Duston Obermeyer: 

An Oath that Never Expires

By David Daly

March Edition

New Sweden, Maine isn't the type of place where many attempted murders happen. In fact, not much happens in the small town, and that's exactly how the residents like it. However, in 2003, the quaint village was the epicenter of chaos when sixteen Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church members were poisoned with arsenic-laced coffee.

 

After Sunday church services had concluded, Herman Fisher, president of the church council, brewed the congregation's customary 'after-service coffee' in the church kitchen. Sixteen people filled their cups and began to engage in their usual chit-chat. That is until someone commented on how terrible the coffee tasted. Inviting another parishioner to take a sip, the two agreed it was extremely bitter. 

 

Another church go-er commented that the aftertaste was wrong, just before he began to experience tingling and burning in his mouth. A short time later, one of the coffee drinkers began vomiting. And then another, and another still. By that evening, much of the congregation had gone to the emergency room at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, Maine, just a few miles south of New Sweden. Seven patients in critical condition were rushed to the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. By Monday morning, one person was dead, and four others were on life support.

A nursing student named Rose Tanguay worked the overnight shift at the Northern New England Poison Center that night. Rose couldn't have known that she would hold the key to what would turn out to be one of the largest intentional poisonings in United States history. Three hundred miles away, she was the first one to suspect the culprit was arsenic. Health experts suspected food poisoning, with heavy metals nowhere on their radar. The doctor she consulted was initially unbelieving, but Tanguay remained steadfast in her opinion.

 

After some persuasion, the nursing student's supervisors considered her theory. They called the two hospitals to inquire about their patients' symptoms. All had varying degrees of low blood pressure, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. All signs that she was on the right track. Tests on the brewed coffee came back positive for arsenic. The poison was not in the coffee grounds nor in the water used to brew the coffee. So, the source could not have been organic. 

 

Doctors summoned the few coffee drinkers who hadn't felt any effects yet and requested that they voluntarily provide a blood sample. Many had dangerously high levels of arsenic in their body, which is incredible considering only a small amount, roughly the size of a dime, is enough to cause death. A medical official said, "When we got the test results back Monday night, it was no doubt that this was intentional because the amount of arsenic was astronomical."

"Just a sip and I was in the hospital for eight days," stated one victim. A state lab discovered 6,300 parts per million of arsenic in the remaining coffee. By contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency permits no more than 0.01 parts per million to be present in public drinking water. Both acute and long-term, low-dose poisonings are still considered rare by many in the medical field. However, there is much evidence to support that it is a far more common occurrence than most realize. 

 

The following week, police announced that Daniel Bondeson, a fellow church member, was the prime suspect. In response, Bondeson shot himself and later died in the hospital.  As he was known locally, ' Danny' was a subdued bachelor who worked as a substitute teacher, was a long-distance runner, a potato farmer, a cross-country skier, and a certified nurse's aid. The contents of the suicide note, which fall under the state medical examiner's jurisdiction, have never been made available to the public. Although police have stated the suicide note connects him to the poisonings.

Daniel Bondeson attended a bake sale the afternoon before the poisoning but was not in church the day of the incident. For some time, detectives felt confident in their theory that the fifty-three-year-old man had an accomplice. However, a state police investigation concluded that Bondeson acted alone. Almost twenty years after the crime, Maine police and the New Sweden community are still baffled by it all. Many investigators, and even a few of the poisoning survivors, still believe Bondeson did not act alone. Police have admitted that the truth may never be fully unveiled.

 

Arsenic can cause various long-term symptoms, such as numbness in the hands and feet, digestive issues, blindness, chronic pain, and even partial paralysis. Heavy metals have also been linked to multiple cancer types, including rare breast, lung, and bladder cancers. With lingering health problems, many of the New Sweden survivors never fully recovered from their ordeal. In the years following the incident, one victim succumbed after what her family called "a long and courageous battle with the health effects from the 2003 poisoning." The damaging health effects from heavy metal poisoning can be permanent and often intensify aging's usual effects. Victims have reported needing the use of mobility devices, loss of short-term memory, and chronic fatigue among a lengthy list of residual symptoms.

Survivor Dale Anderson told a journalist, "People keep saying get over it, you know, put it behind you. I can't. I feel it every day. I've got neuropathy in my hands and my legs and my feet from the arsenic. My hands are partially numb right now." The victims have expressed a great deal of gratitude to the poison center and state officials who saved their lives, but they have been scarred. Another victim told The Washington Post, "It's something that happened. We don't understand why it happened to us...There's no sense sitting and dwelling on why me. It happened. Instead of worrying about why let's worry about what we have to do to get better and put our energy there." The case remains unsolved, but it served as a grim reminder for state and federal officials of a bioterrorism attack's risks. New Sweden's poisoning transpired on the heels of the 2001 anthrax attacks and just a few short years after 9/11. It ultimately changed the way officials prepare for public health emergencies.

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