Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Toxicology

Mass Poisoning

No one at the Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine, which had a congregation of some 60 regular worshipers, could quite believe what had happened.  One minute, the two dozen people who had gathered for coffee and doughnuts after the service on April 27, 2003, were greeting one another as usual, and the next, over a dozen members of the congregation had become violently ill.  Samples taken from the victims were tested in the toxicology lab of the Maine Public Safety Department.

Maine Dept of Public Safety logo
Maine Dept of Public Safety logo

On Monday, Walter Reid Morrill, 78, died.   He'd been a longtime member of the church and had often served as a caretaker and usher.  Laboratory tests conducted on the coffee by the Maine Bureau of Health and a private lab in Pennsylvania confirmed that the cause of the sudden illness was arsenic.

The others who were ill were fortunate. After the September 11 terrorism incident, officials had used federal antibioterrorism grants to stockpile arsenic antidotes in Portland, Maine, and these supplies were rushed to New Sweden to treat parishioners who had consumed the coffee and were in a critical condition.  Everyone besides Morrill survived.    

The Boston Globe, CNN, ABC News, and many other media outlets covered the case as it was breaking.   Parishioners interviewed recalled that the coffee had had a peculiar taste.

It soon became clear that someone had introduced the deadly substance into the coffee, but it was not yet known whether this had been done by accident. 

"We don't know what the motive is," said a police spokesperson.   "We don't know who is responsible for doing this." 

The investigation's initial focus was on those who'd had access to the building over the weekend.   Church members insisted that their community was safe and that no one in the membership would do such a thing.  They were a close-knit community.  Nevertheless, investigators interviewed many of them, looking for disputes or disagreements.  Tests on the well water, sugar, and unbrewed coffee in the can confirmed what everyone feared: someone had intentionally introduced a large concentration of the poison into the brewing coffee.  Someone had meant to hurt them, perhaps even kill them.

The police now had a homicide investigation on their hands.   It was the 13th largest mass arsenic poisoning in the nation's history.  They began to seek fingerprints and DNA samples from members.

Bondeson house, New Sweden
Bondeson house, New Sweden

Then on Friday, May 2, a substitute teacher, nurse, and member of the same church, Daniel Bondeson, 53, died after being taken into surgery at Cary Medical Center.  He'd apparently shot himself in the chest in his home in the neighboring town of Woodland.  Investigators were not sure if the two violent incidents were linked, or if the shooting was a suicide or accident, but they obtained a search warrant and entered Bondeson's home. 

That Sunday, May 4, before the analysis of this second incident was released, Maine's governor and several state troopers attended an after-service reception to ensure that the incident was not repeated.   Bondeson, they knew, had not attended the fatal reception, and he was certainly not at this one.  His autopsy had not yet been done, but he was the chief suspect. Police seemed sure the coffee would now be safe.  It was.

At a news conference the following day, police announced that Bondeson had left behind a suicide note that contained "important information."   While the note itself remained the confidential property of the medical examiner's office (by Maine statute), a lawyer for the estate, Alan F. Harding, later indicated that Bondeson had described how he merely wanted to give the church group a "bellyache."  He had not intended to kill anyone and did not even realize it was arsenic that he had used, which indicated that the "homicide" might have been more along the lines of an accident.  At that time, 12 people were still in the hospital, three in critical condition, four in serious condition, and five in fair condition.  Three others had been released.

Bondeson was the son and grandson of potato farmers and a loner who served on the church's historical committee.   He operated the family farm with one of his brothers, Carl. Another brother, Paul, said that he'd seen Daniel several days after the poisoning and just before his suicide. While Daniel was his usual "reserved" self, Paul said,   he had not acted out of character.

Col. Michael R. Sperry
Col. Michael R. Sperry

So the situation might have been left at that: a man who had planned the prank had seen it go too far and had killed himself out of shame and remorse.   But that wasn't the end of it.  The police suspected that Bondeson had an accomplice—probably at least two and possibly more, all of whom were in the congregation.  By September, they believed they knew who this person or persons were, but had not yet filed charges.  State Police Col. Michael Sperry told the Blethen Maine Newspapers that information received from FBI profilers and out-of-state laboratories had bolstered the investigation, but he would not say whether the case was nearing its conclusion.  They had searched a home in Amesbury, Mass., where a relative of Bondeson had occasionally lived.  The motive now appeared to have been a long-held grudge about church policies and ideas for change.

As of November 2003, the case remained open and "very active." Police say they will solve it.


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