It began with a deadly cup of coffee, was followed by a suicide and has now exposed the inner workings of a tiny Maine community and its church. It is a murder investigation brimming with intrigue, colorful characters … and unanswered questions.
Residents of New Sweden, police said, had been reluctant to divulge information to investigators at first.
"Perhaps people's unwillingness to accept that this could happen … perhaps they weren't as candid with us [as they could have been at first]," said state police Lt. Dennis Appleton.
"I don't think anybody lied to us, but perhaps they weren't as candid in opening up about some issues that may have been involved here."
The people of New Sweden are not used to strangers and the questions they pose. But there have been many unanswered questions since Walter Morrill, 78, died and 15 others fell ill after drinking coffee laced with arsenic at the April 27 service at the popular Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church.
The spotlight focused even more brightly on the town of 621 when another parishioner was found dead on Friday of a gunshot wound to the chest. Police said today that the state medical examiner's office ruled that Daniel Bondeson's death was a suicide.
Authorities said today Bondeson was responsible for the arsenic poisonings but they have not decided if he was acting alone or with help. He left a suicide note, but police did not reveal its contents.
However, they indicated that the note yielded clues about the a possible motive in the poisonings. In a statement, investigators said that because of "important information" in the note, they would "be continuing our investigation into the poisoning homicide."
Appleton says investigators are confident that the poisonings are related to the church community and are looking closely at the "dynamics" of the church.
"In the end we may find that they don't sound like logical explanations for murder or poisoning … it probably was something that was grinding at some people for some time," Appleton said.
The investigation is happening under the glare of the media. Reminders of the scrutiny come at every turn for townfolk — at the last church service on Sunday, the governor visited and state troopers stood guard over the coffee urn.
"We've had enough for one week, thank you," was all resident Fred Ringdahl would say Monday before hanging up his phone. Several other residents and businesses either did not return requests for interviews or had their phones taken out of service.
"Most of the people closest to it are not talking about it, which is understandable," said Bill Duncan, a resident of nearby Lake Stockholm. "It is kind of exciting to see your neighbors on national television. That's not something you see every day."
Gov. John Baldacci attended last Sunday's service and the congregation had a special procession both inside and around the church. The purpose was to "reclaim the church as a place of worship," said Bishop Margaret Payne, who presided.
"We need to reclaim the church as a safe place where God is," Payne said. The bishop even made it a point to take a first sip of the coffee.
Residents and religious leaders may have only partially succeeded in reclaiming their church and community. The small church — founded in 1871 and now on the National Register of Historic Places — had more visitors than anyone could remember.
"We're here to just stand with you, pray with you," the governor told church members.