mid-west where the fields were flat and rich and the winters less harsh than that of Aroostook County. There was also a dispute between the state and French Canadian settlers from Canada as to where the northern border was. To secure its claim on the area, a contingent from Maine ventured to Scandinavia and recruited settlers with the lure of free land. The Swedish settlers immediately founded the Gustaf Adolph Evangelical Lutheran Church, named after a 17th century Swedish king.
In recent years, the closing of Loring Air Force Base hit the local economy hard and the potato market was being dominated by states in the Pacific Northwest. Aroostook County, with focus on the communities that surrounded the base (Caribou, Limestone, Fort Fairfield, and the Swedish Colony) were decimated and there was a migration of the area’s youth to places where they could more easily find employment.
Daniel Bondeson, a fifty-three year old bachelor, was a modest man who made a living farming, substitute teaching, and nursing. He was a dedicated runner who had competed in several Boston Marathons and an avid cross-country skier. He was well-known and like by many in the community. Even after the discovery of the suicide note many still find it difficult to believe that he would commit such a crime. In fact, many still don’t believe he’s guilty. One victim, Erich Margeson, was quoted by the Portland Press Herald as saying: “It does make you wonder whether I could have made a difference, to just go up and talk to him and be a better friend to him.” Some believe that he may have given the arsenic unwittingly to someone else and when he learned what it had been used for killed him self in remorse. (Arsenic is in no short supply around Aroostook county, especially in liquid form as, in years past, farmers used it to kill the tops and stems of their potato plants before harvesting the crop.) Some think that if he did do it, he may have done it because of the deaths of a brother, a nephew, and his father in recent years.
What stands in the face of all these theories was the damning part of the note in which Bondeson states: “I acted alone. I acted alone. One dumb poor judgement ruins life but I did wrong,” read the note, in which the first “I acted alone” was underlined. The note stated that he did not know that the chemical he put in the coffee pot before church members gathered socially after the Aug. 27, 2003, Sunday service was arsenic. “I thought it was something? I had no intent to hurt this way. Just to upset stomach, like the church goers did me.” It is thought that Bondeson had been upset with the church council over a new communion table that he and his brothers and sisters donated to the church in honor of their late mother and father.
Based on the information presented in the suicide note, on April 18, 2006, Maine Assistant Attorney General William R. Stokes, Chief of Criminal Division, and Colonel Craig Poulin, Chief of the Maine State Police, held a press conference in which they held that, as stated in his suicide note, Bondeson acted alone and “No further investigative efforts are planned in connection with this case.”
Many local residents to day feel that Danny Bondeson was not the perpetrator of this crime and that if not for the incriminating suicide note the case would have never been solved.
Hi Vaughan. I remember this case vividly from when it was in the news. Thanks for the dissection, context and follow-up.
You’re welcome. This is still a topic of conversation among the old-timers (like me) over coffee at Anderson’s General Store in Stockholm.
I heard about this case in a textbook called Goldfrank’s Toxicologic Emergencies (11th edition). The author described: “In Maine in 2003, a disillusioned parishioner contaminated the communal coffee pot at a church bake sale with arsenic. One victim died within 12 hours, and five others developed hypotension.” I can only imagine how frightening the churchgoers must have been but I’m also curious as to Bondeson’s motive. The book describes him as disillusioned but his note also claims he didn’t know he was poisoning the coffee with arsenic. I have my doubts that he didn’t know the substance he used was arsenic – it was commonly used on farms for a specific purpose and it would be a long shot that he mistook the arsenic for something less harmful that would only cause stomach aches. I guess there’s no way of really knowing his intentions since the note was never released to the public but it’s unfathomable how anyone could do such a thing.